This One’s About Fear

Just-Us-3Sign in the NY Subway

The TV was showing Today–one of those typical morning fluff shows–when I woke up. They were talking to a fourth or fifth grader who rode the subway alone. You should probably know that I’ve (1) never ridden any subway alone and (2) never ridden a New York subway alone. But I was amazed this merited discussion, even on a fluff show. How anyone thought this was scary enough to be notable amazed me.

Later, I walked the dog. We were about 50 feet–about 16 meters, for those on a more rational measurement system–away from the house when the dog stopped, as is his habit. Usually this is to sniff or pee, sometimes it’s to eat feces. Why the dog likes to eat poop is beyond me, but I only manage to stop him half the time. Realizing that he was again trying, I pulled on the leash. He was already eating it and managed to swallow.

As I pulled him across the street he started making strange noises. A coughing wheeze, though I’d never known that dogs could do either of the two. And he kept doing it. 

By now, I was worried. I thought about doing a tracheotomy. Then I realized that I didn’t know how to do a tracheotomy on a dog. For that matter, I didn’t even know what a tracheotomy was. I thought about going home, but I decided there was no solution to this problem there.

Maybe he’d stop breathing right there. Maybe he’d suffocate from trying to eat a turd. Of all the ways one can die, that would have be among the most embarrassing and disgusting. Slowly, as I began to think about maybe trying the Heimlich maneuver–not that I know much more about that than tracheotomies–the wheezing abated.

During this whole incident I’d made up my mind that going home was still smarter than continuing this walk. I probably wouldn’t walk the dog again for another week. I thought, “If this can happen, I’d rather not risk it.” But now the dog was pulling to get going. So continue on the walk we did.

I don’t know what small fraction of the thoughts that ran through my head as this small old dog wheezed went through his. I have to assume that he was at least aware he was wheezing and struggling to breathe, past that I don’t suspect he was much concerned. He certainly wasn’t as ready to give up on this walking idea as I was.

I’m trying to distill something from this story that doesn’t sound trite. That “you can’t live your life in fear” would be one easy conclusion to make. And I’m completely convinced that that’s a valuable lesson that people need to learn. But it feels too simplistic.

Perhaps I can end with this: fear is much different in abstraction than in reality. I can easily think it’s silly that you’re worried about a 9-year-old riding the subway, but that doesn’t make me less scared when something that causes me irrational fear comes along. Fear is usually irrational, but it never feels that way when you yourself are afraid. It’s not a prefect conclusion, but I’m afraid it’s the best one I’ve got.

3 responses to “This One’s About Fear”

  1. “You can’t live your life in fear” is a palliative.
    It feels too simplistic, like when someone says, “It’s for the better”.
    Fear is Fear. If you are feeling it in your gut, it is not irrational, by your set of criteria.
    Fear is relative. I am not sure it is irrational.

  2. Hmm. That’s an interesting point. I would tend to say that fear is irrational because it’s rarely helpful. I’ve never thought of a situation in which it would be useful to be scared. It seems to me that to the extent that it does anything it almost always distracts from dealing with the situation at hand.

    If that feeling in your gut is instinctive it seems that it’s probably “irrational.” Rational seems to me to mean “arising as a result of reasoning,” which the average fear is not. That said, I do think one may rationally fear–that is, both instinctively and as a result of reasoning–knifes, guns, lions, or dark alleyways in dangerous areas.

    I’d usually say that “fear” ranges from discomfort to sheer terror. Any degree along that scale can probably be justified by some circumstance. I like your point about being relative, because feeling sheer terror about riding the subway is probably irrational. A bit of rational fear is there, but it’s out of proportion to all reality.

    I should also say that that whole range of fear seems to me “arational” or perhaps “subrational.” It arises irrespective of reason, and whether it was rational or irrational can only be judged later. So to whether or not it was in proportion to what could pass for a “rational level of fear.”

    Wow. That came out sounding both longer and more convoluted than I expected. Thanks for making me think harder about this.

  3. I wouldn’t want to rationalize too much if the tiger jumped out at me 🙂
    I would want the flutterey gut feelings to pump that adrenalin right to the appropriate places!
    Would it be more appropriate to call ‘irrational fears’ phobias?