Braver/Wiser: A Weekly Message of Courage and Compassion

Be Not Afraid

By Karen G. Johnston

“And I looked around that gate of late and weary ones and I thought, this is the world I want to live in. The shared world.… This can still happen anywhere. Not everything is lost.”
—Naomi Shihab Nye, in “Gate A-4

A few years before this pandemic, I flew to Chicago to visit my mother, who lives in a memory care facility near my brother. Since she takes great pleasure in ice cream, I planned a field trip to a local ice cream shop—an activity I was sure would be a happy one. Instead, she nearly got injured because of something I did.

While my mother was confused and in limbo, I was afraid and ashamed, tears streaming down my face, unsure of how to end her distress. The staff of the facility offered skilled assistance to my mother, getting her safely back into her wheelchair. They offered me only deft compassion, not the terse judgement I feared. Their response reminded me that it’s through our shared interdependence that we are sheltered and saved.

Travelers on an airport escalator, taken from the top looking down.

In one of her poems, Naomi Shihab Nye describes strangers meeting at an airport gate, one very much in distress, the other helping. They discover that they are, and always have been, connected. In the poem, it turns out that all is not lost. In the poem, it turns out that the world is a shared world.

Having just learned this with my mother, I learned it yet again on my way home. As I headed to baggage claim at the airport, I heard a whisper from the stock-still figure at the top of the escalators.

“Tengo miedo.” I’m afraid. She was frozen with fear. Speaking to herself? Speaking to the Universe? I decided she was speaking to me.

Instead of breezing past, I offered what I hoped was a kind smile. In a soothing voice, I said, Está bien.

She looked at me. I asked, Juntos? She nodded. I put out my hand; she placed hers in mind. Then we counted: uno, dos, tres.

Together we stepped onto the moving machine, my new friend clutching my hand the whole way down. Moments later, I prepped her for the stepping off, which we did juntos. She leaned into me, my heart tenderly beating for her.

It’s so easy to get lost in our fears; to feel all alone. It’s true that there are some fears we—you, me, everyone—must face solely on our own. Yet compassion is a choice to not allow all to be lost. Compassionate is affirmation that we live in a shared world—and are better for it.

Prayer

Spirit of Life and Love, let fear be as gentle a teacher as possible. When we are afraid, may we find ourselves in the shared world, where compassion is abundant. May it be as the poet says: all is not lost.