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For the week of June 5 - 11, 2002

  Opinion Columns

Being terrified: 
How to cope

Commentary by JoELLEN COLLINS


Reading the Sunday, May 26, edition of the New York Times terrified me. Not only was there the extensive coverage of the experiences of those trapped in the Twin Towers above the points of impact on Sept. 11, but the Magazine section also featured a cover story on the likelihood of a nuclear terrorist attack with the question "How Scared Should we Be?"

My response is that I am indeed frightened about the possibilities for devastation in this country in a way I have never been before. My problem, and that of so many of us, is how we deal with our fears. Some might say that Americans have merely lost their innocence, that we are finally experiencing what others in less affluent, protected and powerful countries have long lived with. Some would say that we are joining the real world at last. This world is one of historical inhumanity and violence. My response is that thinking and caring people have never delighted in horrible and deadly events anywhere in the world.

Also, I might note that my generation did experience fear in the early days of the Cold War, when students were taught how to dive under desks in the event of a nuclear attack. My neighbor two doors down built a bomb shelter, the subject of much concern on our street. Our nightly games of Kick the Can and Hide and Go Seek were interspersed with surreptitious visits to the rear of his fenced yard in order to note the progress of the big hole in the ground. I still recall the nightmares I had of my mother melting against the doorway of our small tract house in Burbank, California. I had read descriptions of silhouettes of the Hiroshima dead burned into concrete. Those images of nuclear holocaust pervaded even my Eisenhower-era youth of supposed beneficence.

When I was a brand-new teacher at Santa Monica High School, I remember the day we all went home early so we could gather together with family to await possible Soviet nuclear missile attacks from Cuba. I also recall the day I was at an assembly at the high school when we were told that President Kennedy had been killed. The later deaths of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, while not of the scope of the number of deaths on Sept. 11, nonetheless signaled a society we feared was out of control. We experienced those events and the Vietnam War with a shaky sense of the security of the foundations of our country.

So here I am today, an adult who has witnessed many cycles of world tension, this time heightened by the proximity of the latest cataclysmic attack. Even in sequestered Idaho, I bet most of us know of someone killed or wounded or miraculously absent from work that morning in New York. So, what do I tell the 30-year-old who confided in me recently that nothing really matters anyway because the world is soon to end?

I have no easy answers. I know only the ways I have learned to deal with fear and rejections and the collapse of dreams. One is that somehow I maintain hope. The cockeyed optimist still lurks beneath a little more brittle exterior. I have seen too many recoveries, witnessed too many examples of human kindness and generosity, and have read too many inspirational words of poetry and prose to give up. I still firmly believe that good can triumph over evil. It may be tougher now, but I have to keep that conviction. Otherwise, my days on this earth would be more colored by despair and cynicism than I could stand. I have to find promise each day.

Also, I try in my own small corner of the world to do the best I can to be a positive and creative force, to find meaning in my life. Maybe I shouldn't read newspapers or magazines so I could shelter myself from the gruesome truths out there, but as I read about the horrible I also read of the beautiful. While knowledge of the devastation around me is frustrating because there is little I can do to correct it, I do know that I can contribute to the life of my community. Maybe if I don't engage in bigoted jokes or cruel gossip, I can alter the negative experience of someone else, at least for that moment.

Then, there is love. In my lexicon, this translates to giving and receiving affection. When I lived in Italy this past winter what I missed in the brilliant but isolated countryside was the physical presence of those I love. Upon returning to Idaho, I substituted at a pre school and reveled in the sweet touch of toddlers and the grandmotherly emotions they inspired. I need every day to hug a friend, pet my dogs, hold someone's hand. My trip away reinforced that self-awareness.

In the poem, "Dover Beach," Matthew Arnold puts this eternal conflict between fear and faith in context. "Ah, love," he says. "Let us be true to one another. For the world hath really neither certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain; and we are here as on a darkling plain swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight, where ignorant armies clash by night."

We can at least be true to one another.

 


The Idaho Mountain Express is distributed free to residents and guests throughout the Sun Valley, Idaho resort area community. Subscribers to the Idaho Mountain Express will read these stories and others in this week's issue.