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The Fear of Tsunamis
Daddy, do we ever have tsunamis near us? Uhh…what? I’m putting Jackson, our 6-year-old, to bed, a multi-step process that ends with me lying in bed in the dark, holding his hand until he falls asleep. He can be a bit anxious at night. Given his parents, can’t say I’m surprised, so he usually gets nervous about the dark or the crack in his closet door or heights. We pray every night for good dreams and good thoughts and protection from ghosts and monsters and other things that (in his words) don’t exist. But tsunamis is a new one. We live in Charlotte, North Carolina, so not exactly Kansas, but we’re a couple hundred miles from the Atlantic Ocean.
No, bud, we don’t get tsunamis near us. They mostly happen in the Pacific, where there is a lot of seismic activity, because tsunamis are often caused by underwater earthquakes and mudslides. And besides, we aren’t close to an ocean, so a wave can’t reach us no matter how big it is. Nothing to worry about.
Oh, ok, dad. He rolled over, clutching my hand tight as ever. A few minutes later, he’s still shifting restlessly. I can tell my geological facts aren’t having the intended effect. He turned back, voice quiet and trembling, and asked about tsunamis again.
How does a kid in North Carolina come to be so worried about tsunamis that he can’t sleep? YouTube, probably. I’m sure he watched a video about it. He saw that viral clip of the Fury roller coaster at Carowinds (where we have season passes), and now he never wants to ride a roller coaster again. He loves the beach but will only go so far into the water. Sharks, you know. I’m surprised he hasn’t asked me about black holes or meteors or aliens yet. There are so many things for kids to be scared of today. It used to be that you had to imagine the monsters in the dark. Now you can see them in high definition.
I don’t blame the internet, though. Fear isn’t something that exists out there, in the far off world, if only you can keep it from coming toward you. It’s an intrinsic part of you, a result of your inherent limitations, a response to the unavoidable uncertainty of life. The internet may broaden the shape and variety of our fears, but there are a perfectly infinite amount of things to fear in your own house, perhaps hiding in the closet or lurking under your bed. There’s a reason the dark is so universally terrifying. You can’t see what’s coming, so who knows what horror might be waiting to jump out and smash your whole life to pieces. Happens all the time.
This time when he asked, I didn’t try to explain it again. Instead, I asked him what he would do if a tsunami came. Would you rush out in a boat to save people? Would you surf on it with your boogie board. Imagine you are superhero flying to the rescue. Or imagine if a monster came and you beat it with your karate skills. How would you do it? Kick it in the nuts, I suggested. He thought that was a good plan. He wrapped his blanket around himself and rolled over again. Soon, his breath settled into a quiet purr, his legs stopped rustling the sheets, and his hand went limp around my fingers.
I don’t know if he was able to change his thinking or if my suggestion made the difference. Maybe he was just really tired. I like to think it helped. But I do know that the way to overcome fear is not to run from what is frightening or tell yourself it isn’t true or avoid ever thinking about it. That’s impossible. The fear will move to something else. If it’s not the dark or monsters or ghosts or roller coasters, it will be sickness or your job performance or the budget or the way you came across to that one stranger you talked to in the supermarket. It’s a giant wave coming straight for you, and it will wreck you if you let it. You can’t outrun it or go around it or ignore it. You have to ride it. You might crash, of course, but you might also find you are the kind of person who can weather any storm, and then you will be unbreakable. You might even find it fun, wipeouts and all. Because you can’t get rid of the uncertainty in life, but you can make it an adventure. You can’t avoid fear, but you can become brave.
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