Last Wednesday I headed out early for my 8 AM appointment at the Pain Center. Two blocks from the house, I realize I’d left my phone plugged in at home, and there it would stay, as I didn’t have the time to turn around and get it; I was running late (as usual) and still had to get all the way across town. I kept driving, but I fretted a little. What if my car broke down? What if there were some other emergency? The still-rational part of my brain laughed at my worried little reptile brain and said that neither of those things were very likely to happen; it’s not like my car breaks down every day, or I get into accidents every day. But I found the fact that I worried about it at all more than a little curious.
I was well into my twenties before I got my first cellphone. It was huge, a foot long in a bag with a strap. It was not something you carried with you; it’s something you kept in the car and plugged into the cigarette lighter if you ended up in the ditch. The funny thing is, when I had that phone and was living in Minnesota, I went into the ditch twice. Once in the middle of winter on my way to school. A student saw me bite the dust (or rather, not bite the ice on the road and slide into deep snow), and stopped to pick me up. By the time we got to school, everyone knew. (Upsala was a really, really small town.) I called the tow truck from school and they went and grabbed my car and brought it to the garage to thaw. The other time, I fell asleep at the wheel and ended up in the tall grass, shaken but safe. A tow truck happened to be passing by soon after; the driver saw me go in, and pulled me right out. I barely lost 10 minutes in the process. Neither time did I get a chance to use my emergency cellphone. In fact, the one time I did get stranded, just a couple of years ago, I had my phone, but Scott didn’t pick up his.
The cellphone was supposed to keep me safe, or rescue me if it couldn’t do that. I don’t think anyone doubts the supposed safety benefits of a cellphone, to the point that they’re giving them to children now. And yet, if I really consider my own experience, it hasn’t been that instrumental as a safety device for me.
It’s funny, though, how trained I’ve become, to carry that little bit of plastic and silicon everywhere, and what a security blanket it is. And how vulnerable I felt without it. Cellphones for the non-filthy-rich were originally marketed as safety devices, and the lesson has stuck. And yet, before that, I drove all over the place, and never worried about having access to a phone. The night I was out way too late, and ended up with a flat, my friend Laurie and I rolled (barely) into Kwik Shop parking lot, put a quarter in the pay phone, and called my dad. And if there wasn’t a pay phone, most places would let you use their phone in an emergency. That is to say, we dealt. And I was 18 then; reason (and ego) would dictate that in the waning days of my 39th year, I’ve probably learned a fair amount about coping with emergencies, and would be better equipped (and therefore less fearful) now.
Hold that thought for just a moment while I change gears.
This past Sunday, Scott and I attended the theatah; Scott had gotten us tickets to Sherlock Holmes and the Adventure of the Suicide Club on a lark. When we arrived, we found that my seat was already occupied by an elderly lady. When we told her we had a ticket to that seat, she showed us her ticket, and sure enough, it was for the same seat. So Scott and I spoke to the usher, who went to investigate herself. Turns out, the elderly lady was there on the wrong date; not only that, but she was a week late. So she was turned out of the seat, and they went off to talk to the manager. We felt bad, and hoped they would find a seat for her, though it was already clear from looking around us that she wouldn’t get one as good. The lights went down, and we hoped for the best, but it was out of our hands.
Upon reflection, what struck me most about these two seemingly disparate events was how both of them were evidence of fear and distrust on my part: fear that while emergencies are rare occurrences, that without my phone, I was sure to be vulnerable and fall victim to one; and distrust that the theatre would do right by a little old lady who had the wrong day. If you asked me, I wouldn’t say that I’m a fearful, or particularly distrustful of people; neither would I describe myself as cynical. And yet, my reaction to the above events indicates otherwise.
We live in a world where both of these qualities are cultivated, either to sell us things or to keep us in line by dividing and conquering, and often both simultaneously. Every headline on the TV news is meant to scare us. People pass along specious e-mails endlessly telling us to fear our Saran Wrap and giving us instructions on how to survive a kidnapping, if our water bottles don’t kill us first. We are suspicious that every adult we see wants to steal our stuff, cheat with our partners, or molest our children. We live in a culture of fear, and because we do, I think we get tired of all that worrying sometimes, and become numb and apathetic. The two go hand-in-hand. And I think that permeates our consciousness whether we realize it or not, to our detriment. I was surprised at myself, for the wariness and doubt that had built up in me, to be indulging in irrational fear of something that could happen but probably wouldn’t, and for the evident loss of faith in my fellow human beings. That I would even think, “I’m nervous because I don’t have my phone, and something bad could happen,” or “Of course, they’re going to give that poor lady the boot, because no one gives a damn anymore,” demonstrates a seriously pinched and painful world view. And frankly, that’s not the world view I want to have, especially when I hadn’t realized that I did. Because fear and distrust, on even such minor, mundane levels, if left unexamined, causes us to behave badly and counter to the general good. That’s not who I want to be.
And the thing is, I didn’t end up needing my cellphone for an emergency, just like I didn’t end up needing it for the 100 days before that, or in the week since. And while I guess I totally expect businesses to treat people like crap as standard operating procedure anymore, the fact is, they did find a seat for that lady and she got to enjoy the show. They did the human thing, the kind thing. The world operated just as I would like to expect; and yet the expectations I had were less hopeful, a sure sign that I’ve been, however subtly, brainwashed into believing on some level the same fearful, selfish, faithless bullshit I abhor and rail about regularly.
How very disappointing.
This all tells me that I need to be wary of being wary of everything; that I need to be less vigilant in seeing danger everywhere, and more vigilant about dangerous attitudes that have the potential to close me off from others. I need to remember that assuming the worst often contributes to manifesting it. In short, I need to lighten up. I used to know that; the world is just really good at encouraging me to forget.
So when I went to the hardware store the other morning, and dropped off my purchases in my car before walking two doors down for a bagel, I left my car unlocked, trusting that nothing bad would happen in the next 5 minutes. It didn’t. Again.