I grew up in a small town in the desert of Texas and there were rattlesnakes everywhere. How do I know there were rattlesnakes everywhere? Well, it was the desert in Texas and one does not need a degree in herpetology to know that is the natural habitat for rattlesnakes.
Plus, there was a lot of oral history to support the fact there were rattlesnakes everywhere. I can remember as a kid hearing tales about when they cleared the land for the small airport on the edge of town. The bulldozers unearthed so many rattlesnakes that the snakes were crawling all over the dozers as they moved the dirt. At least that is what a kid in my fourth grade class swore his uncle had told him.
There were also many scary stories about people opening the cupboards in their homes to discover rattlesnakes inside. Talk about a terrifying surprise. I heard that one so many times that I often broke out into a sweat when I went to get a glass out of the cabinet.
The most challenging thing about living in a place with rattlesnakes everywhere was that to get from my house to the convenience store that sold Icees and baseball cards I had to cross an abandoned melon pasture. If you are wondering what kind of town has an abandoned melon pasture right in the middle of it, you have clearly never visited the desert of Texas.
Getting through that pasture to satisfy my addiction to Icees and baseball cards put me in constant peril of meeting one of the ubiquitous rattlesnakes. I tried to run quietly through the weeds and brush, not really knowing how one is supposed to run quietly, but figuring any mode of fast, stealth movement might save me from a deadly rattlesnake strike. It must have worked. In the roughly 10,000 trips I made across that pasture I was never bitten by a snake.
Now that I think about it, in all my years growing up in a place that had rattlesnakes everywhere, I never came across one. Oh, sure, I saw some crossing the highway, but I never saw one in that pasture, or in my cupboard, or even at my dad’s farm. Funny how I spent so much of my childhood being afraid of something that I never even encountered.
In the days surrounding President Obama’s second inauguration the media played old clips of famous inaugural addresses. One of the most noteworthy is FDR’s first inaugural address in 1932 during the Great Depression. It is in that speech that he utters the famous words, “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”
Roosevelt was naming a truth that many of us need reminding of today. Our fears, anxieties and obsessions over what could happen are often the enemy that obstructs and hinders our moving forward. Plus, those fears can cause us to miss the real tragedies taking place as we focus on the possibility there might be a rattlesnake in the cupboard.
The national debate about gun control legislation that has ignited in the aftermath of the mass killing in Newtown, Connecticut has revealed this dynamic. Some of the most strident advocates for unlimited gun ownership feel they must be allowed to arm themselves in an unrestricted fashion so that they may ward off any future attacks from enemies foreign and domestic. Yes, some of these folks anticipate a battle with their own government and they are afraid that without automatic weapons they will be defenseless.
So, the fear of a future, imaginary attack causes these people to advocate for no limits on automatic weapons. In the meantime, we have episode after episode of mass shootings with these very same weapons that are happening right now and are far from imaginary. The fear of what could take place distracts from the reality of what actually is happening and needs immediate attention.
The same picture unfolds when the heterosexual majority names their strange fears that granting marriage equality to LGBTQ citizens will somehow do harm to their own marriages. Setting aside the fact this makes no sense, and has already been shown to be baseless in places where marriage equality is the law of the land, there is the tragic reality of the terrible cost, financial and emotional, paid by same-gender couples who are not allowed to marry. Again, fear about what could happen (in this case nothing) is allowed to distract the debate from the enormous damage already being inflicted on LGBTQ citizens.
Do we really want to shape public policy in this country based on people’s irrational fears, or do we want to make policies that address the real problems right in front of us? After all, if you spend years afraid of the rattlesnakes everywhere, and never come across one, you might realize the problem is not the snakes. The problem is the fear.