Monday, January 19, 2015

Destroying the present with irrational fears

Fear is such a strange thing.

It can grip virtually all of us in different ways and different settings - and it's truly amazing to note the different ways in which people react to day-to-day situations.

When I worked as a volunteer in Nicaragua, I was amazed by the irrational fears of many North Americans. They didn't trust the local people, because they lived in such poverty, so they would do whatever they could to avoid them on travels around the country.

They would pay $25 to get a 'gringo shuttle', a minibus which was only for foreigners, for a two hour trip to the coast, whereas I had no problems spending €2 to travel the same route on the 'chicken buses' favoured by the locals.

If anything, I found the local buses to be much better fun, watching people haul chickens or bags of cement or half a dozen children on board. They would pass the children around among strangers, because Nicaraguans don't really understand the concept of 'strangers'. Their community spirit reminded me of my Granny's home village in East Galway. And it seemed so alien to the irrational concerns of the American expats.

It helped that I spoke Spanish, but the truth was that interacting with the locals was half the fun during weekends away. If I'd listened to many Americans, and their fears, I would have missed out on such adventures. People had warned of car-jackings or tourists being forced to withdraw cash from ATMs after taking 'collectivo' taxis.

Nicaraguans themselves have a fear of silence. Which is why bus drivers get to install huge sound systems and you can have salsa and reggaeton blaring for the entire journey between two provincial cities. Even 70- and 80-year olds prefer loud music to total silence on their journeys around their land.

I was amazed, too, by the irrational fear many Americans in Central America had of Muslims. I lost count of the amount of North Americans who would ask me how many Muslims there were in my country. Most of them had never been to Ireland and I found it really strange that it was one of the first questions they would ask about my native land.

It seems that, post-9/11, Muslims have become some sort of new enemy. Or we've regressed to the era of the Crusades.

When I told people from Texas or New Mexico that I had been to Egypt a dozen times, and loved the place, they would be shocked at my perceived bravery. They would not believe me when I said it was a very safe country (at the time) or that the locals were lovely people.

People would also be shocked that I had scuba dived over 300 times. Some people simply have an irrational fear of water, others of anything that involves change. I myself was gripped by fear before I went to Central America and all my fears were completely unfounded. Despite travelling alone to many parts of Nicaragua, and staying out late in Granada, I was never robbed or held up at gunpoint.

There seems to be a fear of Muslims gripping the people of Europe now, in the wake of the horrible attack on the Charlie Hebdo staff in Paris.

At the weekend, I heard one old friend say that she "didn't like Muslims" ... as though she meets many of them in her day-to-day life in Galway. She would not rent out an apartment to them, for example, she told me.

Yet blaming all Muslims for the crimes of a tiny group of terrorists is completely irrational, just as it was wrong for the leaders of the world to march in solidarity in Paris while ignoring a horrific attack by extremists which left 2,000 people dead in Nigeria on the same day.

That sent out a terrible signal: that some lives are more important than others. But I guess we have all known that if you contrast the reaction of the western world to 2,200 deaths in Gaza or 2,000 in Nigeria to those of less than 20 in Paris.

When leaders from Egypt (where Al Jazeera journalists are in jail), Israel (which murdered 17 journalists last summer) and Saudi Arabia (where a man has been flogged because of what he wrote in a blog) march in Paris for "freedom of expression", you know there is something terribly wrong.

Muslims are not the enemy, fear of the unknown is.

The reason why the conflict went on for so long in Northern Ireland is because Catholic and Protestant people never mixed at work, school, or in terms of the games they played. It's far easier to hate when you don't know the people living on the other side of the street.

If you go to different schools, play different sports, work in different places, and live on different streets then it's easy to build up irrational fears about the other side.

As for me, the scuba diver who has travelled through so many parts of the world, I still have plenty of fears of my own. I have ridden through Phnom Penh on a motorbike at 4am or walked the back streets of Granada, alone, at 3am. I have done so many of the things foreigners are told not to do in poor countries such as Cambodia or Nicaragua.

And yet I have fears about the future after leaving my job. I have fears about my health after being told I need surgery on my shoulder for a second time, 11 weeks after spending four days in hospital.

Post-redundancy, my life has not gone to plan. It's no fun to have to get a wound dressed every day for almost three months, while wondering where this crazy adventure called life is going to take me next. Sometimes the 'comfort zone' or the safe harbour can be the scariest place of all.

And yet my recent set-backs have taught me a few lessons and maybe given me a real resolution for 2015. It's time to conquer my fears ... or at least take a look at why worries over the future can take away from enjoying life in the here and now.

Life should always be seen as an adventure because, ultimately, none of us knows what's next to come around the corner. Who can really guarantee where they will be 12 months from now?

And yet we can destroy the present with worries and irrational fears.

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