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Freedom From Urban Fear Comes From Within Ourselves
by Jeff Rivers, The Hartford Courant

When Colin Ferguson opened fire on a commuter train in suburban New York last week, the carnage he caused seemed to give further credence to those who believe that nobody is safe anywhere anymore.

The stunning and heinous crime, which added to the urgent national debate about ways to stop the violence, made me recall an October conversation. It was with a new friend. Among other things, we talked about being or feeling safe in the ’90s. The friend’s name is Lois, but I called her "the woman in the red sweater" in two previous columns.

A single woman who lives in Hartford, Lois took more chances than I thought she should.

But life is random, she replied. Things happen by chance. After all, hadn’t I taken notice of her for the first time because I happened to see her wearing a red sweatshirt (I had called it a sweater in my previous columns) tied around her neck with the words "Happiness is a Choice" resting

against her back.

"If I had been wearing the sweatshirt (worn normally, the words would have been on the front) you probably wouldn’t have seen the words," she said. And if I hadn’t seen the words, I would not have been intrigued by them and the woman who wore them: We wouldn’t have been talking like old friends about her safety.

Although I conceded that happenstance often intervened in people’s lives – for good or bad – I told her one still should not take silly chances.

Lois said she would not. She also resolved not to allow her life to be fenced in by fear. She would not fear the world. She would go wherever she wanted to go. She intended to be safe inside herself.

Lois’ sentiments prompted me to tell her about another woman who apparently had decided to be safe inside herself. I told Lois that I felt that a woman, who used a wheelchair, had given me permission to go wherever I wanted.

I explained that I’d heard the whirring of the woman’s wheelchair as I walked home from work one night along a deserted path on the campus of the University of California at Berkeley.

I stepped back to let her pass. A chill went through me. She seemed so vulnerable. She powered the wheelchair with a device she blew into. Suppose she tipped over, I thought. Suppose someone tried to harm her. What could she do?

Upon reflection, I realized that the woman in the wheelchair was doing what we all must do.

People who want to truly live have to decide not to allow their lives to be circumscribed by fear.

If the woman in the wheelchair could make her way in the world, so can we all.

After all, I realized at the time, it was just conceit that had led me to believe I was so much less vulnerable than the woman in the wheelchair. I do not own a weapon. I have never taken lessons in self-defense. I am 5 foot 6 and 127 pounds. I can’t even run fast anymore.

But without taking silly chances, I make my-way. I go wherever I want to go. In a John Cheever short story, "The Five-Forty-Eight," a deranged woman aims a gun at the belly of a man who seeks to-take the commuter train to the safety of Shady Hill.

In real life, too many people seem to have their guns aimed at our collective bellies. And no place seems to be Shady Hill. No place seems to be safe. At least that’s how many feel, statistics showing declining crime rates notwithstanding. Ironically, those living in the most secure circumstances are among the most fearful of violent street crimes.

For that reason, they have given up on the cities, the home of our great theaters, restaurants and museums as well as the people they fear would aim guns at their bellies.

For Lois, "Happiness is a Choice," is not a mere slogan. It is a liberating way of life, a way of looking at the world. She learned that way through committing to the teachings of Barry Neil Kaufman, who teaches at the Option Institute and Fellowship in Massachusetts.

I think it is time for us all to start believing that feeling safe can be a choice, a way of looking at the world. Whether we resolve to fight crime by stamping out its root causes, reforming all the criminals or locking all the bad guys up, we can only liberate ourselves from fear from within. A woman in a wheelchair taught me that. She makes her way. She goes wherever she wants to, vulnerable as she may appear. There is no other way for her to live. There is no other way for the rest of us to live, either.

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