Living With Fear as a Way of Life

(Originally published in the Philadelphia Inquirer on 1/25/06)

The clenched feeling that started somewhere in my stomach and traveled outward in waves to my brain felt all too familiar. Psychologists call it fight or flight. My mother calls it being prepared for the worst. I call it fear.

The fear I felt was fleeting, brought on by a short walk in the dark, late at night, from the train to my car. I’d had to park at the far end of the lot in the morning. At that hour robins were flitting cheerfully about, a blinding sun was sparkling off a lacy coating of frost on the grass, and the world seemed benign and promising.

Now I had to force myself not to run to my car. It was quiet, too quiet. And the stand of trees near my car, in the daylight a source of shade and beauty, seemed to have metamorphosed into something sinister. I clicked my key, still a good hundred yards from my car, and the comforting indoor light of my Volvo (chosen for its safety and reliability) glowed forth like a beacon.  I scurried straight toward the car, slid into its reassuring cocoon of familiarity, and hit the automatic door lock. Made it to safety, once again.

I wondered when I had started looking at the world this way. When I had stopped skipping blithely through life, thinking that good things happen to good people, and that as long as you were very careful you would be safe.

On the car radio, on the way home, I heard news of a school shooting in Michigan. A few months ago it had been Seattle. Before that, somewhere else; I’d forgotten already. There had recently been a threat of violence at my children’s high school. It had turned out to be unsubstantial. Don’t get too cocky, though; never discount anything, count your blessings, never say never.

I remember the first time I ever felt afraid of another human being. I was ten years old, and the newspaper was lying on the kitchen table. It was The Rocky Mountain News. I had never read the newspaper before, but my parents read it from cover to cover every day. I wanted to be grownup and read the paper too.

The first story I read concerned a very gruesome murder in which a drifter had allegedly killed an innocent husband and wife who lived on a small, isolated ranch in the foothills of the Rockies. In graphic detail, the reporter told how the victims had been chopped into pieces, and stuffed into various compartments of the refrigerator. I had never known that anything like that could happen, and didn’t know if I should believe it. I read that story over and over during that day, until the word pictures were indelibly etched into my brain. I became afraid.

Later, as a college student and then as a young working woman, I found that I could live with an undercurrent of fear, and in fact, it could serve me well. My friends all lived with it too; we’d all been trained by our mothers, and whether we were dealing with “real life” fears or just urban legends, it really didn’t matter. We never parked next to vans in parking lots (kidnappers always had vans), and we always looked in the back seats of our cars before getting in. We watched The Deliberate Stranger on television, and tried to learn from it. The unfortunate lesson we learned was not to trust anyone.

At some point, the face of fear became more anonymous. Whereas before fear wore the face of the bogeyman (Charles Manson, Ted Bundy, various other psychos), suddenly fear became the kid next door. The grown man who still lived at home and was always quiet. The loner who none of the neighbors knew. The boy who always seemed like a nice kid. The loving father and husband who one day just snapped and went on a rampage.

As I sit double-bolted in my house, my motion-sensitive outside lights at the ready, I watch the day’s carnage on TV and breathe a guilty sigh of relief. All of my loved ones are accounted for today. There was a moment at the bank when a deranged looking man who was muttering to himself made all of us in line more than a little nervous. And, waiting to cross Michigan Avenue, the loud backfire of a bus caused several of us to jump and then laugh nervously. And, then of course, the dash to the car at night.

We seem to accept as a fact of life that nowhere in the world is safe anymore. Those former sanctuaries, the suburbs and the workplace, have been laid open like an open wound for us to all wonder what happened.

Maybe what happened is that we’ve simply learned to live with fear. As long as we make it home every day in one piece, we can lock the door behind us with a satisfying click and dream sweet dreams.  At least until the next day.

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