Striving to overcome that ingrained paranoia
Last weekend, The Wife and I spent our weekend at the Rhythm N’ Blooms music festival in Knoxville.
The weather was perfect, and the music was exhilarating — from the greasy funk-soul of The Dynamites blasting across a crowded Market Square to the eclectic one-woman cabaret-pop of My Brightest Diamond at The Square Room to a late-night country-rock set by the firebrands in YARN at Barley’s Taproom to an afternoon and evening beneath blue skies at the Knoxville Botanical Garden.
But while good memories linger, so does a troubling one.
After Friday night’s performance, we walked from Market Square back to the Locust Street garage, where we’d parked. It wasn’t far, and it wasn’t through inner-city streets beset by urban decay. As we stood at the elevator waiting to ride up to the fifth parking level, however, a young man walked up and stood beside us.
“Hello,” he said. “Have ya’ll been out enjoying the First Friday festivities?”
We smiled and nodded, caught off-guard. I gripped my car keys tighter, the hairs on the back of my neck standing up, feeling that familiar “fight-or-flight” response rearing its ugly head. Was this guy drunk? Was he planning on waiting until we all three got onto the elevator to pull a weapon? Did he have nefarious intentions in mind? Was I about to get into the first physical altercation in more than a decade?
We rode to the top of the garage in silence. He waited politely for us to exit the elevator car first and bid us good night, walking off into the shadows.
As it turned out, he was just a friendly guy striking up a conversation with complete strangers. That’s a rare thing these days, and I could only shake my head at my own paranoia. It got me thinking about our culture and how a state of mistrust and fear seems to permeate our day to day lives.
Think about it: When was the last time you went out of your way to do more than say hello or nod to someone you randomly meet and will likely never see again? How often do you go out of your way to offer more than a nod or a simple greeting? When was the last time you pushed against the insular bubble with which you surround yourself?
Maybe it’s because we’re so bombarded with negativity in our daily lives. You can’t turn on the news or read a paper without finding something disturbing that’s happened; random, tragic events seem to surround us, making headlines and turning everyday lives upside down. We read about something like the mass stabbing this week on a college campus in Texas and think, “What is wrong with the world?” We shake our heads, and the next a stranger on the street seems to get a little too close or pays us too much attention, those events leap to the forefront of our minds, and our first instinct is that something bad is about to happen.
And it’s not just limited to interactions with strangers. More than a few people whom I know to be logical and intelligent individuals take that paranoia a step further and apply it to an entire class of people. That’s nothing new; throughout our history, we as Americans have been known to demonstrate xenophobia on a level that only serves to make us ugly. Most recently, such xenophobia has been directed at Islam.
It’s easy to cherry-pick passages from the Q’uran, the Muslim holy book, that seems to justify claims that Islam is not a religion of peace and that Muslims want to subvert and/or kill all non-believers. But you can do the same thing with the Holy Bible, if you so chose. That doesn’t mean that Christianity is a religion of war and barbarism, even though a few select passages can be lifted up to make it appear so. I know a number of good, decent, peace-loving Americans who are Muslim, and none of them fit the stereotype that those who don’t understand the religion want to paint.
So why do they do it? For the same reason I reacted last weekend with paranoia, I suspect: fear. Fear of what we don’t understand, fear of what might happen, fear of something different than what we’re used to. My own thoughts trouble me, and taken as a whole, our collective fear reminds me of a quote from “The Thin Red Line”:
“This great evil. Where does it come from? How’d it steal into the world? What seed, what root did it grow from? Who’s doin’ this? Who’s killin’ us? Robbing us of life and light. Mockin’ us with the sight of what we might’ve known ...”
We can’t know peace or love or understanding or tolerance unless we practice it ourselves. We can’t expect others to reach out with an open hand if we’re not willing to do it ourselves. I took my reaction last weekend as something of a personal challenge: To say hello and inquire about the welfare of one random stranger every day, regardless of the strange looks or paranoid reactions I might receive.
It’s not an easy thing to do. It’s a little uncomfortable, I admit, probably more so on the part of the other person. But I’m making an effort. I’m putting myself out there and spreading a little goodness and kindness in a world that’s become such a cold, hard place. Imagine what could happen if we all gave it a try.
Steve Wildsmith is the Weekend editor for The Daily Times. Contact him at (email@example.com) or at 981-1144.