Fear Versus Trust

I live in a great neighborhood. While it’s only a few minutes drive to Atlanta’s downtown and midtown neighborhoods, it’s also just as close to the city center of neighboring Decatur. While we live in an urban area, our yard leads into a woods and the houses in our neighborhood have enough space that people can breathe. When I’m at home, I feel as though I’m in a rural town.

Mine is a middle class neighborhood including young families, retirees, some professionals, and some families with kids who have returned home as adults because of economic hardship. It’s a diverse neighborhood. While I haven’t counted, I’d guess that the neighborhood is over half African-American, a third White, along with a handful of people of Asian or Native American descent. Religiously, the neighborhood is predominantly a mix of Christians and Muslims.

My study is a front room of my home. I spend most of each day at my desk. Ahead of me is a large window that looks out to the front yard and street. On a typical day, I see birds feeding, squirrels playing, and people walking. Each morning, around the same time, I see one of the neighbor’s sons walking to catch a bus. I’d guess he’s 18 or 19 years old and wears ear buds for his music. He walks at a steady pace. Some days he wears a baseball cap cocked a bit to one side; often he wears a hoodie; and on our current warm, humid days, he doesn’t wear any head cover. Yes, he’s African-American.

I don’t really know the young man or his family. When I see them, I wave or say hi. The young man seems to me to be shy and often lost in his music. To be honest, he seems like most young men his age.

Since the death of Treyvon Martin in February 2012, I’ve often thought of the young man in my neighborhood. Each day, he does the same thing that Treyvon Martin did: walk through his neighborhood to go home. I suspect that the young man in my neighborhood is much like other young men, with a wide variety of hopes, dreams, and some crazy thoughts rolling around in his head, thinking about life, love, and, well, all kinds of stuff. Part of being young is considering and testing various thoughts, ideas, perspectives while developing a sense of identity.

Young black men in the United States have to contend with issues that I can barely imagine. In the midst of all the exploration that’s part of being a youth, they also have to come to understand that because of the color of their skin, they could be in danger even while doing innocent things like walking to and from home. Some people (no, not all people, but definitely some people) will look at these young men and, for no other reason than their skin color, assume that they are up to no good. Some of these people will take it upon themselves to scrutinize these young men, follow them, and try to catch them in the act of wrong doing. Yes, such vigilantes will continue profiling and stalking young men even when told by authorities to stop. That’s because of the irrational fears that are the basis of racism.

Fear: it’s a powerful emotion. It’s one we also share with many other animals. Because fear is found in many other animals, fear is often viewed as being a primal emotion. Some psychologists understand fear as an instinctual part of our fundamental make-up. Others say that it is a learned response. While the ability to experience fear is part of how the brain functions, many of our common social fears are learned. For example, it’s an instinctual response to experience fear when we walk down the street at night and someone jumps out from behind a shrub. But to fear when someone wears a particular item of clothing is a learned response. It’s also not rational.

One of the amazing things about being human is that we have the capacity to examine our emotional states. We are able to gain insight into whether what we feel is appropriate for the situation or not. We also have the capability of changing our emotional state. Unfortunately, the trend in American culture is to just give in to emotions as we experience them. We don’t encourage each other to examine our fears, or anger, or hurt. Instead, we commonly encourage people to just experience them and, implicitly, to act on them. That’s a dangerous thing.

We learn to examine our emotions not in the moment we’re overcome by them but by taking time to think and reflect on our experience at other points of our day. This kind of reflection is part of traditional spiritual practices. Christians have sometimes referred to such reflection as an examination of conscience. Some Buddhists know this reflection as part of logong or “mind training” that’s part of compassion meditation.

As a child of the 1950s, I grew up at a time and in an environment that conveyed very clear messages about racial prejudice. In my youth, I regularly heard the “N-word” used. It wasn’t until I was a teenager that I actually met and spoke to an African-American person. Knowing someone from Asia didn’t happen until I was in college. Because of my background, I had to examine the messages that were present in my environment and the suspicions infused in me in order to come to understand that I was taught fear based in racial prejudice. From the basic spiritual practice called an examination of conscience taught to me in Catholic school as a child, I knew how to intentionally consider my thoughts, words, and actions each day to find ways to overcome my own shortcomings. When I coupled this practice with the foundational belief that all people are created in the image and likeness of God, I learned to face my own fear of and prejudice toward people different from myself. That foundational belief and regular spiritual practice opened me to value, affirm, and trust people in ways that have enriched my life far more than I could have ever imagined.

In words found in the Gospel of Mark (chapter 5, verse 36), Jesus says, “Fear is useless. What is needed is trust.” Those words couldn’t be more true. Fears rooted in racism, sexism, nationalism, and heterosexism are useless. They harm us as individuals and society. What we need is to trust one another, to live together in harmony, and build a better world.

What does that means in practical terms for my current life? While I think I live in a great neighborhood, I’m not naïve. There are real dangers in life. For example, I’m well aware that every few months, a home in our neighborhood is burglarized. I have an alarm system and other security features in my home. (I do not and will not own a gun because guns have one purpose: to kill.) Other neighbors are also concerned about the burglaries that occur. We don’t yet have enough households who have signed on to officially form a “neighborhood watch” based on the criteria from our local police. But we’re working on it. In the meantime, many of us keep watch over each other’s home. We share our schedules and let each other know about our concerns. Rather than living in fear and acting irrationally, we are building trust. Because we know we can work together, we are actively building community to address a real and tangible threat.

While I don’t have the ability to prevent others from allowing fear to rule their lives or stop the spread of racism, sexism, nationalism, or heterosexism in society, I do have the ability to not participate in these irrational emotions and behavior. Instead, drawing on the words of the great U.S. President, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, I can live and work with others that “asserts my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”

© 2013, emerging by Lou Kavar, Ph.D.. All rights reserved.

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6 Responses to Fear Versus Trust

  1. Robyn Lebron says:

    I grew up in the Air Force playing with every kid that was there. I agree that people shouldn’t be treated differently because of their appearance.
    That being said, my understanding of Stand Your Ground Laws is that are meant to be a deterrent against illegal entry into someones home, where their wife and kids are. I DO believe that people have a right to protect themselves or their families if threatened. That is one of the key requirements of this Law…that you are threatened and in fear for your life.

  2. Thanks for sharing Lou. I’m originally from NY but Atlanta is my second home so I’m very aware of the area you refer to. I’ve driven nice cars in my day and have been pulled over for no reason other than someone thought I shouldn’t be driving that type of car. I also own a home in Fairburn GA but currently live in Jacksonville about to purchase my second home. I also have my eyes on my dream home in a neighborhood I would like to purchase in a few years. I can’t even imagine the idea that I could possibly be walking through my own neighborhood one day and have someone approach me who thinks I don’t belong there. Although, I accept the verdict that a jury couldn’t convict Zimmerman beyond a reasonable doubt, I still think it’s a shame that a 17 year old lost his life. I know we can’t write laws to cover everything and when one person is dead the only word that remains is that of the remaining person but guns are simply symbols of death and NOT protection.

  3. Allan Gold says:

    Is there a point to this discussion? Fear was hardwired into us 100,000 years ago when fear signaled us to potential danger such as a large hungry animal like a tiger might be behind the bush that just moved a little. That happens now when we see something or someone who we instinctively feel looks wrong. I agree that we need to be mindful of that fear and determine if our instincts in the situation are incorrect because life now is different than it was 100,000 ago. Humans have always defended their turf. I agree that our culture has become dysfunctional and polarized. And the United States was created in violence and remains a very violent country. I would like it to be different. Unfortunately, wishing humans were different and our culture was different doesn’t get us anywhere. We can each live our lives honorably.

    Dr. Kavar, how is your neighborhood program going to work? How will someone who is on watch deal with a very real situation such as they see a house burglarized, and the burglars have guns? Or you see someone being harassed by two big men who’s faces and skin are covered? Calling 911 is of no use. By the time the police arrive that person will have been beaten up and the “bad people” gone.

    What’s our reality? 90% of African Americans who are murdered are murdered by other African Americans. We have our first African American president. I agree the US has an issue with race relations. If was as bad as you seem to think, would we have elected an African American president? Why does he seem to be more concerned about Trayvon Martin than the hundreds or thousands of African Americans killed in Chicago or New York or Los Angeles by other African Americans?

    I agree we have many problems. As Pogo said, “We have met the enemy and it is us.” I think the first we should do is make every elected official read The Constitution and The Bill of Rights. It would be nice if our government remembered that The Constitution was written in big part to protect the people from an arrogant and self serving government. The next thing we should do is vote every incumbent out of office. We have only one party now; the party of government. And keep voting them out until they start doing the people’s work instead enriching themselves. But we won’t.

    I respect your position on guns. Below is what Thomas Jefferson said about the Second Amendment. “The beauty of the Second Amendment is we won’t need until they want to take it away from us.”

    And I don’t know how anyone can say anything about what the jury decided in the Zimmerman/Martin trial. Lateef, were you there that night? Do you what happened? I don’t. You agreed the jury couldn’t conclude Zimmerman “Beyond reasonable doubt.” Do you not like that a jury must believe someone is guilty of the crime before finding him or her guilty. And maybe the jury even stronger than that about Zimmerman’s innocence. You’re implying that Zimmerman wasn’t acting in self defense but he just couldn’t be convicted. How can you know that. Thinking like that is just as bad as assuming the African American we see across the street is up to no good.

    Yes, we need to trust each other. Its not going to happen as long as people of any race or wealth think they “know what’s right, not the other person.”

    I know that was a little bit of a rant but this really difficult to resolve and in our culture and current times, some realities seem to be “inconvenient” and there can’t be discussed.

  4. Lou says:

    Allan:

    You’ve asked several questions. I’ll address some of them.

    My neighborhood’s watch program functions on the same principles that such programs do nationally. These programs follow guidelines set by the National Sheriff’s Association and the US Department of Justice. When someone sees something, they dial 911 to report what was seen. Note that when George Zimmerman did this, he was told to stand down and not pursue, but he did anyway.

    Second, I am opposed to the “Stand Your Ground” Laws. Research shows that in the jurisdiction with these laws, death by gunshot has increased. They go much further than the traditional concept of self-defense and, as in the case of George Zimmerman, allow people to initiate an altercation and then, when they experience fear, shoot to kill.

    Third, about fear: yes, it is an ancient emotion. But we are different from other animals in that we have the capacity to make decision about how to respond to our emotions. We are not governed by them.

    Clearly, Mr. Gold, we have several points of disagreement. While I welcome comments, it is not my expectation that others do or need to agree with me.

    Lou

  5. Lou says:

    Robyn:

    Thanks for the posting.

    The concept of “stand your ground” is a significant departure from traditional self-dense. With stand your ground, the experience of fear is a determinant to use force rather than actual threat. Also, with stand your ground, one isn’t compelled to get out of the situation as a first course of action.

    The American Bar Association has a working group on Stand Your Ground laws. They have found that in jurisdictions with these laws, the number of deaths by gun has increased since the passing of the law. That is a troubling reality. Many law enforcement groups have advocated to return to the previous standard of self-defense for several reasons including the racial biased way these laws have been enforced.

    Lou

  6. Allan Gold says:

    Disagreeing is fine. We all have different perspectives. I’m not crazy about “Stand Your Ground” laws either. People are allowed to defend themselves. Seems like that’s enough to me. From everything I’ve read and watched, Zimmerman was told by 911 to stay in the car and he should have. He didn’t. Nobody knows what actually happened that night. President Obama’s remarks yesterday I think were very beneficial for the country. People who haven’t walk in an young African American man’s shoes do not understand the world they live in and the not so subtle fear and anxiety they feel in the people around them. And he also said the jury has spoken, its fine to demonstrate but no violence and the Federal Government is not likely to do anything more.

    There’s more to the story that many African American scholars recognize. Regardless of history (which of course can’t be ignored) young African American men commit a disproportionate number of crimes relative to the size of their population. 90% of African American men who are murdered are murdered by African American men. Why aren’t the president and NY Times and NBC talking about that tragedy? Welfare (which I support but needs reform, in my opinion) has had unintended consequences. In 1965, less than 25% of African American babies were born without a father. That number is now over 70%. Our government has made it financially better for women to not be married. So the men fathering those children think they have little responsibility. Have you studied anthropology? What do young males of any race do when they have no responsibility and unfortunately little prospects for the future. This is unacceptable and we need to help change this. The reality is, when people of any race, see a group or even one African American male who looks and walks a certain way, it is rational to feel fear. Maybe that’s an inconvenient truth but until we start acknowledging reality, we can’t change it. And I understand that our collective history has been terrible for African Americans. We can’t change that. And as a society we need to do better.

    Allan

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