Everyone was afraid on the morning of September 11, 2001. We watched our televisions in horror as the Twin Towers fell and the Pentagon burned. We couldn’t believe how little was left of the plane that went down in a Pennsylvania field.
Things changed that morning. Strangers in hotel lobbies in countries around the world suddenly turned to speak to each other. Office workers taking elevators to their high-rise offices in New York City and cities everywhere did not on this day just stare at the numbers above the elevator doors; they wondered aloud and to each other what was going on and what it all meant.
My usually fearless 32 year-old son called from his apartment in Denver and asked, “What’s happening to the world, Dad?” We talked for several minutes exchanging ideas about who did it, how it happened, and what else would come to pass as a result of the terrible events of the morning. We resolved little, but we did bring a measure of calm to each other’s fears.
The fears caused by the terror of September 11 opened doors of communication between people who seldom spoke or even noticed each other. You remember, don’t you, how easy it was to ask a perfect stranger, “So, what do you think of what happened today?” Everyone responded. Everyone had an opinion. Everyone was afraid.
Less startling fears also cause us to open our lives to each other. Several years ago on a flight to Atlanta my seat-mate, a complete stranger, talked non-stop for two hours. Finally, near the end of the flight, she revealed what caused her constant conversation: she was going to the funeral of her sister and had been out of touch with her family for many years. She was afraid, so she willingly told me things she had ever told few people on earth. Why? It helped her process her conflicting emotions. It calmed her nerves.
A little closer to home, we establish relationships with our neighbors because we want them to watch our house, to know our kids, to feed our cat when we’re gone, and generally understand our comings and goings. We might even exchange house keys, and inform each other of our weekly schedules. It makes us feel safer if we know that they know something about us and we know something about them.
Psychologists tell us that talking helps understand our fears. Once we understand what we fear, we fear less. So in a time of crisis it is easier to turn to a loved one or even a stranger for a calming word, an insight into the confusion around us, or for an expression of hope.
We need clarity in the midst of confusion because our fears are really only unanswered questions, misunderstood facts, or confused data. Once they are answered, understood and clarified, our fears recede.
But isn’t it interesting that information alone does not allay our fears. We need a trustworthy someone with whom we can talk things through before our fears begin to subside. To know facts is one thing, to make clear their meaning with our own private reality takes some talking.
All fears, no matter how big or small, become conquerable when we share them with others. They help us see things in a new light and are there to gently calm us as they listen.
And so we talk, and blessed we are when we find someone to listen.
PS: Fear is not a bad thing. It exists for our protection as an early warning signal. There is, however, a big difference between the healthy fear that tells us to step back from the edge of a cliff and a constant fear that keeps us from living and loving life.