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Commentary: Scared to Death

By Rawlins Gilliland, KERA Commentator

Dallas, TX –

Last fall while walking into the woods, I realized to my horror that just ahead, on a chalkstone mesa, was a huge black snake perched with its mouth open as if ready to strike. Watching from afar for several minutes, it appeared immobile. I decided it was dead. Dead or not, I'm scared of snakes and this one was enormous although undoubtedly harmless. Seeing this snake daily was inevitable if I was going to access my favorite parts of the forest. So I took to putting my hand over my face to shield the sight as I passed.

Out of the corner of my eye I could sense its presence. I dreaded approaching that spot, hoping it had begun to decay and then disappear. But week after week after week, when I peeked, it was still there. Finally I refused to allow that snake to continue affecting my reverie on the trails with my dog. This time I would NOT pull my cap down to obscure that reptile as I approached. No hand placed to block the view. As I resolutely stood my ground and the snake came into focus closer and then close I realized that this was not a snake at all but, rather, a long thick black stick.

And so it is with so many of us about so much. We're scared to death of something that may not be real at all. Showing us that contrary to that loathsome clich , "perception is not fact". We really can't see the forest for the trees. Or the snakes.

I thought about my stepfather Reekes who, in the 1970s, became fearful in the old East Dallas neighborhood he called home his entire life. He felt unsafe as things became more racially diverse. There were people who made him uncomfortable on the streets, looking at him in ways he sensed were threatening. So he fled to an upscale neighborhood; to an imagined safe haven where he was shot dead in his reclining chair. The murder was never solved, but it struck me; Reekes was now dead in his "good" zip code address rather than alive on his original so-called "bad" street where neither he nor his home was ever violated. Proving anew, what is and is not "dangerous" or "safe" is often more perceived than "real".

When I was a kid, I loved climbing trees. Even after I injured myself in a damaging fall, Mother never said never. I was never taught to be afraid. Only self reliant. Today, parents are less likely to let their kids climb trees. Trees are more dangerous today than in 1960! Forget playing in parks. Keep those kids under house arrest because boogey men are everywhere! How much of this is encroaching conjecture by parents determined to shield their children? As I shielded my eyes from something I knew was out there lurking, that menacing big old scary snake. That was never more than a six foot piece of darkened wood.

Rawlins Gilliland is a writer from Dallas.

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