On Making Decisions Out of Fear, and Why Maybe It’s Time to Forget

Yesterday, I went to a BBQ with a friend who had just broken up with his girlfriend earlier that morning. He told me that if I hadn’t joined him, he would have spent the BART ride to Berkeley crying, but instead, he spent the time telling me about what happened.

Like any good story involving the polyamorous community in SF, the logistics pretty much require an infographic to follow, so we won’t get into them here. Personally, I don’t understand the whole “poly” thing at all. (I was interrupting with dumb questions like, “how is it possible that all the people in this story have two boyfriends and two girlfriends, and I have zero?”)

But my friend was able to push past my insensitivity and bad jokes to share that his (ex) girlfriend was caught in the unenviable position of wanting to make the safest choice but not knowing which one that was. “She was sobbing uncontrollably, spitting, snotting, heaving – the whole works – and saying that she doesn’t know what to do because she makes all her decisions out of fear. She has her whole life, and she can’t get past it.”

This part of the story really stuck with me,  but I wasn’t really sure what to make of it until I woke up this morning to a flood of Facebook posts carefully concocted to make me feel bad about September 11th. I expected this, and was ready for it. As a New Yorker and generally oversensitive person, September 11th was a day that fundamentally changed who I was as a person, or so I always thought.

However, as a writer and a marketer, I’ve also been aware of how the media takes events like these and ensures that they hit every single one of us in a deeply personal way. When we read stories about people who died on September 11th, we’re not really crying for them or their family members, we’re crying for ourselves, and people we’ve lost. And when we mourn for our lack of safety or decry the evil of the terrorists, we’re just finding comfortable ways to process the excruciating and incomprehensible truth that life is fucking unfair. All day, all the time, for all of us.

Not that there’s anything wrong with empathy – in fact it’s an important part of being human. In literature, tragedy exists to give us that very cartharsis. But it’s more complicated with an event like September 11th, when feelings are being triggered and amplified in the hopes of supporting a certain kind of political climate. I’ve always known this in the back of my mind. I’ve also thought that the most significant thing about 9/11 was that it made Americans feel unsafe, and that’s there nothing more intense than a mass of people who suddenly realize they’re vulnerable.

But I hadn’t thought about implications of that mentality until lately, when, for whatever reason, I’ve had a few conversations with people who believe September 11th was a government conspiracy (or a Jewish conspiracy, but that’s a story for another time.) And although I’m not much of a conspiracy theorist, it did get me thinking about how valuable terrified people can be, if used correctly.

Now, hopefully, at this point, you’re wondering, why did this post about 9/11 conspiracy theories start with a story about a tragic polyamorous love quadrangle? Well, if  you’re like me, or any other self-help-inundated, self-righteous American, you read about the sobbing woman who doesn’t know what to do because she can only act out of fear and thought, “wow, she should really get over that.”

Or, if you’re a slightly a more compassionate soul, you thought, “Wow, living in fear will totally ruin your life, but I get that it is so, so hard to overcome.” Maybe you also recognize that fear and anxiety are actually easier to tolerate than sadness and loss. Fear and anxiety, toxic as they are, create the illusion that we can protect ourselves. Accepting sadness and loss means that we have to go out there and keep trying, with no guarantee that it won’t hurt every single fucking time.

Personally, on the morning when the Twin Towers collapsed, I was 18 years old and had already experienced a good, (un)healthy amount of sadness and loss. On that day, in a sea of bewildered college students, I watched as I, and everyone around me, converted our pain into our own particular brand of fear. Some of the guys started making “Wanted” posters for Osama Bin Laden and describing how they would kill him. I was shocked and disappointed, then called a traitor for saying that if we gave into hate, we would never find Peace (or peace.)

But even I, with my intellectual desperation to stay strong and calm and full of love, came out of the day with some key takeaways. Don’t let down your guard. Don’t relax. Don’t expect that people are who you think they are. And above all else, never trust that anything you have today will be there tomorrow. They’re not entirely implausible generalizations, but they’re not helpful either. They’ve hurt me some in my own life, but they’ve done far worse for our country.

They’ve enabled us to be a nation of people who bypass the agony of sadness and loss and instead are driven by fear and anxiety. They’ve been used to start wars, fuel hatred, and deny people their god-given right to take more than 3oz of liquid in their carry on luggage. 15 years later, those fears have morphed into an uncontrollable, irrational hatred of an entire religion. Looking back on those 18-year-old boys on my freshman hall who said they didn’t want to talk, they just wanted to kill terrorists, it’s not actually hard to see how we ended up with Trumpism.

That sounds judgmental, but it’s not. To prove that, let’s go back to our heartbroken, polyamorous friend. Who among us could look at a crying woman with snot all over her face and tell her that she should just get over it and stop being afraid? We know it’s not going to be easy for her, and frankly, she doesn’t have a good chance of recovery.

But if she does have a chance, it’s going to require her to stop dwelling on the past. It’s going to require her to stop reenacting situations that mimic the ones that hurt her, and start creating ones that look like her ideal. And if she’s been inundated with heartache her whole life, she might need to take a long, long time to figure out what that ideal looks like.

And so it is for our nation’s racists, fear-mongers, haters, what have yous. Replaying and reliving tragedy is not a path forward. The only way out is to visualize the world we want. To replace descriptions of pain with depictions of peace.

While I would never suggest disrespecting the memory of those who died on September 11th, I’m respectfully suggesting that maybe it’s time to not necessarily forget, but at the very least, we need to reposition. Let’s not use today to cry and mourn. Let’s use today to meditate on hope. Let’s use today to envision our best possible world, instead of repeatedly torturing ourselves with images of the worst day of our lives.

As a nation, we’re not short on cynicism, tragedy or anger. We need less of it. Let’s commemorate today by taking a break. It’s not going to stop war or hatred or violence tomorrow, but the sooner we stop picking the scabs, the sooner we stop bleeding, and the lighter the scar.

***

September 11, 2001, was a blur for me. I remember it in fits and starts, and it’s largely punctuated with moments of guilt, pain and confusion. Snipping at my father because he called me and woke me up at 8:30am; hours of not be able to reach my mother; learning that people I knew were missing or dead; having a boy I liked ask me not to talk to him because he didn’t want to deal with anyone’s sadness; watching George W. address the country; realizing that in some way, shape or form we going to war; realizing that people I knew were actually happy about that fact; having tone-deaf people ask me why I was upset and laugh when I explained why.

But the truth is, only one memory from that day is truly crisp for me. Late that night, a baseball player who lived a few doors down asked me if I wanted to go have a catch, as we often did. We got out to the field behind our dorm and stood across from each other. “Are you very sad?” he asked me.

“Yeah.” I said.

“Yeah, I figured,” he replied. After that, we said nothing. We threw the ball back and forth until I was tired and calm enough to go to bed.

I wouldn’t describe myself as particularly patriotic. But if I was going to be patriotic, I would probably say there’s no better way to show you care about America than standing in a field on a summer night, listening to the soft wail of a hard ball fly through the air, and knowing that when you feel that thud in the webbing of your mitt, at least for that moment, you’re protecting something real.

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