The Gift of Fear

April 13, 2017

I love dogs. Anybody who knows me knows that if I am out and about, I sort of have to pet every dog I see. It’s a little ridiculous, but I come from a long line of ridiculous dog lovers and my siblings are the same way. I swear dog hair is in our DNA.

The other day I pulled into a parking spot at the grocery store and there, across from me, sitting in the passenger seat of a pick up truck, was a big lurpy black lab. His owner was standing outside of the truck at the driver’s side. While I love all dogs, I have an affinity for black labs, so I hopped out of the car, and chirped to his owner, “Is your dog friendly? Can I pet him?”

“Sure!” His owner was a youngish guy, maybe mid-20’s. He was tall, and was wearing a baseball cap and sunglasses. He smelled like maybe he had just smoked a cigarette. My plan was to walk to the passenger side window, which was open, and reach in and greet the dog. Instead, the owner opened the driver’s side door and called the dog over. So I walked over to the driver’s side door and stood next to the man as his black lab licked my hands and wiggled happily as I scratched his ears.

I made small talk about his dog, asking how old he was, how big he was, etc, etc. I asked what the dog’s name was, and the owner said, “His name is Buck.”

Then the man moved closer to me and said, “What’s YOUR name?”

I froze. In one sentence, the interaction had gone from friendly dog talk to, well, something else. I was suddenly keenly aware of the dangerous situation I was in—open door of a pick up truck, escape route partially blocked by this man’s body and the car door, and a stranger who was taller and bigger than I, edging closer to me.

I instinctively took a step back, and hesitated telling him my name. But my politeness overrode my instincts, and I said, “Um, it’s Heather.” He smiled and said “Nice to meet you, Heather. I’m John.”

I took another step back, managed a smile, and said, “Yes, um, nice to meet you too. Well, thanks for letting me pet your dog,” and I turned and walked quickly towards the store. As I turned, he said, “I’ll talk to you later!” and again, even though my fear senses were kicking in, even as I could feel him staring at me, even though I was getting super creepy vibes, my politeness overrode all of those things and I threw a friendly, “Yes, talk to you later!” over my shoulder.

The interaction shook me just a little, and I had a difficult time focusing as I shopped. While shopping, I ran into a man I know well from our ward, and we happened to check out at the same time. As he left the store, I had this overwhelming feeling to ask him to wait and walk out with me, just in case John was waiting for me by my car or something. Again, I ignored this feeling. I did, however, check to see if John was still in the parking lot before exiting the store.

Thankfully, he was not, and I breathed a sigh of relief and laughed at myself for being so paranoid. When I got to my car, however, there was a note on the windshield. I immediately knew it was from John, and I dreaded reading it. When I got up the nerve to pluck it from under my wipers, I was again relieved to see that it was only his phone number. He had signed it “John and Buck”. But while it was not overtly threatening, it confirmed my feelings that John was not just making small talk with a fellow dog lover at the door of his car, that he had, in fact, shifted the conversation to something else.

And I was polite to him.

After this interaction, I picked up the book The Gift of Fear. It was a book recommended to me by a man who teaches self defense courses to women, and I felt like I was tired of these kind of incidences that leave me sort of shaken and off kilter. I was looking for something that could help me manage these kinds of situations better, without fear or paranoia.

It’s an interesting book. A little outdated, written in 1997, but the information is solid enough. And one thing that kept coming back to me as I read it was this:

Women don’t have to be polite to strangers who make them nervous.

Women, and I would say especially LDS women, are programmed from an early age to treat others with politeness and kindness. We are taught that our behavior should reflect love and meekness towards all, that we should extend love to people even when they don’t deserve it. I’m not saying these are bad principles, or that we shouldn’t behave with tolerance and love to people we don’t know.

But the author of this book, Gavin de Becker, drove this point home, that while we can be kind to the cashier at Target and the guy behind the deli and the person who checks us into our hotel or tip our waitress generously, when it comes to the strange man who approaches us in ways that make our spider senses tingle, our obligation to be polite must be superseded by our obligation to keep ourselves safe. Which means that we don’t have to toss a friendly, “yes, talk to you later!” to a creepy guy in the grocery parking lot.

“No” is a complete sentence.

We have to teach ourselves to listen to our instincts. The fear is a good thing, because it’s our instincts telling us that something is off, even if we can’t process exactly what it is. Our primitive brains recognize the red flags, even if our higher cortex hasn’t processed them yet. We have to train ourselves to trust what we know. And we have to train our daughters to do this, too.

After my grocery store experience, I picked up my daughter from school, and we spent some time at our neighborhood playground. As we were walking home, a neighbor boy greeted her and waved from his house. She ignored him. Thinking that was unlike my outgoing and gregarious daughter to ignore somebody, I figured she didn’t hear him and I waved back to the child, saying, “Hi there!” and nudged my daughter to do the same. She ignored both of us and kept walking. I bent down to her level and said, “Hey, that kid was trying to say hi. Why didn’t you wave back?” She looked steadfastly at the ground, gritted her teeth, and said, “I don’t like him.”

Surprised, I said, “You don’t? Why not?”

She answered back, almost hissing, “He’s MEAN. He does mean things to me and my friends.”

I found myself saying, “Well, just because you don’t want him as a friend doesn’t mean you can’t be friendly to him. You should always try to be polite.”

She shook her head and kept looking at the ground. “He’s MEAN and I don’t want to talk to him.”

Again I started to tell her that she needs to be nice, and then I stopped. What was I doing? Here I had just had my own experience where I felt forced to be polite to somebody who I felt threatened by, and yet I was perpetuating the same thing with my daughter. She hadn’t yelled at him or said rude things, she had just refused to engage him. I took her hand and instead of reiterating that she treat this boy with politeness, I said, “I’m sorry he’s mean. That doesn’t sound like very much fun.” I vowed to do a better job in allowing my daughter to recognize and listen to those instinctual feelings that tell her when a person is safe to play with and when he’s not, and to trust and allow her to make her own decisions about playmates. Letting her make her own decisions now about who she allows into her life will hopefully train her to make good decisions about those same things later on, when the stakes are higher than a neighborhood game of tag.

So go read the Gift of Fear. Learn to trust that you will know when to be kind, and when to be safe. It could save your life.


  1. Jacqueline Gorbutt

    April 13, 2017

    I guess using hindsight you have taught me it might be better to watch who you are talking to, especially in a situation where you are by yourself and vulnerable. It makes me sad that we have to be so vigilant and cautious, but that is the world we live in. BTW, I am glad the dog was friendly! I have walked by a dog on the sidewalk and had it take a flying leap onto my wrist with the owner watching while I had to literally shake the dog off. Fortunately for me, he got hoodie and not flesh! So not only am I cautious of some people, but I am cautious of dogs in general. You are much braver than I am!

  2. Jeannie

    April 13, 2017

    Great essay, especially for LDS women who are conditioned to defer to men…Love that book! Have read it many many times since 1997…lol. He has a follow up book called Protecting the Gift which is geared toward keeping our children safe. Highly recommend!?

  3. Alice

    April 13, 2017

    I also love The Gift of Fear. I read it 20 years ago when it came out. I wish he would put out an updated version! I think all women should read it. It’s an important book.

  4. M2theH

    April 13, 2017

    I just gave a copy of that book to a coworker who just divorced her abusive ex. I wish she’d read it 4 years ago.

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