Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Unnecessary fear

My office is located at the edge of the downtown core, on a busy corner in a neighborhood filled with lovely century-old homes. At lunchtime, I often try to head out for a walk to clear my head and take in the ever-changing architectural scenery.

When I walk, I tend to drift in my own little world. I toss story ideas around in my head much more freely when I'm alone because I'm not being interrupted by phone calls and drop-ins every 30 seconds.

On my way back from a quick loop through the neighborhood today, I was startled by the sight of a strange man walking straight toward me. He was waving his arms as he rapidly approached, mumbling something that I could not understand. My quiet little zone of thought had been rudely interrupted by a total stranger, and I was afraid.

My first inclination was to stiffen up in fear. I grabbed hold of my keys in my pocket and squared myself to him as my head raced through attack/defense scenarios. Sure, I was being paranoid. But at that moment I thought I'd rather be unnecessarily paranoid than unnecessarily jumped.

As he got closer, it became clear to me that he was no threat. My would-be mugger turned out to be a balding, older, frumpy-looking man who spoke broken English. The thing he was waving at me was a hastily-scrawled note with the address and name of his dentist. It turned out the office was a block away. I offered to walk him there, since it was on my way back to my building. Frankly, I was so relieved that he wasn't going to mug me that I would have walked out of my way to get him to his destination.

I chatted with him for the two minutes it took to get there. I'm not sure he understood a word I said, but with a few broad arm movements as we approached his destination, I managed to convince him that, yes, this was indeed the place. He gesticulated grandly - arms seem to work well when language does not - in thanks. I wished him luck at the dentist and watched as he headed in.

As I later analyzed the encounter, I was struck by the fact that my initial, visceral response was one of fear and suspicion. Society conditions us to, by default, question the motives of those around us. We assume all are potentially guilty of something until they prove otherwise. It wasn't always this way, and I wonder why it has to be today.

He was just a man trying to get to the dentist in a city he didn't really know, using a language he didn't understand. And I doubted him.

What happened to us along the way from yesterday to today that so sadly changed the way we initially view each other? What will it take for us to get back to a simpler time when trust prevailed above fear? Am I being too much of an idealist to believe that this is even possible?


Chris said...

I think fear of 'the other' has always been a part of society. The main difference is that, in the past, most people lived in relatively small communities where strangers were few and far between. Now we're surrounded by strangers, so our automatic defences are on alert all the time.

Thumper said...

I'm not so sure trust ever really did prevail over fear; our reactions to that initial visceral feeling have certainly changed. Thirty years ago you would have swallowed it an instant after you felt it, with the fleeting thought that being afraid was silly. We were taught that reacting defensively was rude and impolite.

We're now more aware of the things that happen around us, we know that the feeling is there for a reason--protection for survival--and we pay attention to it, allow it time to give us options for defense in case we need it. Those gut reactions have always been there, we're simply paying attention to them now because it's become clear that personal defense isn't impolite, it's important.

Unknown said...

I find it necessary to get out during lunch for the same reasons as you. I have a spot away from all of the hubbub that I go to where I know I can relax. It's a sculpture garden with ample seating; in the center of the park in winter there is an ice rink. In autumn, spring, and summer, there is a huge fountain.

The reason the park stays so nice and I feel safe there is because there are guards posted in the park. Unfortunately, in this city (like many others) that is necessary for the public to enjoy the park. I can actually take a nap.

I've heard years ago one could sit on any park bench in this very city and take a nap.

I think through the years as the population grows and becomes more diverse, unfortunately due to the crowding, it makes folks cranky. I experienced a change in attitude (for the better, read: calmer) in the people of a small town I visited in Ontario this past summer.

I think if we folks in big cities stop and take notice more often, much like you did, when the moment presents itself, we could have more polite even meaningful experiences.

Jef said...

After being beaten with a pipe in at attempted robbery, I find that I'm quick to react when someone approaches me rapidly in the dark or I catch movement in my peripheral vision. I find that when approaching unknown people, using affirmations can help me be aware of the unpredicability of an encounter without necessarily becoming defensive.

Deadman said...

Carmi - I think you are forgetting to include one important factor in your equation, and that is the reptilian brain. Our RB's give us the innate nature necessry for the fight-or-flight survival technique. On a less primitive scale, I think our RB is what gives us that "gut" feeling that tells us when we are being, or about to be, screwed. In business, I always listen to my gut. It has saved me untold heartache and aggravation.