Walking through downtown Santa Cruz today, a man approached me and asked for 25 cents. Before I could process his request, I had turned away the begging hands instinctively. As I walked on, I wondered why I didn’t give him that small amount of money. I turned back to find him, but he was gone.
Later on, I was sitting at a café when a homeless man passed by. He was filthy, smelt terrible and was loaded with bags. He also appeared to be blind. Despite his long white cane, he was headed directly toward a lamppost. I could have run to him to ensure he didn’t crash needlessly into this obstruction, but I sat in silence, hoping that somehow he would naturally swerve at the last moment. He didn’t. He walked right into the post. He cursed it, found he way around it and meandered on. I wondered why I had been unwilling to help.
I’d agreed to talk about fear in response to Jennie’s “Fear No More” post and her excellent advice for overcoming its unfavourable effects. But as I sat at this café, I felt stumped. Nothing came and I walked home feeling disappointed in myself. As I walked, I thought again about these two characters I saw. One needed only 25 cents, the other needed saving from a lamppost. I didn’t help these men because I was afraid. My responses to their predicaments were based not on a logical assessment of risk, but on uncalculated, kneejerk reaction: it was fear of getting too close to somebody I didn’t know and was unsure if I could trust.
We often talk about overcoming fear in the context of important life experiences or major decisions. But we are also so often blind to the small fears that commonly influence our daily interactions with those around us and inhibit simple acts of kindness. (And somehow those small acts are often not so small at all – they can be most meaningful.) Fear is natural and serves an important evolutionary function. But fear is arguably also at the heart of our prejudices, our aggressions, our conflicts and even our ability to ignore the obvious needs – or defend the rights – of those around us.
This is not to suggest we should abandon our fears. Fear is necessary and helps provide important guidance to our decision-making processes. But perhaps we should try to abandon the type of more cowardice fear that underlies the careful distances we keep from others in need of our support. There is an important question then, particularly for females who I would suggest often juggle the natural desire to nurture with a fear of vulnerability: how do we know when to trust our instinctive fears and when to brush them aside in favour of being kind?
While our needs might be different, there is not one person on this earth who does not need something every single day. We rely on each other to service those needs, or in other words, our livelihoods are completely dependent on the actions of others, no matter who we are. With this in mind, perhaps it doesn’t necessarily matter who it is we feel able to help so long as we do and so long as we do not let fear blind us to the broad spectrum of needs we have, including the needs of those we don’t know.
While I trust that somebody else found it in their heart to lend 25 cents to this passing man, I hope that my blind homeless friend (who probably had a shining bump on his forehead and wouldn’t consider me a friend at all had he been able to see the situation through my eyes!) has somewhere comfortable to sleep tonight and that there is someone far more fearless than I to take care of him.