The gift of fear

By Kris Ferrazza | Aug 05, 2020

Normally at this point in the summer, I’m living my best life.

With another school year behind me, I use the time to reflect on what worked well and what could be improved. I pin ideas in the Pinterest app, pre-read library books, consider new classroom management ideas and dream up fun arts and crafts projects for my students.

I also miss my coworkers, wonder how the kiddos are doing and have way too much fun buying back-to-school supplies like scented markers and sticker books.

None of that is on the agenda this summer. This year I’m reading “The Gift of Fear” by Gavin DeBecker. I’m pondering deep thoughts that go far beyond bulletin boards and seating arrangements.

The book has been on my home shelf for years. I bought it after seeing DeBecker on the Oprah Winfrey show. Things he said in that 1997 interview have stuck with me. "Trust your gut, follow your instincts and embrace the gift of fear."

These are ideas I adopted long ago. My parents raised us to “listen to that little voice inside” that tells you right from wrong and often warns you when a situation isn’t safe. They taught us not to substitute the judgement of others for our own and never to ignore our instincts. DeBecker confirmed everything I already knew.

As I observe this pandemic and read DeBecker’s book, I am waiting for that inner voice to tell me how to feel and what to do. I’m having trouble nailing down an answer. Some days I have an innate sense that everything will be alright. The next day my gut is telling me nothing is even remotely okay.

I know I’m not alone. Friends say they feel a full range of conflicting emotions: hope and terror, courage and fear, anger and sadness. I worry for my older parents and also for the kids. I’m afraid for the people I know and for millions I don’t know.

So how do we use “the gift of fear” to guide us without becoming turtles permanently tucked into our shells? I do not know. Maybe that’s what the voice is telling me. “Stay in your shell. You’ll know when it’s safe to come out again.”

But then I watch “Hamilton” for the tenth time and remind myself we must be bold. We have been through worse. Life goes on. The risks are low. We can wear masks, wash our hands, sanitize. It all sounds very reasonable, but why do I still have a knot in my stomach?

The other night my teen and I stepped onto the front porch to look for the comet Neowise. Almost immediately she pointed at an orange-y orb shooting across the sky and shouted, “There it is!”

We watched, mouths agape, as it blazed before our eyes. It gave me instant perspective on our place in this universe. Oddly enough, instead of feeling vulnerable and inconsequential, our insignificance was comforting.

These are confusing times, for sure.

In the past when I’ve had to face a fear, I’ve listened closely to family and friends who give excellent advice. My mother’s trademark “This too shall pass,” has been of great comfort for decades.

My brother likes to quote that wise old sage Larry the Cable Guy. He gives me a shrug, a smirk and a simple, “Git ‘er done.” And my late, great stepmother used to say, “Once it’s all over, you’re going to say, ‘What was I so afraid of?’ “

These three mantras have gotten me through more jams than I can count.

DeBecker writes that human beings are the only living things that will feel a rush of fear and, instincts screaming, still move TOWARD the thing they fear rather than away from it. We will talk ourselves out of listening to our instincts, and even ridicule ourselves for being silly, then keep going.

He reports victims of violent crime nearly always saw or felt warning signs and ignored them. Instead of choosing to retreat to safety, they opted to walk into the dangerous situation instead. Often there were tragic consequences as a result of ignoring these “survival signals.”

Some approached a sketchy stranger, or agreed to engage with a person, overriding their gut because they didn’t want to seem rude. Others arrived home and ignored telltale signs that things were not right: a strange car on the street, a light that was off, an unlocked door or garbage cans that had been moved. They knew things were out of place, dismissed their gut reaction and talked themselves out of the urge to flee.

Hopefully we will be able to read the survival signals clearly once summer is over so we know which way to turn. Until then, I may just order some scented markers online, listen to “Hamilton” again, and thank Lin-Manuel Miranda for writing, “Look around, look around, how lucky we are to be alive right now.”

And the beat goes on.

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