This article first appeared on Positivepsychologynews.com
It was a cold desert night in Muscat. My house helper had just come back into the house after putting out the garbage. She was evidently shaken.
“I saw a maid outside who has run away from her employer. She tried to go to the Embassy, but they asked her to come back tomorrow morning. She is sitting outside near the garbage, scared that the police will catch her.”
I remember my heart racing as I listened to her. There was a flood of emotions, from concern for the poor woman’s safety to empathy for her plight and a surging desire to help. But the action that would naturally follow was dampened by the voice of fear. Who was she? Why had she run away? Would I get into trouble for trying to help?
I looked to Amelia, but she seemed to harbor none of my fears.
“Shall I take a cup of tea to her?” she asked with urgency.
She was showing me the way to my humanity, and I followed her lead. It didn’t take long before Amelia and I had prepared a bag of goodies, along with a warm blanket, and we went out to find the woman.
Making the Connection
I was not prepared for what I saw. For there, in the stillness of the night, sat a lonely figure, shriveled into nothingness, as though wishing to blend in with the garbage cans out on the curb. Her scared little face, her shivering body, and her helplessness called out to me. If I walked back into the safety of my home, I’d be leaving my soul out to rot with the trash.
I brought her inside our garden, gave her a place on the patio lounger, and reassured her that she was safe there. Although she barely spoke English, Ruqaya’s relief was writ large on her face as she shrouded herself with the blanket and settled into the lounger with a deep sigh of contentment.
Fear as a Stimulus for Action
Amelia and I returned to the house, beaming with relief. But as I walked into my room, I could not help but compare the accumulated excesses all around me to the one tattered bag that contained all of Ruqaya’s worldly belongings. I looked at my warm and inviting bed and thought of the shriveled woman outside. Would she be able to sleep out in the cold? What if she were to get hypothermia? What if something terrible were to happen to her out in my garden? It was the voice of fear again, booming loudly in my head. Just as it had tried to stop me from acting a while ago, it was now urging me to do so.
I went to my twins. They were in bed and almost asleep. I told them about Ruqaya, about my wish to bring her into the guest room, and about my dual fear for her safety and for our own. Their concerns were naturally as selfish as mine had earlier been. They had not made the human connection and were spared the inner turmoil. I listened to them, and as I did so, I heard my own negativity bias at play. By calming their fears, I was able to rise above my own to come up with a plan that ensured both safety and compassion.
It is incredible how much goodness we all have within us when we let go of the exaggerated fears for our own safety. Our collective excitement to help a woman in need brought out the love that we perhaps save for a lucky few. We brought her into the guest room and gave her hot food in bed. When she was finished eating, we explained that we’d lock the door from the outside until morning. Ruqaya looked around with wonder-struck eyes. She kept repeating two words that still ring in my ears, “You goot.”
Once out of her room, it was impossible to just go off to bed. We were on a high, too full with emotion and yet too drained to speak. We all teared up, hugged each other, and stayed that way for a long time. I’m not sure what we felt, for there were no words to describe it. Perhaps it was a moment of transcendence. In our compassionate act, we seemed to have moved up together on what Jonathan Haidt has called the third dimension of social cognition, that of divinity. This was a form of positivity resonance as Barbara Fredrickson describes in her book, Love 2.0.
Lesson about Fear
The experience taught me a lesson about fear. It’s not only the dark and wicked emotion that we all wish would be gone because it seems excessive compared to its survival value in the relative safety of the 21st century. Like all emotions, it has an upside, for it possesses a certain goal orientation that urges us to act. When we move beyond our own selfish worlds, fear can give rise to moral emotions such as pro-social anger.
McFarland and colleagues have created a scale called Identification with All Humanity (IWAH) scale. People who score high on this scale are more concerned about global issues. They work to combat world hunger, save our environment, and address human rights violations. The researchers were surprised to find that high scores on the IWAH scale are often associated with high scores on the personality trait of neuroticism, which is characterized by fear, anxiety and negativity. “We cannot hazard a guess,” they write, “as why those who agree with items such as ‘I would feel afraid if I had to travel in bad weather conditions’ and ‘I sometimes can’t help worrying about little things’ identify more strongly than others with all humanity.”
I can see the association between the IWAH and fear. If not for my fear, I may never have taken compassionate action. I may never have experienced that indescribable state of oneness with the world. I may never have witnessed my children’s ability to rise to their own goodness, nor helped them feel it in their hearts. I need to learn to differentiate between fear’s survival value and its more pro-social value that originates in compassion. It may not always be easy in the moment. But suppressing fear altogether would reduce my humanity.
Fear is like the voice of a little child, much like my own that night, often misguided, often overstated, but sometimes, just sometimes, pointing the way to the soul. In those moments, we find meaning in uncovering who we are, and purpose in giving ourselves back to the world. I may be getting carried away (and perhaps that’s the sneaky side of fear), but for now, I’m ready to believe that one night of being truly human is worth the many moments when fear distresses me and even the few when it actually stops me in my tracks.
A little like my children.