Time to stop being afraid for no good reason

Like many kids, I grew up afraid of lots of things.

Maybe I had a longer list than many, but I’m sure they all made sense at the time: Dentists, needles, bees, snakes, putting my head underwater, roller coasters, heights, fastballs thrown anywhere near my head, pimentos stuffed in green olives. I suppose that last one was more a dislike than a fear, but you could always spot my plate at holiday dinners — it was the one with piled-up pimentos that I had carefully picked out of the olives.

The dentist scared me so much I would often go without Novocain because I feared the needle more than the drilling. Proof that not only is fear irrational, it’s stupid. Particularly in my case. I never lost a tooth naturally (some dental condition I never understood), so every baby tooth had to be pulled. The dentist would yank them four at a time, and send me home with the pieces in a plastic box. I’m not sure why, but maybe he thought seeing the teeth would make me less afraid next time. Didn’t work.

Bees scared me so much I was able to outrun my first sting until I was in my 60s. That took a lot of running. The stinger finally stuck on a camping trip when I grabbed a wine glass, not noticing that the bee had established first dibs. I guess it’s the same as trying to take away a beer from someone watching their favorite football team.

I did try overcoming my fear of drowning by taking a kayak class about a decade ago. OK, it was to impress a girlfriend who put kayaking above all else in life, even me. But if I could calm my fear of going underwater and improve the relationship at the same time, it was worth a try.

At the first class, the instructor told us to flip the kayaking and practice getting out of the thing upside down and underwater. Sure, easy for him to say, but it doubled my fear.

I suggested that he teach us instead how NOT to roll the kayak. Then I wouldn’t need to know how to escape. He gave me one of those looks that said: “Are you going to be a problem in class?” I dropped out of the class and the relationship later ended.

When I was young and my full-time pastime was going to the public schoolyard to throw a baseball against a chalk batter’s box on the wall, I could take a shortcut through the grounds of Our Lady Gate of Heaven Catholic school across the street. Except I was afraid of the kids, who looked like they wanted to beat up anyone who didn’t belong, especially some goofy looking Jewish kid with glasses. Chicago was a deeply segregated city in the 1950s and 1960s.

Decades later, I dated a woman (yes, a Catholic) who had grown up in a neighborhood just a few miles from mine in Chicago. We both had heard of the other’s neighborhood, but neither of us had ever been. We knew not to stray into unknown territory.

Over the years, I’ve come to realize that my fears — even the pimentos — were silly, and sometimes mean. Especially my fear of Novocain (love it now), and Catholic students, who probably were only protecting their venerated statues from our baseballs.

Too bad we can’t set aside our suspicions of people who are different from us. There’s far too much politically motivated fear in the world based on religion, ethnicity and race. It’s getting worse, not better, and it hurts everyone.


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