Wednesday, December 31, 2014

A New Year's Resolution

I wonder what he's building in there.  ~Tom Waits

Yesterday as I waited to get my haircut, I overheard a customer, a man about my age, making small talk with the young hairdresser. After responding to her question about where he lived, he turned the question back on her, "And where do you live?"


"Downtown. That must get hairy sometimes."

"I like it."

"I mean, it's dangerous. Aren't you worried?"


"But you don't go out at night, do you?"

She laughed, "It's not that bad."

"It is that bad." He then went off on a description of Seattle's downtown that sounded like it came straight out of a TV crime show. I've lived in Seattle most of my life and downtown, with my family, for the past four years. There are certain dangers, most involving bad drivers, but come on, crime is far from a front-of-mind concern and the benefits of living in the center of things far outweigh the dangers, which is true of every place I've ever been in my life, and that includes downtown Detroit.

I then cycled home from my haircut to learn of a two-year-old who pulled a gun from his mom's purse in a northern Idaho Walmart and shot her dead. I am not a gun person. I have never held a gun in my hands. When I see a gun, even on a cop's hip, I give a wide berth. Guns frighten me. Downtown does not. Cycling in the city does not. Shopping in a Walmart is not something I've ever done, but it's not because I'm afraid. And nothing makes me so fearful that I feel the need to carry a gun.

I'm tempted to go on another tear about gun control, which I've done a couple of times on this blog. If the past is a predictor of the future, most of my readers would support me. Many would want to take it even farther than I. And a few would write to tell me I'm a namby-pamby fear monger, that I'm ignorant, that guns are useful tools, that if we outlaw guns only criminals will have guns, and that I'm un-American to boot. In other words I'll stir things up, then we'll all hunker back down behind our personally constructed walls of fear and nothing will happen.

This morning, I'm going to let others wade into the gun debate. What I want to write about is fear. 

Maybe it's always been this way, but it seems that too much of modern life is driven by fear. We're afraid of people who are different than us, we're afraid of falling behind, we're afraid of getting hurt or that our children will get hurt, or sick; we're afraid of eating this or being vaccinated with that, we're afraid of villains halfway around the world and those who might be living right next door building lord knows what in their garages. They tell us we live in the information age. It's supposed to make us free, but instead, it seems it makes us more afraid. Is it simply that we, as a society, are finding that the more we know the more we discover we don't know, and the vastness of that unknown is what frightens us? Maybe.

Certainly, there are those who cynically use fear to drive their agenda. That's clearly a part of the corporate education "Shock Doctrine" reform schemes, with their hysterical cries of "The Chinese are beating us!" and "Our schools are failing!" Much of our politics are fueled by this fear-mongering. There are those who want us to be afraid of everything from gays and Muslims to autism, homelessness and, yes, even guns, all by way of driving a political, religious, or economic agenda. Or, often, by way of distracting us from bigger, largely unaddressed issues like the unbridled criminality of Wall Street or the slow motion disaster of global climate change. Indeed, this perpetual miasma of fear is quite useful to those truly bad actors who hide within it and scoff that any criticism is mere fear-mongering as they go about their monstrous activities.

Fear blinds us. Fear makes us idiots. We simply can't be afraid and clear-eyed at the same time. Fear makes us hunker down; it's the hunkering down that's killing us. At least that's the theory I'm working on.

I'm hunkered down here in downtown Seattle, the most liberal part of one of the most liberal cities in America. We voted to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour and it wasn't even close. We elect socialists to our city council. I regularly find myself being the most conservative person in the room. I'm not alone in this. The longterm national trend is for like-minded Americans of all stripes to increasingly flock together, insulating us from hearing things we don't want to hear, isolating ourselves from those with whom we disagree, making them "the other," people to ridicule and, yes, fear. This phenomenon is carried out online as well as most of us steer clear of places where we know we'll find things with which we disagree. When I read that over half of Idaho residents own guns and that seven percent have concealed weapons permits, my first instinct is to say, "Well, that's one place where they'll never see this aging hippie." And I'm sure that there are many in Idaho who would respond, "Good."

But it's not good. In the Washington Post article to which I linked above, the dead mother, Veronica Rutledge, is described as a person I would have liked to know: kind, smart, outdoorsy, and motivated. Maybe her two-year-old would have been one of my students. It would have made me nervous to know she carried a gun in her purse, but maybe we could have talked about it. Maybe I could have said something, in friendship, from a posture of not hunkering down, that would have caused her to change her behavior in some small way that would have meant her son woke up this morning with a mother. Maybe she could have said something to me to make me less afraid.

I've lately made a point of reaching out to people with whom I disagree. For instance, I recently drank beer with a high school classmate who has come back into my life over the past couple years as a guy with whom I exchange angry political barbs on social media. Honestly, I've treated him as just another faceless troll and the did the same with me. Of course, sitting together, we figured out that we agree about almost everything and we laughed as we argued over those things about which we disagree. We've continued to debate on Facebook, but the tenor is now one of friendship rather than fear. I'm not saying that we don't have real disagreements. I'm not saying that we even found middle ground. What I am saying is that we've removed at least one layer of unreasonable fear from the dialog. We're both a little less blind, a little less idiotic, and it's because we both decided to stop hunkering down. It's progress.

I guess what I'm saying is what the poet Virgil wrote in the 3rd century AD, probably echoing poets who came before him, "Love conquers all." My resolution for the new year is to conquer fear by approaching others, especially those with whom I disagree, with an open heart. I don't want to be hunkered down. I don't want to be blinded or made an idiot by fear. I no longer want to sit in my hairdresser's chair telling her that downtown is dangerous. 

I already strive to do this with the children I teach. I know how to do it. 

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Unknown said...

Thank you for sharing your thoughts on this...I really enjoyed reading your thoughts and the notion of hunkering down, something I have been thinking about lately in my personal life as well as my journey working with children and raising my own girls.
Fear does seem to be becoming all consuming in many circles and I too wonder if it is because we now have access to so much news in so many forms bombarding our senses regularly or should we all be more scared by the day? it does often seem to be in the eye of the beholder though as in one morning my conversations with parents ranged from the recent Sydney cafe siege to a fear of playing outside as it was a hot day to concerns about whether i should let a child climb and jump off the rocks surrounding the sandpit and back again to the 'broader' topic of terrorist activity. Don't even get me started on the gun control debate. All I know is that that poor 2 year old will now have to grow up without his Mum and that is a fear that is very real for most parents...I don't see any answers to this in the near future but I enjoyed reading your perspective so thank you again for sharing!

Aisling said...

Your overheard conversation reminds me of a few I have had in my time. I traveled to Belfast at a time when the troubles were not at their highest but still on people's minds and my mother was so scared.

Then I went to America (I live in the UK BTW) to visit friends I had only ever known online and friends lectured me (albeit good naturedly) about how did I know they weren't axe murderers.

And I guess I live in what is our local equivalent of living downtown, it's statistically one of the poorest neighbourhoods in our region, and yes over the years people have said certain things, and my reaction has been similar to yours, "it's OK, you're overreacting".