Tag Archive | Fear

Walking with a Fearful Dog

IMG_4693 (800x533)My dog is afraid of the dark.  He has no reason to be afraid.  He is a lean, healthy, six-year-old Chocolate Lab. He is well-fed, and at least since he came to live with us four years ago, he has not suffered any trauma greater than his occasional bath.  And he can be fierce when he wants to be.  The squirrels in the back yard, for instance, get away from him as quickly as their little legs carry them.  I suppose their perspective might be a little skewed; we often get him worked up when we see a squirrel on the bird feeder.  “Otis, there’s a SQUIRREL on the bird feeder!” we announce excitedly.  Then one of us goes over to the back door, and he comes eagerly, waiting, with a clear look of the enormity of his responsibility in that moment.  There is a crisis among the sunflower seeds in the back yard, and it is his responsibility to take care of the problem.  “I’m on it,” he says, tail erect, muscles tense, anticipating his release.  One of us slowly, gently opens the back door so that we don’t scare the uninvited fluffy-tailed guests prematurely.  As soon as the door is open just enough, the dog rushes with every bit of his 80 pounds of muscle and bone flexed.  One of these days, the squirrel will stumble, or it will just be a little too slow in its leap from the ground to the top of the privacy fence, and Otis will catch it.  Not one of us has any idea what he will do when that happens.  Especially not Otis.

Usually, I like to take our dog on a walk in the cool early evening dusk, but we had some extra things to do tonight, so we didn’t get home until late.  So, I took him out after our little boy went to bed, and it was dark.  You would think I had asked him to go hunting for grizzly bears in an unfamiliar mountain wilderness.  He came eagerly as soon as he heard the leash, and he walked outdoors with his usual confidence.  But then, he started to fall back a bit.  Instead of staying a couple of paces in front of me, as he usually does, he got directly behind me.  I felt the leash pull a bit as I walked.  Every time we heard a sound, he lifted his head, held his tail in its most alert position, bristled the hairs on his back, and slowed down a bit.  I kept us on the streets of our neighborhood where we would get the most coverage of street lights and porch lights.  But it didn’t work; he was still afraid.

I want to look like all of those other proud dog owners.  I want my dog to eagerly lead the way, not so far out that he would strain at the leash, but certainly not slinking a step behind.  I want everyone to admire the picture we paint as we walk down the street, even after dark:  a healthy, fit, family man with his healthy, fit, family dog, going for an evening stroll together.  We could be the picture of good living:  suburban Americana at its idealistic best.  Instead, it looks to my neighbors like I am the cruel parent forcing my pup to go out for a walk:  “I know you’re miserable, kid, but it’s good for you.  It builds character.”  He carries himself like he will jump out of his skin if the slightest breeze comes along.  In fact, if I hear firecrackers or thunder in the distance, I know it’s all over.  He has been known to actually start quivering and lie down in the road, practically begging me to carry him home.  It’s humiliating.

So what do I do with this fearful dog?  For a while tonight, I spoke to him impatiently.  “There’s nothing to be scared of,” I cajoled as I pulled the leash a little bit to try to persuade him to at least walk beside me rather than trailing behind.  All of that nagging and pulling only made me feel more foolish, and it didn’t convince him to walk like I wanted him to.  I thought about giving up and going home, but I refused to turn around because I know that the exercise is good for both of us.  I wasn’t going to let his fear hold me back; at the same time, it didn’t help either of us when I let his fear make me angry and impatient.  If we were going to make it through our walk, I had to at least acknowledge his fear and try to understand it.

Then, as we continued our walk, my thoughts remained on his fear for a few minutes.  His fear is irrational to me, but it is a strong motivator for him.  And I realized that there are a lot of people like that in the world around us.  A lot of people are most strongly motivated by fear.  Some people are afraid of crime.  Some people are afraid of the government.  Some people are afraid of the black folks or the white folks or the Asian folks or the Hispanic folks or of some other population that doesn’t look or talk or behave like “normal” people do.  Some people are afraid of a homosexual agenda.  Some people are afraid of big corporations, and some people are afraid of activists.  Many people are afraid of terrorists.  Everyone is afraid that the idiot the other party is running as their candidate will win the election and then take our country down a rat hole with their ill-conceived, bleeding-heart, or self-serving policies.

So what do we do with these fears?  Sometimes I want to scold other people for their fears.  I want to call the people who hold certain fears crazy, or to label them as racists, or to point out their ignorance, or to try to push them out of my community, or to dismiss them as dumb, or to find another way to belittle or ignore them.  Usually, scolding people for their fears is not terribly effective.  Our culture has tried that for the last generation or two, and our ability to develop sound policies to solve our problems, or even to simply have civil public discourse, has suffered for it.  We start to look as foolish as I undoubtedly look when I am dragging my dog down the street, tugging and pulling and cajoling the frightened beast behind me to just walk already.

If I am going to walk with people, I have to acknowledge their fears.  If we are going to make any progress together, I have to try to understand what makes them quiver.  It won’t do any good to scold them, and I can’t just tug harder to force them to come along.  I don’t  need to let others’ fears hold me back; at the same time, it doesn’t help me or the other when I let myself act out of anger or impatience.

My dog and I made it through our full walk tonight.  We both got enough exercise, and we never did encounter any danger.  And what is more, I don’t think any of the neighbors saw me as foolish as I just let Otis fall a step behind me.  In fact, I think they might have understood.  He’s simply afraid of the dark.

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Fear

One of the things that surprises me about the campaign season which just passed is the amount of fear that was revealed.  In many ways, it is a political candidate’s job to highlight our fears.  Fear is very persuasive; if a candidate can get us to fear the other person, then we have a powerful motivation to vote for that candidate.  With enough fear, we might even be willing to overlook the candidate’s mistakes, inconsistencies, and disconnect from our own values and visions.

And it seems that it was not hard for this year’s candidates to get us to be afraid.  Based on the conversations I had and comments I saw, people are afraid.  People are afraid of taxes and people are afraid of deficits.  People are afraid of military action and people are afraid of military inaction.  People are afraid of gun control and people are afraid of guns.  People are afraid of the heath care system and people are afraid of having no health care at all.  People are afraid of change and people are afraid that things will never change.  People are afraid of the wealthy and people are afraid of the poor.  People are afraid of immigrants and people are afraid of hipster urbanites and people are afraid of country folk and people are afraid of the well-educated and people are afraid of the not-so-well-educated and people are afraid of black folks and white folks and gay folks and straight folks and all other manner of folks.  People are even afraid of communism; I thought we stopped fearing the communists twenty years ago, but I guess I was wrong.

This level of fear fascinates me.  It is not normal.  Most of the time, most people I know do not allow those kinds of fear to motivate them.  People I know have faced really scary times:  illnesses, job losses, divorces, the death of loved ones, the kinds of situations that make a person feel like the floor has dropped out from under them.  They have faced those situations with amazing courage, hope, trust, and faith.  But when the campaign was on everyone’s minds, those same people were decrying the damage that would be done by the other candidate if he was elected.  These people who have been through so much allowed pictures to form in their minds of mass poverty, of anarchy, of oppression, and of all manner of other world-ending forces of evil.  O.k., so maybe I exaggerate.  But I am struck by the ways that courage, hope, trust, and even faith were so easily pushed aside in the sweep of the campaigns.

As a gardener, I have had days when I have looked at the future and seen it as bleak.  I remember when I was getting ready to get married.  My soon-to-be-wife and I had shared a particularly joyful time as we began dating which involved Black-Eyed Susans.  So, she wanted them to be featured prominently in the bouquets of flowers carried by our attendants.  The problem was that Black-Eyed Susans were not available from any florist; they are considered by that industry to be wild flowers, and therefore beneath the dignity of such professionals.  But I was a gardener, albeit a bit of a newbie, and Black-Eyed Susans would be in season around the time of the Big Day, so why not get them from a nursery and grow them myself?

About a week before the wedding, we found some beautiful plants, full of blooms, at a local nursery.  We bought four of the plants, giving us way more flowers than we would ever need.  I brought them home, planted them at various places throughout my yard, watered them, and cooed at my bride about what a beautiful wedding it would be.

Two days later, though, I checked on the plants, and they were a wilted disaster.  The leaves drooped.  The flowers bent and sagged.  The whole mess was starting to lose its colors. I was devastated and afraid. I was afraid that the wedding would be ruined.  I was afraid that my bride would have to carry grocery-store carnations with shame on her face.  I was afraid that my marriage was over before it even began.

I don’t want to trivialize the fears people expressed in the weeks leading up to the election.  I am a gardener, not a farmer; I work the land from my place of privilege, not from a need to feed my family.  Therefore, my fears about the health of my flowers compare not at all to the fears of people who honestly believe their security and livelihood is in jeopardy, except in one way.  As a gardener, I have come to learn that no matter how many things I do the wrong way, and no matter how many times I fail to do things the right way, and no matter how many times things don’t go my way, none of it will prevent beauty from blooming in the world.

The fact is that the president just isn’t that powerful.  Congress isn’t that powerful.  Beauty and generosity and compassion and grace will bloom and grow no matter what party has persuaded the most people to check its boxes in the voting booth.  As a Christian, I believe the world was created in beauty and generosity, the world was saved with compassion and grace, and the world will end in the same ways, too.  But the fear which the candidates stirred up in us to get our votes will prevent us from seeing that beauty or generosity or compassion or grace.  Fear distracts us, and makes us forgetful, and clouds our vision.  Such things can only be seen with hope, trust, faith, and even courage that has helped us overcome fear before.

I warily told my fiancee about the Black-Eyed Susan debacle, and it turns out she is not shallow.  She assured me everything would be just fine because, no matter what else, we were getting married.  And then, I drenched the droopy plants with water, and a little while later, they were as perky and bright as ever.  It seems that Black-Eyed Susans are notoriously unhappy when they are transplanted.  Their roots take a while to overcome the shock of being disturbed and adjust to their new location.  In the mean time, they have to be watered well, and eventually, they will be just fine.  After a week of daily watering, my friend Marc and I went out early on the morning of my wedding day, cut the stems of glowing flowers at the base, put them in pitchers of water, and delivered them to the church building, where I knew my bride and her friends would find them and arrange them into bouquets worthy of the joy of the occasion.