I walked last night to a 24 hour pharmacy to pick up Tamiflu™ and “lots of fluids.” Good times, for sure. I brought a backpack to fill with Gatorade, by special request of my wife. As I walked to the 24 hour pharmacy, footsteps were approaching me from behind, gaining on me. I tightened my grip on my bag and readied myself for trouble.
I should note, the bag was empty. But still, why should I let a robber get my bag? Without it, how could I carry back all the re-hydration liquids my wife needs? And what if a crime took place after I picked up the medicine? What if someone robbed me of the Tamiflu™? My poor wife!
Then I had this thought:
How many times have I been robbed?
Without revealing the answer, I will tell you my next thought:
How many times have I been afraid I might be robbed?
The answer to the second question is easy: lots.
The answer to my first question? I’ve never been robbed. Not once. The closest I’ve come was the day a junkie in Amsterdam mistook my mini-alarm clock for a wallet, and was too stoned to effect a proper pocket pick. I pushed him over and I think I hurt his feelings more than his person.
My first two questions were followed by a third as those footsteps got closer and a second shadow joined mine on the pavement:
What are my odds of being robbed?
I know the odds are greater than zero. People do get robbed. It happens.
A look at Cambridge crime statistics puts the number at something like 1 in 2,500. Skewing for the fact that I benefit from being a white male, more or less in good shape, walking through Harvard, with its blue emergency police boxes scattered at 20 foot intervals, I’d put the odds on a Tuesday night at 9p.m. around 10,000 to 1. But fear doesn’t understand numbers.
As the footsteps caught and passed me — just some random dude on a phone — I found I was still holding my bag firmly.
Part of my response is the human condition. I want to be ready. I want to be prepared for danger. If someone tries to take my bag I want to stop them. I’ll bet you would too.
Part of my response comes from my overwhelming, sometimes dangerous desire for justice. I think a lot of people feel this. Even if the bag is empty, that person who tries to steal it does not deserve it. Yes, if someone grabbed my empty, I-got-it-for-free-from-an-Alias-Wavefront-conference bag, I would fight them over it. I would fight over an empty bag.
In a choose-your-adventure story my choices would look like this:
You walk to the all-night pharmacy to pick up medicine for your sick wife.
If you decide to clutch your bag, go to page 9
If you decide to chill and just walk without worrying, go to page 9
Page 9 is the same; it describes how no one bothers you on the way to the pharmacy.
You leave the pharmacy. A scrawny young woman with bloodshot eyes and a sallow complexion asks if you have a minute. Behind her, her jumpy boyfriend glares at you, his angry, watery eyes rimmed with red.
If you decide to stop, go to page 12
If you decide to keep walking, go to page 13
Page 12 The scrawny woman asks if you have money for gas while itching at her arm. “I totally ran out of gas,” she says, laughing nervously. Behind her, her boyfriend gives you a hard look that suggests you had better laugh too.
If you decide to laugh and give her a few dollars, go to page 15
If you decide not to laugh or not to give her a few dollars and just get out of there, go to page 14
Page 13 You walk away and listen for footsteps behind you.
If you decide to clutch your bag, go to page 14
If you decide to chill and just let the bag ride your shoulders, go to page 14
Page 14 The Junkies do not follow you. You bring your wife her medicine without incident.
Page 15 The woman says a quick thanks and she and her boyfriend hurry off to get some drugs.
Yeah, things pretty much end up the same way. The odds are just so low. “But,” you say, “Surely there is some scenario where someone tries to rob you?” Of course there is. But the odds are such that if these situations were books, I’d have to read thousands of them before I came to one where I got robbed. Thousands! No one wants to read thousands of boring books about me walking around with mild concerns for my possessions. That’s why no one writes books like that. That’s why no one tells those stories (except, me, right now.)
I went to the pharmacy, bought my wife medicine, and then I came home. The story is a real yawner, so that’s why I have a twist:
This irrational fear which does not understand numbers is the same fear many people have of letting a terrorist into our country, hidden among our refugees and immigrants. Fear does not understand or care that those odds are shockingly low. You’d have to read hundreds of thousands of these books before you found one with a terrorist. You might think, still, it isn’t worth the danger. But the problem is, you don’t realize those hundreds of thousands of other books are really great. Some of those stories are about doctors who come here, to America and save thousands of lives, or scientists who research a safer way to make baby cribs, or health care workers who care for the sick and the elderly in nursing homes. Maybe you don’t want to read that book, but you’ll be glad that story is there when it includes your grandmother, your father or, one day, you.
See, even in boring old everyday life, there is a far, far better chance that you’ve already been helped by an immigrant than robbed by one. You get to choose your own adventure, or choose to live your life in the smaller world of fear. What page do you want to turn to?