I grew up in New York City. I didn’t have much access to the natural world, but when I did find myself in a park or the landscaped environs of the suburbs, I loved it. But I was also scared of the insects and animals I would find. Visiting a cousin who had a huge garden, I was almost immobilized with fear because of the hundreds of bees buzzing all around me. Once, in Central Park, I saw some boys digging up earthworms and those scared me too. On a suburban lawn, a teenager I admired caught a big black shiny cricket and that cricket terrified me. But it was when I went to sleepaway camp in Maine at age nine and discovered that there were bats who flew around inside our bunk at night that I thought I could not possibly bear it.
But each time, my fears were allayed by knowledge. I learned that the bees would not sting me, and I just needed to take care where I walked; that the earthworms were actually amazingly cool, transforming waste into fertile soil; that the crickets were completely harmless and were relatives of the grasshoppers I’d read about in storybooks and loved; and that bats could hear where I was with their sonar and would never choose to fly into me. I also learned that they’d be eating the mosquitoes that would otherwise be likely to suck my blood and leave me itchy at night. And so my fears abated, as they almost always do when we understand.
It’s not surprising we would be afraid of the unknown. Millions of years of evolution have prepared us to fear lots of things that might threaten us, and our fear is a good protector much of the time. But our unexamined fears cause a host of problems. They lead to bigotry and prejudice; insular behaviors and group-think; judgment and assumptions; stagnation and lack of creativity.
Our best corrective to unwarranted fear is curiosity. The more we can approach what is new and potentially frightening with an open and curious mind, the better our chances of learning and understanding rather than judging and assuming. And the greater the possibilities for living harmoniously and sustainably.
Today, try just being curious. Suspend your judgments and assumptions to the greatest degree possible and embrace your capacity to ask questions and learn. See what happens.
Zoe Weil, President, Institute for Humane Education
Author of Most Good, Least Harm, Above All, Be Kind, and The Power and Promise of Humane Education
My TEDxConejo talk: “Solutionaries”
My TEDxDirigo talk: “The World Becomes What You Teach”
Get tickets to the October 13 NYC performance of my 1-woman show: “My Ongoing Problems with Kindness: Confessions of MOGO Girl.”
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