In the fall of 1989, I had just begun my freshman year at New York University. I lived on Union Square – it would be the only year I lived in Manhattan before I gave it up for the relative tranquility of Brooklyn. There was a march on Washington that fall, probably in October or November – probably about abortion. Some NYU organization was chartering busses to transport students to the march for a reasonable price, and so I agreed to do it with my brand new friend, Claudia. We were to meet in Washington Square, which sits about a mile directly south of Union Square.
I left my dorm room that morning in 5 a.m. darkness. As I walked down University Place toward Washington Square, I remember being surprised at how empty, quiet, and still the city could be. As I looked down the length of the street, I could see that there was only one open business all the way down, and I absently wondered what it was. I was the only person on University Place that morning. Until I wasn’t. Out of nowhere, it seemed, there were sudden male voices speaking Spanish behind me. I didn’t know Spanish then, so I had no idea what they were saying. I glanced behind me and there were three men walking and talking to one another in a way that made me worry for my safety. They were all tall, handsome, well-dressed. I picked up my pace and tried to gauge how far I was from that one open store spilling light onto the street like a promise.
No sooner had I locked my eyes on that beacon of light than the three men were walking alongside me. They smiled before they grabbed me and whisked me into – of all places – the doorway of an NYU building. Three men, one skinny girl, not another soul in sight. If it hasn’t happened to you, you might be surprised how quickly you can reconcile yourself to death. All I really remember is their soothing voices; they caressed me with their words, but their hands were all business, working efficiently to check pockets, etc. It was probably all of 30 seconds before they left me there, shaken and minus my backpack, but unharmed. After having reconciled myself to death, I called out to their retreating backs that there was nothing in my backpack that they would want. That quickly, my concern turned not to my possessions, per se, but to my ability to continue on with the day as planned. As I stood on the sidewalk, still dumbstruck and not sure which way to turn, there was a loud whistle from the end of the block. I looked up and saw one of my assailants holding my backpack aloft. Once he had my attention, he slowly lowered it to the sidewalk, and then ran down a side street.
All in all, if one must be mugged, I recommend these guys. Aside from being gentle, they only got $16, not having found the twenty that was folded small in the very bottom of my back pocket – and I did indeed go on with my day as planned – though I talked about it all the way to D.C. with a cracking, shaky voice. This experience forced me, perhaps for the first time, to consciously contemplate how to live. For me, the decision was easy but not one that I made lightly: I would not live in fear. I fine-tuned my awareness of my surroundings, and developed other habits that increased the likelihood of my survival, but performed them rotely, without the impact of emotion behind them. I never once in thirteen years of residing in New York City made a decision based on fear or paranoia. There was nowhere I wouldn’t go, nothing I wouldn’t do, nobody I wouldn’t associate with. Well, there were, but it was never due to fear.
After that autumn day, I never dwelled upon the mugging again – only talking about it in the telling of the story, something that happened once. Nor did I talk to anyone about the decision I made about how to live. It didn’t seem like a special thing to me, just what most anyone would do. It may be because I was young or because I hung out with a particularly bold crowd, but in spite of living in what many consider to be a dangerous city, I have no memory of anybody I knew living in fear, arranging their lives according to remote possibilities. Almost twenty years later, something has changed. I’ve taken a number of measures over the years to put more buffer between myself and fear/anxiety-inducing stimuli. Has this just produced such a contrast between me and other people that they seem over-the-top in their preoccupations? Is it only a matter of perspective? Have I instituted these measures in response to a growing fearfulness and paranoia in our culture? Am I just more observant now, and so now I notice it more?
I’ve noticed lately that I can’t have a conversation with my mother without hearing about how we must be vigilant against some potential tragedy or other: break-ins, head injuries, identity theft. In the chatter before class begins, I overhear my students sharing tips on how to avoid stolen ipods, cell phones, boyfriends. From reading their papers, I know that many dwell upon the likelihood of much more violent crimes. These are nineteen year olds. After my sister and her doctors had eradicated every last sign of cancer from her body by way of radical surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation, she was convinced to pump another years’ worth of experimental poisons into her body for fear of the cancer’s return. Safety instruction for children doesn’t end at learning to look both ways before crossing, but segue into lessons on how to avoid and fend off their would-be abductors. Some women I’ve observed practice a variation on the following routine when washing their hands in public restrooms: count to sixty while soaping up, follow with Purell, open the bathroom door with a paper towel. It seems to me that (suddenly?) every nook and cranny of our culture encourages us to be fearful and vigilant about something. Not long ago, I witnessed someone purchase insurance (!) for a $50 clock radio in line at Best Buy. Since I bought my new laptop, I have been consistently battling (and removing when I’m lucky) myriad so-called security measures that were pre-installed on it.
Among the measures I’ve implemented to shield myself from what I consider to be crippling fear and paranoia is to not watch, read, or listen to the news. It started as a temporary measure when I quit smoking. Somebody recommended that I go on a “news fast” in order to lower my anxiety levels while I was quitting. I went all the way: I had the cable cut off, dropped my internet service, avoided magazines and newspapers of all kinds, even stopped listening to NPR in the car. My life changed when I did that. I was – get this – happy. I had just ended a relationship, I had just quit smoking, I had given up what most people consider to be essential entertainment & distraction. I spent virtually all my time in solitude, reading, listening to music, writing, making cd’s for friends, having “conversations” with my father who had recently died, writing letters that would never be sent to the woman from whom I had recently parted. When I say happy, I don’t mean jumping up and down with joy. I mean whole, complete, no interference, just me being/discovering/creating who I am – organic, feeling, sensing, alive.
Things aren’t quite so extreme anymore. I now have the $10 cable package, and sometimes I’ll glance at a headline or stay on NPR even when they start in on the economic crisis or whatnot. And of course, I’ve re-entered society, and when one does that, some things can’t be avoided. But still. Right now, right this minute, I can’t imagine how many things you know that I do not. You can’t imagine how much lighter I feel because of it. Because of it, I feel immune to the hyper-vigilant habits of our culture. I’m not afraid of germs, for example. I only lock my car door if I have something valuable in it. I’ve never invested in an alarm of any kind, or purchased extra insurance. I don’t tend to think anybody’s paying attention to my habits. I’ve been known to run down to the store without taking my keys with me. I trust that the few internet sites I buy from are reasonably secure. I’m much more likely to lose or break my valuables than have them stolen. Yes, mishaps occur here and there, but it seems like they do way less frequently than when I was getting my daily dose of rapes, murders, natural disasters, terrorist arrests, war casualties, ATM scams, dire predictions, and reports on every minute fluctuation of the stock market.
Something else started, too, when I quit smoking. My sister had given me a self-hypnosis CD to listen to. I found that this was one of the most potent tools I employed in my struggle to quit. The CD knocked me out almost immediately every night. Nevertheless, I knew that those words were penetrating every fiber of my being, lodging in me, nudging me, helping me. I felt it. I knew it without knowing how to explain that I knew it. Of course, I’ve always been language and word-oriented, but I think the power of words on each of us language-bound beings goes far beyond which of the multiple intelligences are dominant in us. Who we are, how we feel about ourselves, how we relate to the world are all largely shaped by words. In the course of an average day, imagine the staggering number of words we absorb either by hearing, reading, or thinking. Even without the news, I found myself last year feeling assaulted by the torrent of other people’s words. Over time, I started taking even more control over what/whose words made it in. I was more aware of what I read voluntarily, I started listening to mostly instrumental music on the car radio, and being pickier about the people with whom I engaged in conversation.
Of course, some measure of anxiety comes with being a human engaged in modern life, and in the end I’ve probably taken the measures I have because I’m more prone to it rather than less. It bothers me tremendously that our culture is set up in such a way that I feel the need to inoculate myself from its effects. What drives our public life is media and the economy, and what drives the media and the economy is fear; every time we turn around, we can hear about something new against which we must struggle. Never fear, though, there is a product to take care of it, whether it’s acne or aging, terrorism or job security. What’s funny, though, is that there’s also a glut of products to numb us to our fears: alcohol, cigarettes, and junk food among other things – and these are probably the very things that can do us the most damage in real terms. It is this seemingly endless cycle of fear and consumption that I am trying to step out of. Gosh, many people I know are so caught up in fearing and buying and struggling that they don’t have a clue about living. A good number of people I’ve known in my life don’t even have a clue who they are, or even what they like or don’t like, if the mass media has yet to supply them with a relevant platitude.
Ironically, I recently had someone point to my adaptations, and call them – well, paranoid. Of course, I was aghast. I questioned for a while whether, after all my struggles against it, I might not be just another paranoid American. Shockingly, I’ve come to the conclusion that it is not so, for to be paranoid is to entertain irrational fear. My fine-tuning, I argue, is not a response to fear, but a shot at reconciling my thoreauvian fantasies with my desire for sociability and certain modern conveniences, an attempt to distinguish between what is me and what are the trappings enforced upon me by society – a genuine effort to hear my own voice over the din. And that, for me, is worth whatever “sacrifice” it requires.