A Teachable Moment in a Climate of Fear

If I portray the days of my youth as somehow different and better, more free and more open than these, I suspect I’ll be blamed for both selective memory and maudlin sentimentalism.

But I have just returned from a visit to my boyhood home of Birmingham, Alabama, and can’t shake this sense of sadness and loss, convinced that city life where I grew up was, once upon a time, slower paced, friendlier, and far, far safer than today.

In conversation with a librarian near my mother’s home, I mentioned the Leave No Child Inside author and his book about which I’ve written here recently. From that, the talk moved to how much I used to enjoy the vacant lot in our neighborhood of Crestwood where my playmates and I made forts, became cowboys and Indians, and watched the stars come out as we gathered outdoors past dark on balmy Alabama summer nights.

The volunteer in the library told her own memories of dances in downtown, after which she’d walk home with her friends three miles to Ensley, west of town. Nobody in their right mind would think of taking such a risk these days, she said sadly. Risk? Just walking home? Why are we so often oppressed by the threat of imminent danger in places once so safe?

I tried to remember: what did our parents fear for their children in those days? What were we warned of?

To look both ways; to avoid petting dogs we didn’t know; and to not take candy from strangers. In all my childhood years I never knew of anyone from my schools that was abducted; or offered drugs; or killed by a drive-by shooter.

We live in a pervasive and escalating climate of fear. Global warming (a real enough threat, I’m convinced) has for the moment replaced the mushroom cloud looming overhead, while down on the ground, a terrorist lurks in every stranger to our shores and violence broods in our games, our music, and our streets. Colleges become killing fields.

And even though the waters here are murky with philosophical, psychosocial and moral-ethical complexity, we must ask: WHY? What lesser value have we come to place on the worth of human life; or what have we forgotten about the sanctity of the human soul once held almost universally true, so that today, death and violence of man against man is so horribly common in pop culture, entertainment and games, and the streets of home?

Finding the answers won’t be easy, but the questions about our fears are bubbling to the surface in our conversations since April 16. Perhaps this will be for us a teachable moment and from the very bad, some good might come.

In this time of immense sorrow and sadness, maybe we will question the role of parental permissiveness and presence in our homes for our children, and re-examine mothers’ and fathers’ examples in shaping their children’s play, their conversation, their judgment and respect for others. Play nice. Share. Don’t call names. Don’t hit back.

Perhaps this adversity will remind us how we were taught as children to take the measure of the stranger or the newcomer not by the sum of his material possessions or nationality but by the belief that he or she is endowed with inalienable rights and worthy by their very existence as human souls-bleeding, loving and hoping just like us. Trust so easily lost can be regained. It must.

Shakespeare referred to man as the “paragon of animals.” And yet, the story of our noble species even during my short part of the drama has slipped a step back towards Darwin’s brutish “nature red in tooth and claw”.

The goods of industry and commerce, with the dominant traits of competition, cold efficiency and survival of the fittest, overshadow the goods of cooperation, trust and unmerited favor. But we are not merely animals driven solely by fear or by our lesser instincts for self-preservation and pleasure and freedom from want at any cost.

If anything positive is to come from the terrible events of the past weeks, then it may be in the fact that we all come back to these difficult and complex questions about the roots of human dignity, destiny and purpose.

What is our story all about? What can we do in our communities and county to swim against the current of hatred, violence, greed and fear? How can we grow together for good and reclaim our hope for peace on Earth, good will toward men?

This essay published 3 May 2007 in Road Less Traveled in the Floyd Press.

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Fred First holds masters degrees in Vertebrate Zoology and physical therapy, and has been a biology teacher and physical therapist by profession. He moved to southwest Virginia in 1975 and to Floyd County in 1997. He maintains a daily photo-blog, broadcasts essays on the Roanoke NPR station, and contributes regular columns for the Floyd Press and Roanoke's Star Sentinel. His two non-fiction books, Slow Road Home and his recent What We Hold in Our Hands, celebrate the riches that we possess in our families and communities, our natural bounty, social capital and Appalachian cultures old and new. He has served on the Jacksonville Center Board of Directors and is newly active in the Sustain Floyd organization. He lives in northeastern Floyd County on the headwaters of the Roanoke River.

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  1. Fred,

    An amazing, a wonderful post. One that touches me to the quick, as I am a mother of two young boys who shall inherit this place.

    I was reading Beverly Cleary’s Henry Huggins series aloud to my boys and became choked up at the simple,. freewheeling life Henry led, wandering over the streets of Portland, limited only by how far he could go on his bike.

    The word that is part of the answer to all this is found in your last paragraph– community. Somewhere along the way we lost the sense of who our neighbor is, and our definition shrank and shrank.

    Connectedness and grace– if there is anything I try to convey to my boys– this is it. We are all connected, and we need each other.

  2. Damn Fred, I knew you could write, but…You really can write! This hit home (personally) and was not expected when I opened FFF this morning.

    Do you remember when the change began? The town I grew up in had a population of about 100,000 when I was coming of age. And we had Houston as a playground to boot during the late 60’s and early 70’s. I don’t remember being worried about much of anything other than being hassled by the cops because we had long hair in a redneck society. We walked half the night away many times just for the pleasure of moving, and the nights were the only time it was cool (we are talking temperature here).

    I don’t remember why or when it changed, but I raised the first two of my children in the same house and neighborhood I grew up in, and I wouldn’t think of letting them play out without keeping a close eye on them. I know I had the run of my block once I was 6 or 7…No questions, no problems. And by the time I was 10 we played over what was probably a square mile of suburbia. What’s happened?

  3. To be a bit of a pessimist, I see future problems as being worse. Today’s kids may reminisce about not wearing flu masks in schools. Or new-fangled food-based segregation in cafeterias with separate ventilation systems due to new types of food allergies.

    Implanted GPS chips in your kids and real-time sexual offender tracking lead to Blackberry proximity alerts. Searchable databases reveal that a predator was within 10 feet of your child three weeks ago. What do you do?