“Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood. Now is the time to understand more, so that we may fear less.”
― Marie Curie (1867-1934)
The hair on the dog’s back ruffled, standing up as if someone had brushed it against the grain. I have a healthy fear of a growling dog, but having seen this happen with my own dog when he was sending a message to a stranger, I knew I needed to let the dog sniff me to see if I passed the safety test. He was trying to understand who I was, and once he was convinced that I wasn’t to be feared we became friends. Whew, was I relieved. Marie Curie’s wisdom was with me that day as it will hopefully continue to remain in my thinking, as I seek to understand and to be understood — with dogs and more importantly with people.
I was born with white skin. I was raised in a family with a mother and a father in my home, had a pretty good mastery of the English language, was a member of a wonderful Lutheran church (I was a Christian), and only felt a taste of exclusion when the group I wanted to play with didn’t want me. I represent many of the people who live near me in that description. Throughout the last several years, I have become much more aware of people not like me — people with light brown skin or dark black skin, people who don’t have a great command of English, who are not necessarily Christian, and people who have known painful exclusion. They are so unlike me that sometimes I have been afraid. It isn’t a fear my parents put in me, so it must be that the society in which I live has somehow created in me a fear of those who are different. Marie Curie’s words need to be plastered everywhere — people don’t need to be feared, they need to be understood.
The truth is that I am often the one who is feared because I’m one more middle-class white woman, and too many people like me have cared for the people not like us, but too few have wanted to be with the people not like us. My whiteness has become very apparent as I’ve pushed back and tried to push through to people who are different than I am.
I realize that I can never know what it feels like to have black skin or brown skin, to be African American or Hispanic, to be Muslim or Jewish, or to be an immigrant any more than other people can know what it feels like to have had some of my experiences, but I can make the effort and take the time to try to understand. So, I’ve been working on it. How? I’ve been honest with friends about what I don’t know, and genuine in my desire to understand. I have thrown fear out the window. When we are afraid, we keep the thing or the person we fear at arm’s length. When we are tired of living in that fear, we can investigate others the way the dog did as he sniffed to see if I were safe, the way I did by giving him that safe space. Neither of us was afraid of the other in the end. Isn’t that how most of us want to live?
Fear is a healthy response when a dog is growling or a person is coming at you with a knife, but living in fear causes damage to our brains and our bodies, and it makes us angry people. I stopped being afraid of people who are different than I am a while ago, but it wasn’t until I began to try to understand them — their struggles and their joys — that I was able to see how easily fear of people who are different than we are can take the fun out of life. Maybe you’ll try to understand someone different than you this week and begin to chip away at the shield of fear that you think is protecting you.