Jimmy glanced over his room for any sign of danger. Seeing none, he flicked off the lights and dove into his bed. At that point, he was in a race against time to pull the covers over his head, tucking them quickly underneath all points of his body. Because he didn’t like the stuffy feeling underneath the covers, he made a small hole for his mouth so that he could breathe the cooler air in the room. Thus protected by the armor of his sheets and blankets, he lay still, imagining what could be lurking in the darkness.
He pictured the scene underneath his bed, in the closet on the other side of the room. He envisioned what might be creeping in from the hallway, seeping in through the crack underneath the window, materializing in the shadows in the corner. Jimmy, like many kids, was afraid of the dark. Or more precisely, he was scared of what might be concealed by the dark. It was irrelevant that he had never seen the dangers he imagined. It didn’t matter that none of them were visible when the lights were on 2 minutes ago. The dangers were real to him, and his strategy relied on the protective cloth barrier covering his body, his silence and lack of movement to remain hidden from the hazards, as they remained hidden from him.
Just then, he heard a faint noise. Not the sound of a creeping monster or fearful menace. It was the barely audible hoot of a train whistle in the distance. It was a train approaching on the tracks that ran through the woods behind his house. As the whistle got louder, Jimmy started to hear the movement of the train;s wheels along the tracks. The engine roared past, and the clacking of the cars continued. As the train rolled by, Jimmy relaxed. And after a few minutes, as the last train car passed and the sound faded into the distance, Jimmy felt like something of the train stayed with him. Although his fear of what lurked in the dark was not gone, he felt that he was not alone, and in that moment, that was enough. Gradually, he dropped off to sleep.
About 35 years ago, I was Jimmy. I know now – I even knew then – that my reaction to my fears was illogical. I was protecting myself from imaginary dangers with the imaginary defense of my sheets, and what soothed me most was the idea that the train several hundred yards outside my bedroom could somehow help me.
But fear is not governed by logic. Our fears exist out of all proportion to the danger we actually face. Many people fear flying more than driving when statistically the risk of driving is greater. The body’s fight-flight-or-freeze system is activated by social threats just as it is by real physical danger. Fear is not about demonstrated statistical risks or the precise calculation of peril. Fear involves our perception of danger, and as such is governed by the stories we tell ourselves and one another and the stories that our minds create to explain the world around us. My fear of the dark was part of a narrative my brain created about what was hiding out there and what was available to me to protect myself. Fear of flying comes from a story we tell ourselves about what it means to hurtle through the air at hundreds of miles an hour. Fear of social risk comes from the story we tell ourselves about what our connections to or disconnections from other people mean.
Fear stories are at the center of how we manage risk in our day-to-day lives. Our stories about what goes on in a community and the people who live there affect our fear of crime in that community. If we constantly consume narratives in the news about dangerous Black men, and if we have little contact with Black men in our actual daily lives, those narratives will take hold of us. Those narratives may affect how we move through predominantly Black communities, or how we react to an increase in the proportion of Black students in our child’s school or classroom.
Our fear or lack of fear of COVID comes from the stories we tell ourselves about the impact of getting sick versus the impact of adopting different protections – masks, vaccinations, distancing. If we tell a story that we face little risk if we contract COVID, masks are an annoyance, and vaccines pose a danger without offering genuine safety, we will move through the world as we did before March 2020. If we tell a story that the virus is a great risk and masks and vaccines offer limited protection, we will continue to isolate ourselves as we did in April 2020.
Our fear or lack of fear of climate change comes from the stories we tell ourselves about the impact of dumping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere versus the impact of shifting our national economic systems. If we tell a story that the impacts of carbon emissions are minimal, but cutting those emissions will devastate our economy, we will advocate that our society continue emitting carbon dioxide as we have in the past. If we tell a story that escalating carbon emissions will result in devastating environmental impacts, we will advocate for emission cuts even if there could be economic impacts.
When we overreact to a minimal or nonexistent danger – avoiding and stigmatizing Black communities because of our perception of danger, over-isolating due to COVID, or hiding under the sheets because of a fear of the dark – we can cause unwarranted stress for ourselves, or we can lash out and overpolice others. When we underreact to a real danger – not wearing a seatbelt, ignoring all COVID risks, deemphasizing climate change – we can cause real physical, psychological, and emotional damage to ourselves and others.
We are free to overreact to minimal dangers or underreact to real dangers as we wish if the impacts fall solely on us. But we are not free to react improperly to risk if the impacts of our overreaction or underreaction fall on others. That is a key responsibility of a mature adult: to evaluate risks carefully, to determine whom we can trust when we can’t evaluate risks on our own, and to react to risks with responsibility towards those around us. Of course, all of us do this imperfectly. Evaluating dangers and reacting appropriately is a nuanced task, one that our evolved capabilities do not always perform adequately. But the only path forward lies through trust – trust in data, trust in experts, trust in ourselves, trust in others. Real, merited, and mutual trust in a community is also a story we tell ourselves. But calling it a story does not make it any less real or any less important.
As Jimmy grew from 10 years old to 12, to 14, this bedtime routine persisted. Although his fear lessened a bit as he entered his teenage years, he still regularly slept with his head covered up for protection. Truthfully, when he has – when I have – a bad dream now, at the age of 45 years old, upon waking I pull the covers over my head. As an adult, I still react instinctively to dangers. But once I take some deep breaths and calm my immediate reactions, it is both my responsibility and my benefit to evaluate my story of fear against my story of trust and community. These stories may feel in competition, but reconciling them is the way that we keep ourselves and our communities safe, healthy, and thriving.
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