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  • Palma Joy Strand

Fear, Pill Bugs, and the Possibility of Trust



Fear seems to be everywhere.

“Angry white men” fear becoming economically redundant. Black Americans fear police violence. Women fear sexual assault and marginalization. Immigrants fear being targeted and deported. Scientists and environmentalists – and others – fear climate change. Evangelicals fear changing cultural mores. The LGBTIQ community fears diminished civil rights. Poor people fear getting evicted or getting sick and worry about what will happen to their kids. Well-off people fear that their kids will lose what they have managed to gain for themselves.

Fear has become a familiar way to approach the world, and we slip into it easily.

We fear being hurt. We fear the unknown. We fear the different.

When I am afraid, I find myself being drawn to what I think of as pill-bug mode: curling in on myself with a hard shell guarding me from the outside world to protect the soft and vulnerable me inside.

The problem with the pill-bug maneuver is that when I am all curled up protecting myself, I can’t spare time, energy, or attention for anything or anyone else.

Fear isolates us from the world around us and from other people. When I’m in lockdown pill-bug mode, I am unable to even take a peek at someone else or wonder what’s happening with them – let alone ask how they’re doing.

When I’m afraid, I lose my natural curiosity. Other people become foreign, alien, other. When I other people – for whatever reason – they become a menace, a threat, a danger.

It’s a vicious cycle: fear leads to othering; othering leads to fear.

But let’s be clear: It is a vicious cycle.

It’s vicious because it gets in the way of us figuring out how to be together, how to move forward together.

In his first inaugural address, at the height of the Depression, FDR warned the nation about fear, saying, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”

The most important part of the warning, though, is the why, which often gets left out: “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself – nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror, which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”

“…terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”

When I was a kid I used to poke pill bugs so they would roll up into their armadillo-like little balls. (Did you know that the scientific name for pill bugs is Armadillidiidae?)

Once they were all balled up, you could just nudge them and they would actually roll around.

When I think of people and fear, I envision us as pill bugs, curled up into balls and aimlessly rolling around. It would be amusing if it weren’t so sad.

When we retreat into ourselves, we can only ricochet off each other. We lose our ability to connect and also our ability to chart our own course.

A culture of Civity is a culture of advancing toward rather than retreating from each other, especially when we are different. Each of us can, on a moment-by-moment basis, choose to reach out to another person rather than put up our armor to prevent connection.

Why would we do this? Why would we take the risk?

Because together is the only way to advance. Together doesn’t mean all the same or even all marching in the same direction. Together does mean somehow getting past the fear enough to begin opening ourselves up to the possibility of connection, to the possibility of trust.


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