facing fears

My husband and I recently caught an early flight home after a long weekend away. Exhausted and hurrying to make our next commitment, we race-walked through the airport, hoping to grab our bags and get our car unhindered. As we approached the primary mode of transport to baggage claim we noticed a large knot of people stopped at the top of the escalator. I was frustrated and stressed. We had no wiggle room if we were going to arrive at our event on time. 

Stepping up to the gathered assembly we found that one of the two moving staircases was completely stopped; orange caution cones blocking its entrance. The other, while running, was empty. A good sized group stood at the bottom, laughing and waving and calling out directions in Spanish while the group up top stood completely still in a palpable and agitated silence. In the middle of this upper knot of humanity was a woman who stood, firmly planted, at the very center of the last piece of solid ground in front of the moving stairway, looking down. 

While I could only see her back, it took only two seconds for me to realize that this person was in unfamiliar territory. A thick black braid ran down her back and pointed to what appeared to be intricate South American needle work covering her dress. Her beautiful handmade sandals planted her firmly to the ground. Around her stood the aforementioned crowd of people, most of them different from her in every way. Shifting back and forth, they all looked at each other, at her, and then down to the bottom of the escalator in rotating fashion. Most of them donned puzzled looks but a few were clearly annoyed and angry. A white woman weighed down with luggage and standing near the solitary visitor spoke loudly and firmly, pointing emphatically over the woman’s shoulder. “There’s an elevator over there. Get on that if you don’t want to get on this!”

I only heard this because, for no real apparent or thought-through reason, I stepped right up to the frightened woman. It wasn’t as though I made a plan or consciously chose to help, my body simply propelled itself toward this embodied visiting soul. Without thought, I grabbed the beautiful woman’s hand while asking, “Can I help you?” Then we just stepped. The crowd below smiled and cheered, excited for her to join them. She never looked at me. Instead, she stared straight ahead with a solidly unaffected gaze. Nearing the solid ground below, she squeezed my hand. When I counted “Uno, dos, tres,” and we stepped off the escalator she said, “Gracias” in the quietest of voices. Then, we parted ways, she into the huddle of those she belonged to and me to my bags and a busy day. 

Bags retrieved, my husband and I headed back toward the escalators. From this new vantage point we saw two things: first, several EMT’s bandaging a person’s head and second, that the closed staircase was being cleaned not serviced. Very likely someone had just fallen and injured themselves on the very same mode of transport that the woman above was jeered at for fearing. Whether she witnessed this fall or not, her fear suddenly seemed more palpable and nuanced. I wondered if anyone who had been with her up-top had been willing to make space for the complexity and gift that this moment held.

Everyone, at some point or another, fears the unknown. Everyone.

Some of us live in a state of constant fear. This happens when we’ve been through trauma or crisis or when we struggle with anxiety as a constant companion. In this kind of reality, our very cells hold memories of terrifiying and, often, powerless experiences that keep us confronting our fear or running from it at all times. This is not the kind of fear I am talking about here and is complicated in ways that run deeper than the suggestions I bring forth will likely touch. If you face fear of this nature and need help finding a trustworthy guide for working through, email me. 

What my escalator moment made me aware of, however, is the other, less constant, kind of fear that touches us all: the fear of the unknown or unmastered experiences that confront us. Each of us is afraid in more every-day/moving staircase kinds of ways at some point in our lives. Sometimes catchy slogans (“just do it”) and motivational pep talks are just what we need to overcome these kinds of anxieties. More often than not, however, our fears are rooted in deep and largely unconscious spaces where they are protected and nurtured to ensure their existence. Inspirational memes do little to move us off these kinds of fears because these anxieties are complicated and complexly woven into all sorts of internal places we know little about.

The more true this is, the more likely we have unconsciously and unwittingly bought into the belief that our fears protect us and keep us safe. “I could fall off that roller coaster therefore I will never go on it.” I’ve been hurt by that type of person in the past so I must avoid all of those kinds of people in the future.” “Planes crash. I must never get on one.” “I suck at test taking so I should avoid all learning that includes tests.” “There could be something wrong with me. Avoiding the Dr. until I get a bit healthier is the best choice.” While some fears do, in fact, protect us, many times they hold us back from important learning and growth.

Complicating things, when we aren’t being sure that our fears keep us safe, we are likely spending our energy judging our anxieties. We are especially prone to judging the fears of others. “What a stupid thing to be scared of!” “What a wimp!” “Seriously?? I’m/you’re scared of (fill in the blank)! That’s ridiculous!” When not judging we may work to understand the fears. Are they defensible? Do they have merit? Who planted them within us? Sometimes, the acts of judging and understanding make us feel as though we are working to overcome our fear when they are simply ways of avoiding. We could interview the woman about her fear of escalators all day but at some point such questioning simply steals energy that could be put toward working through. Similarly, judgement and the shaming that often results from it, rarely serves as an effective foil to fear. 

We, as people, simply are who we are. Our beings are complex and messy and beautiful and unique and deserve to be honored. We have come to be who we are as a result of all sorts of experiences and all manner of genetic predispositions, influenced further by the abundance or scarcity of resources available to us. We are shaped by both our nature and the nurture provided (or not) by the communities in which we have been raised. The cultures of family, faith, education, vocation, nationality, and more have played their parts in developing both confidences and fears in each of us.  And so, our fears have roots that require attendance if we are to take steps to move through them. Which brings me to the greatest awareness that my escalator moment brought me.

Shouting down fear in our selves or those around us is one option. Rarely, however, is it the most effective. Instead, when facing our own fears, receiving help can be life changing and, when confronted with the fear of another, offering help offers a gift to both the giver and receiver. Receiving help and kindness in the tender and complex places that fear reveals helps us feel less overwhelmed by that which scares us. It teaches us that we are lovable and acceptable even when afraid which, in and of itself, boosts our confidence and calms us down. Giving kindness and connection to someone who is experiencing fear helps us become humble, empathic people. Reaching out to someone when they are afraid requires us to overcome our assumptions and judgements about both fear itself and that which is feared and causes us to be more gracious global citizens. 

Next time you find yourself at the top of your own personally terrifying moving staircase I wish for you the creativity to know where to look for help and the courage to ask for it. I hope that you will put yourself in spaces where you can reach out toward hands that reach back. Hands that will be reliable and loving, non shaming and non judging, and firm. Especially firm. And may you receive such offered help, letting it seep into every nook and cranny of the darkness that has been your fear. May the assistance of another speak to the certainty and rigid harshness of your anxiety and the aloneness that it ushers in. May you trust in discerning ways in the confidence of your helper and let it empower you. Regardless of the terror you are confronting, may you always say gracias. That simple thanks gives the gift right back to the giver in more profound ways than you realize.

Equally importantly, next time you encounter someone in the grips of their own personal moving staircase nightmare, may you be those hands. May you whisper and not shout. May you resist the impulse to avoid the possible reaction or rejection, boldly offering kindness and connection instead. May you lunge to the front of the line knowing that a gift awaits all those who partner with Love to help cast out fear. May you offer boldly. If refused, may you take joy in having offered. If accepted, may you act with grace, kindness, and love and, in this way, inspire freedom from fear in us all.