The Art of Travel, Part II: The Fear of Fear Itself

Sunshine and I were on the train from Stuttgart, Germany, to Paris, France. She was getting more and more worried with each passing high-speed mile. In fact, she had become quieter and quieter over the course of three days. Every time one of my many relatives at our family reunion asked if she was looking forward to Paris, she was reminded that soon she’d be on her own, living with a family as yet unknown to her, drowning her in worry about how it might pan out.

I was trying to talk her down by asking her to think back to all the other times in her life she was super worried. And how that turned out in the end. I think it helped. I wish I could take the worry away but I also know the worry and then overcoming the hurdle is what makes you stronger in life.

Too often we are tempted to “save” our children. We saved them from crossing the street without looking when they’re young, and so later we save them from feeling uncomfortable or scared. Same thing, we think, but it’s not. It’s rather the opposite.

The more we give our children the opportunity to stumble while they live under our roof, the better they will be prepared for life. There are entire books written about this very topic. My favorite, most recently, was “How to Raise an Adult” by Julie Lythcott-Haims. If you have children, you have to read this book, period. If you’ll never read another parenting book in your life, this is the one you should read. Even if your kids are only 2 years old, perhaps especially then.

My favorite part about How to Raise an Adult is a checklist that tells you all the “experiences” your child should have had at each stage of growing up. Including, and not limited to, having the first fender-bender as a teenager, or even an arrest by the police. Instead of fearing these things, you should welcome the opportunity to check them off your list as an essential part of growing up.

The thing is this: Our children have to learn the lesson FDR so famously tried to instill, that the only thing they “have to fear is fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”

Giving your kids opportunities for their worst fears to come through is perhaps your biggest contribution you can make with your parenting.

We want our children to succeed in life. We don’t want them to be paralyzed by fear. The best way to conquer your fears is for the thing that you fear so much to actually happen. Almost always, the thing happening is less bad than what you feared, and having seen it happen can be somewhat liberating.

As it turns out, Sunshine’s Paris exchange was a mixed bag. The host situation was very weird, more like a cupboard-under-the-stairs-like scenario straight out of Harry Potter than what I had imagined – happy family dinners around a sunny kitchen table where my daughter would speak increasingly fluent French. In reality, her= room was tucked away to the side of a dinky apartment, and she and her roommates received meals on a tray twice a day – meals clearly made on a strict budget to not exhaust the host family compensation too much. It was not a very loving environment. But she gained a lot of independence by exploring the vast city after classes every day, and by having “survived” that which she had feared most.

It’s not only true for our children. Every once in a while we ourselves need to be pulled out of our comfort zone and come face to face with some of our silly fears.

My first night in Paris was one of those occasions. I had brought Sunshine to her host family, or rather her host mother, where in the end I left her sitting on her bed in a big puddle of tears. From there I took the Metro to Place de la Republique. I emerged into a throng of people, loud music blasting from speakers and some kind of demonstration going on. I weaved my way to the side street where, as per instructions, I retrieved the key from a lockbox in the corner of a bar. Then I was off again, this time in search of my apartment.

Finding the house was the first challenge. Of course there was no house number on my building. I finally deduced which one it must be, found the keypad, and was surprised and thrilled in equal measure that it worked. I heaved open the heavy door, walked through a quiet courtyard, and found another door where I had to swipe my key fob. Up the elevator to the 5th floor, more stairs up to another door where the final key also worked and I was in.

Rue de Chateau d’Eau in Paris
Last steps to the 6th floor apartment, starting to look a bit sketchy…
Not sketchy at all: my cozy place in Paris that I wanted to never leave again

First challenge accomplished, but I won’t lie, I was a little bit apprehensive about all the unknowns. What would I do if the key didn’t work? If I could never find the house? Would anybody be there to help? It’s not like I could easily contact anyone. I had to sort of have the apartment’s wifi before I could communicate.  

The bigger challenge turned out to be getting out of the house again, later, when I was hungry and went in search of dinner. Standing like an idiot in front of the closed door to the courtyard, and then in front of the heavy iron door to the street, I realized that I had no idea how to open either one of them. No one had felt the need to leave any instructions.

It’s not that it was a huge problem, as problems go. Sooner or later someone was bound to come out, and that is exactly what happened. I watched how they pressed the hidden-away button I hadn’t seen, and bingo, I was out.

And yet, it was a very uncomfortable 10 minutes. It made me empathize with my kids when they tell me something was very “sketch”, or that it was embarrassing to have to wait around at school waiting for pickup when all the other kids have already left. It’s awkward to be standing around looking out of place. It comes back to the “fear of fear itself.” There is no rational reason to be afraid, and yet we vaguely are. We hate to be the one who doesn’t know how things are done.

The next evening, after exploring Paris and dragging my tired feet from the banks of the Seine back to Rue de Chateau d’Eau, I experienced another moment of panic.

My phone (and thus Google maps) was out of battery. The battery backup pack I had in my backpack was not charged as expected. I had no map! Help!

Thanks to having looked it up on Google Maps many times leading up to my trip, I did remember the address. But which direction to go in? I had not wished for an actual paper map with such fervor in a long time. Back home in America, when in need of a map, I’m always in my car with its phone charger in it. I’m never caught without Google telling me where to go. It’s quite unsettling to be thrown back to the 1980s without good old 1980s technology, in other words a foldable map. Later, in Barcelona, I wised up and carried a paper map with me at all times. You have no idea how many people stopped me on the street and asked where I had bought it. I could have had quite the side business selling paper maps.

The thing is, I was so terrified to be alone on a street in Paris without a clear path back to my place, because I have somehow become alienated from the very easy and obvious solution: Simply asking for directions. Since we’ve become used to having our own (non-judgmental) devices we can ask for help at any hour, we have lost our ability to ask actual people for help.

I was rescued without having to do the unthinkable. I stopped to think for a second and went back to a bus stop I had just passed by. The bus stop had a neighborhood map, and there, lo and behold, was my street, just a few blocks over. Relief flooded over me like a warm and gentle wave. I was saved!

I wonder: How horrible would the alternative have been if I hadn’t found that bus stop?

Well, as it happens, I lived through just that kind of adventure at the tender age of 18. But that will be the topic of another story coming soon.

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