An Exploration of Fear

Photo by Tim Marshall

On Tuesdays, I do four scary things before 4 p.m. First, I balance on a bike and cycle through the streets of Palo Alto onto Stanford’s campus. I sing in front of a voice teacher and vocalists. I play piano to a room full of pianists. In the afternoon, I take a class in computational journalism and ask Google “what is machine learning?” and “what is an API?” while my classmates — undergraduate computer scientists — write acronyms on a chalk board.

My time at Stanford University as a John S. Knight Journalism Fellow is an exploration of fear. The way it feels, the way it spreads. This idea, to poke at fear, was borne out of the consternation I felt when I was a reporter at The Dallas Morning News covering the Ebola epidemic that raged from 2014 to 2016. I watched as rumors and fear about Ebola spread faster than the virus.

Before I became a journalist, I worked as a disease detective in the Epidemic Intelligence Service. I chased outbreaks, traced their paths and tried to stop them. As a journalist, I learned that fear was contagious. Fear fueled the Ebola epidemic. I want to learn how journalism can stop or slow the spread of fear and keep people safe during a public health crisis.

This requires wading into my own fears. Some weekends I face seven-foot waves in the Pacific Ocean and grip my surfboard until my wet fingers turn numb. I write short stories while my hair is dripping sea water and my scalp laced with salt. I imagine life as a fiction writer, documentary filmmaker, CEO of a Silicon Valley start up, Middle East correspondent, community organizer, provost, musician.

In my first weeks as a John S. Knight Journalism Fellow, I’ve imagined ten different lives, embraced half a dozen things I couldn’t do — or thought I couldn’t do — and realized new fears.

Fear of not trying.

Fear of not knowing all I’m capable of being.

Fear of not reaching my potential.

Fear of never finding the thing I love most.

Fear of not excelling.

Fear of not being able to do it all.

Fear of making the wrong choice.

The Fellowship has given me permission, and at times explicit instructions, to be unsure. To improvise. To learn Arabic. To ask uncomfortable questions. It’s made playing the piano and singing and coding and cycling and surfing a part of my routine. It’s made me question what I want to do with my life, which direction I should travel next.

I learned to ride a bike when I was twenty-seven. By that time, I could diagnose TB meningitis, insert a six-inch needle into a feverish man’s spine, drain purulent fluid out of congested lungs and bellies. But I couldn’t balance on two wheels.

I veered off the smooth path in east London’s Victoria Park one Saturday and lurched onto wet grass. A three-year-old had zoomed past me, her training wheels proudly inched up by a parent, so that she was balancing perfectly, independently, on her shiny pink and white bike.

I cursed at the cycling instructor for not giving me a heads up about the speeding toddler. I cursed at my grey, adult training bike, its wheels sinking into the mud.

“Mum, why didn’t you teach me to ride a bike when I was a child?”

“Two jobs, a divorce, a degree.”

At medical school, riding a bike between lectures stunk of privilege — another privilege I didn’t possess. I resisted the pressure to look like a Cambridge student, to swing my academic gown over my shoulders and cycle to formal hall where dinners were served to eighteen-year-olds with sherry and port. I walked from the dissecting room to the physiology lab. I even walked to my training ground, Addenbrooke’s hospital, almost three miles from where I lived.

I signed up for adult cycling classes after medical school only because I wanted to ride a Harley Davidson. At the motorcycle exam, I had aced the written test but failed the practical. I lost balance, skidded the bike and twice landed on my side with a three-hundred-pound hulk of metal on my hip. It was time to master a bicycle.

My first day riding a bike, slowly, through the streets of Palo Alto and onto Stanford’s campus, I cycled past the fanciest strip mall I have ever seen. I cycled, slowly, past a shop selling seventy dollar candles. I cycled, slowly, through a cove of pine trees and sequoias and saw a chipmunk staring back at me. I walked my bike across three crossings. I cycled carefully past the university’s concert hall, past another journalism fellow who was sitting on a bench between pomegranate bushes reading her book. I resisted the urge to yell, “Jennifer! I’m riding a bike!”

My second day riding a bike to Stanford I tried to loosen my grip on the handlebars a little. I tried to relax my shoulders. I let myself pedal a little harder, to feel the rush of pine-scented air on my face.

My fourth day riding a bike, I came crashing down a hill and landed knees first on concrete. Spokes spun near my face. I rubbed my legs and cursed the pedestrian who was ambling along the bike path like she had been day-drinking. I got back on the bike and cycled home. Fear of falling had been worse than the fall.

That weekend at Half Moon Bay, I stood in the icy sea and watched a seven-foot wave approach me. I wasn’t ready. My lungs spasmed. I couldn’t inhale. “Is this what my patients feel when they are having an asthma attack?”

My surfing instructor called to me: “Breathe and dive. Dive! SEEMA, DIVE!”

I was frozen. Paralyzed by fear of the wave. The Pacific crashed on top of me, held my body under water long enough for me to feel jets of bitter salt hit the back of my throat. I was drowning in my fear.

When I summoned the courage to dive into the next seven-foot wave, I found peace beneath its surface. The water was murky but quiet. The turbulence was happening in another place, far above my head. When I emerged from the whitewash, the sea was carrying me towards the beach.

It is Tuesday morning, the eighth week of winter quarter, and I am cycling through Palo Alto while conjugating Arabic verbs out loud. I work. You work. He works. She works. I live. You live. He lives. She lives. I am singing a Lebanese song. I am messing up the possessive pronouns.

I am cycling and not thinking about cycling. I am tucking a curl behind my ear and not thinking about the handlebars. I am pedaling towards a voice class where some days fear seizes my larynx so that the notes escaping my mouth are thin and sharp. “Breathe,” my professor says. “Breathe.”

The Fellowship is about welcoming fear and uncertainty, wrapping my arms, my brain, my voice around its dark edges, turning fear into the fuel that will power my adventures. This year is about sitting in the discomfort of not knowing what those adventures will look like or what will come next.

It is Tuesday morning and I am balancing on two wheels. I am riding towards uncertainty — but I am surfing, singing, breathing.