I am weak. I am damaged and ridiculous. I am a coward. I know this because I have been told, in words and gestures, in disdainful expressions, in mocking laughter. Yet I know this to be both a profound truth and a wicked lie. I am broken but intact, messed up but well-adjusted. I am human.
Humanity is a complex thing; it manifests in different ways in each of us. We have outgoing humans and withdrawn humans, confident humans and anxious humans, aggressive humans and soft-hearted humans. It’s pretty cool, actually. What’s not cool is the way we forget what it means to be human in so many of our interactions.
There’s a saying that implores us to be kind to everyone because we don’t know what they’re facing. We’re all in the same boat, waging our private wars, but we pretend otherwise. We’re always talking about how hard it is to trust people. We write books and sing songs about losing trust, breaking trust, earning trust, as if it is a precious gem we carry close to our hearts.
It makes no sense, because every single day we trust people we don’t know with various aspects of our lives. At the bank, at the hospital, in the bus, at the office. We let strangers educate our children, control how we access our money, tend to our cars, computers and other tools, make our food and manage our health, yet we find it so difficult to trust each other with the painful truth we all have in common – the fact that we all fear something.
We can’t tell the people around us when we’re not OK. When we need help, or space, or reciprocity. We can’t tell them because we are afraid they will judge us. Yet it never occurs to us to worry that the chef at the restaurant will poison our food, that the bank teller will run off with our money, or that schoolteachers will kidnap our kids. We are so brave and yet so cowardly. We jump out of helicopters and drive drunk and shove various poisons down our throats. We conquer nature and professional obstacles and people who stand in our way. Physical threats don’t faze us. Psychological threats, on the other hand, are almost too much to bear.
My struggle has always been anxiety. The list of things that trigger it is long and baffling, even to me. Crowds. Big houses. Tunnels. Camping. Immigration offices. Dense vegetation. Giant trees. Open water. Certain kinds of spiders. Sudden schedule changes. Social gatherings involving more than ten people. Public speaking. Horror films. Trailers for horror films. Clowns (Thank you, Stephen King). Swarms of insects. Things that resemble swarms of insects. Bedrooms with more than four corners. Open cupboards. Sinks full of dishes. Meeting new people. Conflict. Borrowing or lending money. Driving, especially at night. Sleeping in a new place.
People respond to my anxiety in the only way they can. When they tell me to toughen up, to be more aggressive, to “stand up for” myself, they’re trying to help. They fling logic at me as if I don’t know that the spider won’t hurt me or the walls aren’t really closing in, and despite their good intentions it only makes me worse. So I don’t tell them. I hide. I lie. I suffer in silence.
And yet we all know what it’s like to be so afraid that we can barely move. We know all too well how our chests contracts until it’s hard to breathe, and our stomachs knot up, and for hours after the panic passes we still feel a little sick. We know how hard it is to keep it together, to cover it up so people won’t think less of us. We know sometimes we have to escape to a quiet place, the bathroom, the parking lot, the space behind the stairs, to perform some trick that calms us down. We take deep breaths or count backwards. We pray, or meditate, or give ourselves a pep talk. We tune out those vibrant, happy, sane people who have it all figured out, and we never stop to wonder who, exactly, those people are and whether they are nothing more than a myth.
We are all broken. We are all weak, and damaged, and ridiculous. We are all cowards. In those moments when we can’t understand someone else’s fear, we should try to remember our own. Remember what it feels like. Remember that we are human, and that ultimately it’s better to feel too much than too little. And when our own fear threatens to overwhelm us, maybe we can remember the fear of others. Remember that they are just as insecure. That maybe they don’t know how to help us. That they are doing the best they can.
We can try to understand – ourselves and each other. We can say what we feel rather than what we think people want to hear. We can ask people what they need instead of telling them what we want to offer. We can be open. We can do, in our intimate conversations and everyday relationships, what we do so easily in banks, restaurants and car-washes. We can make trust our default setting. We can give each other the benefit of the doubt.
We can be brave.