I have here a message from 12-year-old Amy, who wrote me today. The main thrust of her email was this:
“…I’m really scared about what’s happening in the world, can you make me feel any better?”
Well, you’d have to be an ostrich not to know which world events Amy is scared about. In fact, there are too many frightful events to list here.
Not only has this year been fraught with viruses, unemployment, and deadly scenes taking place in Washington D.C., but as I write this, the current year is only 10 days old.
So you have every right to be afraid, Amy; you are a human being. And you’re not alone, either. This morning after reading the newspaper the first thing I did was pour myself a stiff shot of Alka-Seltzer and go back to bed.
But if you ask me, your biggest problem (and mine) is not current events. It’s fear. Which has a lot to do with how we mammals are wired. We have low thresholds for stress.
Take the rhinoceros. This is a powerful animal who can withstand predators, hunters, droughts, and even confinement. But when a rhino sees a vehicle chasing it, do you know what sometimes happens? It drops dead.
We’re talking about one of the oldest surviving species on this planet, a creature which existed alongside sabre-toothed cats. Not to mention that a rhino can weigh upwards of 5,100 pounds and grow 11 feet long. But it’s terrified of a Jeep Wrangler.
Deer are even worse. There are cases of deer getting trapped in wire fences only to die from fright when a farmer tries to free them.
Horses too. I’ve read about horses who died during noisy fireworks displays. The cause of death? A “twisted gut” from fear.
And rabbits. A rabbit can die from cardiac arrest in the presence of loud rock-and-roll music.
Sheep and goats sometimes have heart attacks when helicopters pass overhead.
City zoo employees discovered that loud concerts located too close to the animals can induce heart problems and kill them.
And here’s one more for you: each Fourth of July, U.S. cities have reported losing up to 20 percent of their bird population from stress caused by noisy firecrackers.
We humans aren’t all that different from other living things. Our fear instinct is crippling. Take our basic fear of captivity. Humans are so afraid of restraint that prisons sometimes report sudden cardiac deaths among new inmates. Actually, one of the leading causes of death among the incarcerated IS cardiovascular problems.
Simply put, fear kills.
The bad news is, you can’t just tell rabbits to quit being afraid. And you can’t tell rhinos to chill out. Neither can you undo what you’re feeling now.
So don’t listen to anyone who tells you to “just relax.” We mammals are surprisingly fragile, and we can only take so much.
But I want you to know something important before I go on. And it truly is important, so I hope you pay attention to what I’m about to say. In fact, take a deep breath and read this next sentence very s-l-o-w-l-y:
You are going to be okay.
I’m not just saying that. I actually know this. And here’s how I know: While I was writing this column, I took the liberty of calling some nursing homes around the U.S. at random.
I cold-called 18 facilities in total. From Seattle to Texas. My request was simple: I asked residents if they would offer a 12-year-old girl some soothing words of experience.
I’ll be honest with you, Amy, many of these people mistakenly believed I was a telemarketer, whereupon they insulted my basic personhood and hung up. But I was fortunate to speak with many wisened people on your behalf.
I hope their words make you feel better:
RACHEL (age 92): “Tell your friend not to panic. You know what my dad used to say when he was running crop-dusting planes? He told his new pilots: ‘If you let yourself panic, you’ve already crashed.’ Tell your friend that.”
MARIE (88): “Lord, I would kiss that baby’s face and eat her all up.”
JACK (84): “Used to, when I was afraid, my mama sang to us. Maybe singing will work.”
LORRAINE (89): “Your friend can call me any time, we’ll talk. Any time at all. Except Tuesdays.”
MICHAEL (79): “God does his best work when I get scared.”
JANICE (88): “If she were my granddaughter, I would tell her that I’m not gonna let anything happen to her. Kids need their grandmas to say that.”
SAUL (91): “During the war, my older brother Ernie was stationed in Italy, I was probably as scared as I ever been. Ernie, he’d send postcards tellin’ me that he wasn’t afraid over there, so I shouldn’t be either. Before I’d go to sleep every night, I always prayed for Ernie.”
LILY (90): “When I was little, times were bad, Mom skipped meals so just so we kids could eat lunch… She almost died from malnutrition one time. But she wouldn’t let us be afraid. And we never knew she was.”
MAX (84): “I wish I could take all children into my arms.”
JOHNNY (92): “I’ve been afraid a lot in my life. It’s horrible.”
SARAH (82): “You know how I make myself feel better when I’m feeling bad? My daddy taught me to do good for someone else. Because when I do good, I feel good. Try it.”
BILL (76): “Let me know what advice the other old guys have because, heck, I’m scared too.”
NORMA (87): “Please tell her I’m praying for her.”
MARTHA ANN (90): “You know what I’d tell that angel? I’d sing to her like I sang to my kids when they were feeling bad. I’d sing:
“He’s got the whole world in his hands,
“He’s got the whole world in his hands.
“He’s got the whole world in his hands…”
Well. You know the rest, Amy.