Listen To Article
I was raised a space cadet in the 1960s, part of a generation absorbed and obsessed with astronauts and the moon race. I remember being sent to the elementary school cafeteria to watch a grainy, black and white television showing a Saturn rocket powerfully blasting into the heavens with a couple of space cowboys riding in their “tin can” atop it. Mercury, Gemini and Apollo were magical names.
In January, 1967, the unthinkable happened when a fire broke out during training for Apollo 1 and killed three astronauts: Ed White, the first man to walk in space; Gus Grissom, the second American in space (who seemed to have some Jonah-like curse upon him); and Roger B. Chaffee, a local hero from Grand Rapids. I was watching a news program sometime after the fire in which a reporter said that the US would lose the race to the moon because no astronauts would willingly go into the Apollo death trap.
I tossed and turned that night, wondering with all the earnest ignorance of the eight-year-old I was, if NASA would take a kid. I was ready to fly to the moon.
I learned what I already knew recently – alas, I have never had the right stuff. I read the other day that chief among the physical qualifications NASA used to select astronauts was the ability to not experience anxiety. NASA chose men who did not sweat or shake under pressure, who did not have elevated heart or breathing rates when sitting atop a rocket powerful enough to rip through the atmosphere like it was made of Christmas paper.
To put it into more 1960s language, NASA wanted Andy Griffith as Sheriff Taylor, not his nervous sidekick Barney Fife. Sadly, I’ve got more Barney in me than Andy, with a little dopey Floyd the Barber thrown in.
I was thinking of all this watching the World Series. You can see fear on the faces and in the eyes of some players. Others yawn, shrug their shoulders, swivel their necks and perform superhuman feats. On the bench, managers maintain impassive gazes while you know their insides must be doing gymnastic routines. I wonder if the ability to control anxiety is truly the secret of success.
FDR famously said the only thing we have to fear is fear itself during his first inauguration when he was trying to pull America out of the Depression. He dropped that sort of rhetoric when WWII came. The Nazis were scary as hell. Some things should scare us. Anxiety, like pain, is necessary. It is how our bodies are trying to tell us that we are in danger.
Unfortunately, something misfires in the brain circuitry of a lot of us and we get the danger message when we actually aren’t in danger. After all, on most occasions, public speaking really isn’t a matter of life and death. Anxiety centers in a part of the brain called the amygdala, and I’d love to be able to take my amygdala out and look at it sometime. What the heck goes on in there? My conscious self is saying “relax” while my amygdala is blowing retreat and I know I won’t really relax until I’m out of whatever situation I am in. I do not have an obedient amygdala.
All of which reminds me of the guy who was afraid to take his anxiety medication. But I digress…
Anxiety is contagious. It moves from person to person systemically. I’ve noticed that certain places are hubs of anxiety. Airports, for example. The next time you are moving through one of the big airports like Atlanta or O’Hare, take note of what’s going on around you. Notice how many anxious people there are, hustling to get to their gate on time to meet who knows what destiny.
Sports stadiums also fill with anxiety. A few years ago we took a young man from France to his first major league baseball game. As we were heading home he said, “I would like to thank you for taking me to this match. I did not understand what was happening but I could feel the tension.” He was right. There are times when anxiety hangs in the air someplace like humidity in late summer.
Churches become hubs of anxiety, too. Rabbi Edwin Friedman’s book Generation to Generation fully revealed this, showing how family systems issues get transferred into the church and calling on congregational leaders to self-differentiate and develop non-anxious presences. Easier said than done.
I wish I was a master of the non-anxious presence. I’m not. I’m sure it is because of people with temperaments like mine that the command “fear not” is repeated so often in the Bible. That was written for me, and my disobedient amygdala.
Oh, and one last thing. I don’t want to go to the moon anymore. I’d have to get over my fear of heights, enclosed spaces, wide open spaces, space aliens and flying. (And perhaps clowns. I’m not sure there would be clowns involved, but I can’t help but list them when I list my fears. And snakes, too.) The not very exciting truth of my life is that the older I get the more I just want to stay home.