I was recently on a short road trip and, as I was leaving town, I saw a hitchhiker on my side of the highway. As I slowed down to pass him I noticed the backpack on his shoulder, his sunburned face, and his curly blonde hair poking out from beneath his ball cap. I also realized he was quite young; probably in his early twenties. I watched him in my rear-view mirror as I picked up speed and drove away from him. His resignation was obvious – the stooped shoulders and bowed head – as he began walking along the highway again, waiting for another vehicle to come along so he could again offer himself up for rejection. I wondered how long he’d have to wait until someone actually stopped to offer him a ride and felt a twinge of guilt that, these days, I’d be considered a fool to stop for a hitchhiker.
I remember when I was young, it was common to see hitchhikers everywhere. Heck, my friend and I even hitched a ride once when we were probably around thirteen years old. We wanted to go into town and had no other way to get there, so we stuck out our thumbs. I don’t remember who we ended up catching a ride with, but we made it to our destination, safe and sound, and never gave our method of travel another thought.
Can you imagine a couple of teenage girls hitchhiking now? Was our world that much safer forty years ago? Or were we that much more naive and/or trusting? To realize that something as innocent as a hitchhiker has become yet another thing to fear makes me sad. We’ve become afraid of everything – riding a bike without a helmet, walking to school by ourselves, playing in a playground, swimming in a lake, drinking from a garden hose, getting bit by a mosquito or tick – and when we fear things it makes us feel vulnerable and powerless. When we fear everything we sit in our basement and watch NetFlix or play video games. We disconnect.
Feeling powerless, we lose trust; trust in ourselves, in our judgment, and in anything we don’t fully understand. We go out of our way to avoid these things – like a hitchhiker or that stranger asking for help, or a person who doesn’t look like us – because we don’t want to appear to be afraid or vulnerable. We also revert to the next logical responses of anger and suspicion and we justify those reactions by claiming to be vigilant and careful.
“Better safe than sorry” has taken on a whole new meaning in today’s world where network news, social media, and, even the government, blast out endless stories meant to make us even more fearful. Fear sells and drives ratings up. Fear creates controversy and an emotional response, even if the response is negative. Fear makes us turn on the television or scroll desperately through our Facebook feed to see what new terror we should be watching out for.
Hiding behind fear paralyzes us and prevents us from trusting our own instincts. We can no longer decide for ourselves if we should pick up a hitchhiker or let our kids walk to school because we’ve heard too many horror stories about what happens to “those people” who took a chance. The actual percentages of these bad things happening are surprising low – much less than 1% based on total population – but we’re led to believe that they happen everyday, in every neighbourhood, and we allow fear to determine our actions.
I understand that having bad things happen, even once, is awful and bad things DO happen to even the best people but as our society becomes more cloistered, intolerant, angry, hateful, and miserable, we are witness to a global epidemic of fear that has fooled us into believing we are safer. Are we really? We’re afraid to smile at anyone or make eye contact. We’ve become overprotective of our children. We distrust everyone and, especially those who don’t look or act like us. Eventually, our lives will become devoid of any kind of joy as we spend all of our time looking over our shoulder and around the next corner for the BAD THINGS that must be lurking there.
Gangs and cults are created out of fear. Hitler’s power fed on fear and the atrocities he committed were allowed to happen because of it. What’s happening politically, right now, in the United States (and Canada for that matter) is fueled by fear.
I don’t know about you but I’m so tired of living this way. And yet, I feel as conditioned as everyone else as I blow by a hitchhiker, saying things like, “Who, in their right mind would hitchhike these days?”
I’m trying to take my own small stand against fear by striking up conversations with others who are different from me; the ones in our community who are working two jobs; who are yelled at for not understanding something; who are ridiculed for being “different”. I make eye contact, ask them about their family or how their day is going. I look into their eyes, smile, and thank them for their help and do you know what I’ve discovered? When you smile, they smile back. When you look someone in the eye, you see beyond your fears and see a real person who’s like you in more ways than they are different.
And then next time I see a hitchhiker out on the side of the highway, thumb out, trying to get a few more miles down the road, I may not stop to offer a ride (or maybe I will) but I will remember two young girls who lived before fear was the norm and be thankful for those times.
“The secret to not being afraid is to understand what scares you”
― Deborah Wiles
Mary-Lou Rosengren copyright 2017