Holding Hands With Strangers

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I don’t know about you, but lately I’ve had an awful lot of days when I’m afraid to get out of bed. The waves of awful things happening in our country and our world just seem to come faster and faster like a hurricane building to Category 5. I’m afraid to check the news—and afraid not to. The other day at the end of savasana, the period of motionless rest at the end of every yoga practice, a period intended to be refreshing, I found my mind racing, and I thought, “I hope something new tragedy hasn’t happened in the world while I was in yoga class.” Fear has become my constant companion. And I know I’m not alone.

I’ve been thinking a lot about fear lately: about the way it distorts our thinking and our actions. I started thumbing back through my journal for the past couple of years, and I found that I had recorded a lot of wise people’s thoughts about fear during that time. One thing I found there were notes on a podcast conversation between writer Elizabeth Gilbert and journalist/theologian Krista Tippett about the creative impulse in the world and the way that fear stifles creativity. Gilbert said “Terrified people make terrible decisions. Terror and fear make you irresponsible. They make you not think very clearly, right? They make you willing to do almost anything to get rid of that awful feeling.”

 I think a lot of us are acting out of fear these days. I won’t get on a political soapbox about where that fear comes from or how to reduce the level of fear in our society. I’ve written before about the challenge of holding on to hope, but lately I’ve been thinking again about how to cope with my terror.

In her book Braving the Wilderness: The Quest for True Belonging and the Courage to Stand Alone, Brene Brown says that one way to combat fear in hard times is to “hold hands with strangers.” Brown says that we need to maintain our “belief in inextricable human connection. That connection, the spirit that flows between us and every other human being in the world, is not something that can be broken. However, our belief in that connection is constantly tested and repeatedly severed.”

She goes on to say, “When our belief that there is something greater than us, something rooted in love and compassion breaks, we are more likely to retreat to our bunkers, to hate from afar, to tolerate bullshit, to dehumanize others. . . .” To fight this urge to hide under the covers, Brown says, we need to reach out to strangers, to participate in collective events—happy or sad--that remind us of the ways we are interconnected.  

She describes some of these collective experiences in her own life: pulling over on the side of a Texas highway alongside other drivers, all crying behind the wheel as they listened to radio reports of the Challenger disaster; attending a fabulous Garth Brooks concert and singing favorite tunes at the top of her lungs with thousands of strangers; sitting in a room with other sobbing mothers from her kids’ school—most of them mere acquaintances—in the wake of the Sandy Hook shooting; singing hymns at the funeral of a friend’s father. Moments like these, Brown reminds us, are holy experiences.

I was thinking about Brown’s insights about the importance of holding hands with strangers a couple of weeks ago when I was literally holding a stranger’s hand in a holy space—my local synagogue. On that Sunday, the day after the terrible massacre at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life Synagogue, the rabbi at our local temple invited the community to join him and clergy from many faith traditions for a candlelight vigil to honor the memory of the victims killed for being Jewish. And the community came. And kept coming. The ushers ran out of printed copies of the order of service. Volunteers scrambled to set up additional chairs, but ultimately there were no chairs left, and people stood in the back and along the sides. For an hour, my husband and I sat with several hundred others--many of them friends and neighbors and many more strangers--and shared our collective sorrow, pain, and yes, fear. And at the end, we held hands and prayed.

And Brown was right; it was a holy experience.

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Every day I have to decide anew whether I am going to give in to fear and retreat to my bunker or whether I’m going to maintain that inextricable connection to my fellow humans. Some days, the urge to hide under the covers is going to win. I hope that more days than not, I’ll reach out and take the hand of a stranger. Because that really does help with the fear.