November 18, 2017 — As a child, I feared a tornado could pick up our tiny house and send us into the ether, like in “The Wizard of Oz.” The house had neither a basement or a crawlspace. My fears grew after the 1965 Palm Sunday tornado. Our town wasn’t in the path of the multi-funnel event. In Indiana, 137 people were killed and more than 1,200 injured by ten tornadoes during the late afternoon and evening hours, according to the National Weather Service.
What do I fear the most today? Shortly after I retired in October, I shopped at our local discount store. I thought of a recent incident. Several days before, an active shooter ripped through the same store in a western state. Police chased him, and he eventually shot himself. The chase was slow in starting as locals drew weapons in this open carry state, mystifying the police about the shooter. According to a “Los Angeles Times” story, “good guys with guns” may have caused additional chaos.
I laughed at myself about my fears going to the store. I just retired from a psychiatric hospital, where chaos is the norm. Few mental patients become violent, but there’s some agitation when troubled individuals are in defined, locked spaces. In the nearly four years I worked in the crisis stabilization hospital, I can count on one hand the times I was afraid. So, I checked that off my list of fears, and I’ve been thinking about what I do fear.
In the early part of my career, I was fearful that my spouse or I would lose our jobs, and not be able to pay our mortgage. (With interest rates above eight percent on our first mortgage, which was a healthy fear.) After several miscarriages, I was afraid I couldn’t have a child. We had a beautiful son, who was diagnosed with autism at age two. I was afraid he would never talk and always be tethered to us. He grew, language came, and he went from special education to neurotypical classrooms. Would he be okay at church camp for three days? Or on the high adventure trip to Wyoming with Boy Scouts (and no cell phone service)? Then off to Europe with his high-school French Club for two weeks? And then moving to the East Coast for college, and staying for his career?
Tornadoes still frighten me. And I’m again afraid of a nuclear bomb blast, just as I was in early elementary school. We drilled in the classic “Duck and Cover” way as if a second grader’s wooden desk shielded us from nuclear annihilation or radiation or the roof falling in.
As an adult, my greatest fear is losing my spouse and our son. My mother is gone now, as are all my grandparents. My father will be 87 this year; I know it is a gift that he is still with us. Unlike many of my peers, I am not afraid to fly. I can’t say I don’t think about what can happen, but I don’t dwell on it. Flying from Atlanta, Georgia, to Madrid, Spain, in summer 2014, the pilot came on the overhead speaker about three hours out of Atlanta. The little screen map on the seat ahead of me showed we were smack dab in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.
“We’re going to have to turn all the power off for about 15 minutes,” he said. “One of our engines has gone out, and we have to reboot the computer to get it started again.” Of course, this massive plane could fly easily on one engine. We were not in any danger. Fifteen minutes in the dark makes one realize how little control we have over everything. The power came back on and we had a wonderful time in Spain.
Of course, anything can happen at any time. I was a fortunate child that all I had to fear in my childhood was bad weather, not abuse or poverty or any of a hundred horrors many children face. Unlike children today, I did not have to worry about an armed domestic terrorist coming into my classroom. As a teenager, I didn’t worry that a gunman would interrupt my viewing of “The Towering Inferno” in a theatre. When worshipping with my family at Sunday morning services, we didn’t consider that a shooter could step inside and kill half of us. These are all realities we face today.
I am by no means fearless. I have no idea how I would respond to any of the situations in a school, theatre, or church we’ve seen in our country. But we cannot let fear run our lives. We can be diligent and use common sense. And that over which we have no control, we must let go.
A former co-worker of mine was terrified when her high school age daughter attended the last Presidential inauguration. Rumors flourished that protestors might disrupt the proceedings, and my friend was worried something would happen to her daughter, a thousand miles away from her Kentucky hometown of 29,000 people. Her daughter was fine. On the night the daughter was to return with her classmates, a man who shot another man was apprehended in my co-workers front yard. He was discovered in this town of 29,000 people, a town described as “sleepy.”
Most worry is for naught. While we should not abandon caution, we don’t know our future. We do not know when the bullets will fly or the cancer cells will turn against us. While FDR’s first inaugural speech quote “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself” has become a cliche, the speech bears revisiting. No one reading this was alive in 1933, but our grandparents and great-grandparents struggled in the depths of The Great Depression. Roosevelt, who was known as jovial and cheerful in his campaign, gave a stirring speech with many religious overtones. He reminded Americans that they lacked material possessions, not values. He used the forum to remind Americans of how they forefathers struggled to build this country. Rereading that speech tonight gave me additional comfort and insight.
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