Tag Archives: fear

Fear vs. awe

When the lights went out, we watched Bozo the Clown shrink to a tiny dot on the television before he disappeared entirely. It was early November, 1965, and a power glitch in Canada had thrown much of the Northeast off the grid.bozo

I was seven, home alone with my four-year-old sister. It was early evening and we could see perfectly well by the light that came in from outside. Nonetheless, perhaps knowing that the sun was setting and fearing worse to come, I was frozen to my spot on the sofa.

I sent my sister out to the kitchen to find a flashlight and she dutifully trotted off. Soothed by its presence, however unnecessary, I was able to follow her back to the kitchen where we stood at the open door to wait for my mother to return.

While my initial response to the power outage was debilitating, I have a warm, visceral memory of the sky that night. It was beautiful; dusky pink and vast. I imagine the scene as a filmmaker might: two little girls holding hands, staring at the sky, as the camera pulls back and frames them in the doorway.

The upset I experienced that night was real, but I recall it in an abstract way. When I tell the story, I don’t relive the feeling.

There was another time, as an adult, that I responded to fear by freezing.

My husband grew up reading Babar the elephant books and always envisioned flying off in a hot air balloon with his own Celeste. It was never a fantasy of mine, but when I gave him a hot air balloon ride as a birthday present it was understood that I would play the part of Celeste.

Hot air balloons typically fly at dawn or dusk. I booked our outing for an early morning, in Rhode Island. I was a bit nervous, but nothing unusual given that anxiety precedes me everywhere. And my husband’s excitement was so palpable that it distracted me from my own misgivings.

We watched the crew lay the balloon out on the ground, attach it to the basket, and inflate it with air. When it was suitably robust, they turned the burner on to heat the air and slowly it rose, pulling the basket upright. We clambered in, the pilot shot more flame into the balloon, and up we went.

I immediately regretted agreeing to participate. The further away the ground got, the whiter my knuckles. My husband tried to put his arm around me and I hissed, “Don’t touch me,” convinced that any movement, however slight, would send me hurtling to my death.

After a while, when the cars were as small as they were going to get and we had floated along without incident, I began to breathe. I even relaxed enough to turn my head to marvel at the beauty of the scenery.

hot air balloon

We have lots of photographic evidence of that outing, and in many of the pictures I’m smiling. I also remember that after we landed and scrambled out of our wicker conveyance, I was giddy with exhilaration. But for all that, my strongest emotional memory of that day is not my awe at the wonder of it all, but how terrified I was as the balloon lifted into the air.

So why do some emotions live on in memory while others don’t? Perhaps when I was a child, even though I was scared, I knew I wasn’t in mortal danger from the power failure. There have, however, been deadly hot air balloon accidents, so that particular fear was not, in fact, entirely unfounded.

Today, if I want to remember what the world looks like from a hot air balloon, I pull out the photo album. If I want to remember the beauty of the sky the night the lights went out in ‘65, all I have to do is close my eyes.

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You never know

One winter evening, a couple of years ago, we were driving home along the access road next to Route 2 in Arlington, when we spied something lying at the side of the road. As we went past I gasped, “It’s a person!”

Andrew slammed on the brakes and backed up until we were several car lengths beyond the person. He got out of the car and ran forward calling, “Are you alright? Are you hurt?”

I, on the other hand, stood behind the safety of my open car door, yelling, “Do you need help? Are you drunk?”

Somehow we had the presence of mind to call 911, my husband having visually determined that the guy was breathing. What we didn’t do was touch him. And when I say ‘we,’ I mean Andrew. I never got much further than a few steps away from the car, while begging Andrew to come away from the guy.

When the policeman arrived he determined that the guy was as drunk as the proverbial skunk, and poured him into the back of his cruiser to deposit at the police station. The policeman told us that by stopping we probably saved the guy’s life because he was in a great spot to be run over.

That was cold comfort for me. Don’t misunderstand; I’m glad he wasn’t run over. But while our presence may have kept a car from flattening him, it wouldn’t have done him any good had he been: bleeding, choking on his own vomit, having a seizure, a heart attack, an aneurism, etc., etc., etc.

I’m not proud of the way I reacted.

As part of the generation of Jews born on the heels of the Holocaust, I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time mulling over what I would have done had I been a non-Jew in a Nazi-occupied territory. I always thought that I would have hidden Jews in my attic, or worked with the underground to sabotage the enemy. I believed that I’d have risked myself rather than imply complicity by silence. Now I’m not so sure.

When I saw that man on the ground I didn’t think, ‘I must rush to help him!’ I thought, ‘What if has a gun?’ I completely forgot that I was in a nice, upper-class suburb where guns rarely, if ever, intrude. My fear was completely unfounded, and thoroughly paralyzing.

I’m much more forgiving in general now. I know that while people may not always behave the way we’d like them to, that doesn’t mean that they don’t wish they could.