Today’s post is by Melinda Guerra, our Administrative Assistant here at The Marin Foundation.
A few weeks ago, stuck in traffic, I noticed that the car to my left had a lanyard set on its bumper, with a car key and remote attached. Taking advantage of heavy traffic, I jumped out of my vehicle, grabbed the keys from the bumper, and knocked gently on the door, motioning for the passenger to lower his window.
Two people around my parents’ age stared back at me, wide-eyed and terrified, holding their hands in the air like… like this was a hold-up. I pointed (slowly) to their keys and lanyard I was holding in my hand. The passenger didn’t recover enough to put his hands down, but the driver (somewhat sheepishly) recognized their keys, lowered her hands, rolled down the passenger window and muttered for her passenger to take the keys. I released them into his hand, got back into my vehicle, and went on with my afternoon.
For a bit, it was a funny story about that one time these people ostensibly thought I was holding them up. But under the joking was a weird reminder of the reality that these strangers who I’d wanted to help had had an immediate response of fear… specifically, fear of me.
There are dozens of possibilities for why they responded that way: they could have been previous victims of a car jacking… I could have unknowingly triggered them in some way… they could have wanted to make it clear they were not reaching for a weapon… I could have visually resembled someone they had reason to fear… the list could go on. But the reality is that if they’d known me, while they might have responded initially with shock at the idea of someone knocking on their door in the middle of traffic (which isn’t something that often happens), they would have recognized me and that I only have good intentions, would have recognized their keys, might have laughed at the initial shock, thanked me, etc. But because we were strangers and they didn’t know me from a carjacker, their response was fear, and I get it.
Most of us could tell a story about a time we were afraid of someone or something out of some instinctive fear of the unknown: maybe it was a new place, or a new person, or some activity we’d never tried before. I used to run a zipline at a camp — I’d stand on a small platform at the top of a 40’ tree for a few hours daily, holding the hands of terrified people who’d made it all the way up the dune hill stairs, across the unstable-looking bridge and to the platform with me. Having made it that far, they were terrified at the thought of jumping off the platform. When I was first beginning I would listen to them, tell them it was safe, respond with all the lines I knew about how strong the cables and straps were, show them how each of the carabiners locked and would keep them safe, and tell them how many times I’d personally jumped and how many people I’d seen jump.
After a while though, I realized that the most effective thing to do after listening to how scared they were was to ask them what it was that they were scared of. Sometimes I’d get a specific fear and could respond with reassurances about the safety of the various elements that worked together for the zipline. More often than not though, I’d get a quiet response of “I… don’t… know.” That gave us a starting point for acknowledging together the often instinctive and understandable initial response of fear to an unknown, a point from which we could move as we talked about how to get past those fears. Most of those people ended up jumping; some of them couldn’t do it and then I’d attach their harness to the strap for the bridge, and they’d go back the long way. Sometimes they’d try again, and sometimes they knew they weren’t ready and that was okay too.
Fear of the unknown is a fear native to the heart for many of us. It’s an understandable fear. In the pursuit toward loving people well, toward building bridges instead of walls, toward standing with and for the other (whoever he or she or they may be), there will be moments where that fear will be palpable, and will come with risks of being misunderstood, mocked, or misrepresented. Take your deep breath and step into the fear anyway, and may your steps be met with grace.