There really is no panic quite like the panic of being belted into the backseat of a speeding, swerving car with a confident drunk at the wheel.
First, the sense of denial: “we’re not that far from home and we’ve made it there before.” Which works for about a quarter of the trip — until the car clips a mailbox.
Second, the listening. Whether to reality or an imagined one: The concussion of the minor crash, the hollow thump of the dented front quarter panel. These sounds work on the brainstem to load more adrenaline into the body. And that adrenaline, even as it focuses an alarmed brain, can become almost soothing in its predictability.
Eventually, you’ll make it home or something will happen to stop the forward movement of the car.
A cop, a bar ditch, a blackout.
The panic — for a while — is fun because it breaks up the monotony of being poor and sad and angry. It’s when everyone sobers up that the panic shapeshifts into dread.
Dread isn’t fun at all. Dread brings a different kind of certainty, a swelling awareness, like glimpsing the sign over Dante’s hell that it’s time to abandon all hope. That the car is about to flip over and indeed you and everyone you love is about to rocket head-first through the windshield while you’re the harnessed witness.
This is what it feels like to read the news right now. I haven’t thought of what it felt like to be locked in the car in a long time because: therapy.
But I certainly recognize these old familiar roads.
I try to soothe myself by remembering that this is how I learned to drive: literally taking the keys from the person feeling for the door handle. Getting them neutralized with a seat belt. Telling my siblings I could drive because I watched it and it’s not that hard. Repeating the motions of ignition, gas, steering. And making the whole trip at 25 miles an hour.
In this present dread, I remember that the lesson is there. I’ve watched other people be brave. I’ve watched other people live with hope in spite of the overall awfulness. I can repeat the actions.
We are not hostage to the drunk at the helm of our republic. We have time. We can take the next right action and the next right action.
Even if there’s no one to help us who should be here to help us.
When I see you be brave, it makes me brave. When I see you act hopeful, it makes me hopeful.
Hope doesn’t mean there’s a guarantee or even that it will turn out well. It means believing that it matters to do something anyway.
Bullies and drunks tell the same boring story. They use the same blunt club of threat. They never seem to realize that once you stop being afraid, you can think and plan and organize.
You can teach your brother to drive and your sister to drive. You can get better at being brave. You can get better at hope by realizing that fear can be turned into a question: What is helpful in this moment? In this way, you begin to see that hope is like a recipe. That it can be called on, like song lyrics or poetry or scripture.
One of my favorite stories is one I learned from characters cut out of felt and placed on a homemade easel. My Sunday school teacher would move them into place and retell the narrative: David knew he could fight Goliath because he had fought wild animals when they tried to get his daddy’s sheep. He knew God was with him. That’s why he wasn’t afraid.
Her hand moved the David character toward the Goliath character and she looked down at her Bible, reading the King James like the words of an incantation:
And all this assembly shall know that the Lord saveth not with sword and spear: for the battle is the Lord’s, and he will give you into our hands.
And it came to pass, when the Philistine arose, and came, and drew nigh to meet David, that David hastened, and ran toward the army to meet the Philistine.
And David put his hand in his bag, and took thence a stone, and slang it, and smote the Philistine in his forehead, that the stone sunk into his forehead; and he fell upon his face to the earth.
Decades later, I find myself sitting in another classroom. I hear the familiar narrative from a teacher who has spent his career convincing people that si, se puede; yes, they can.
“Goliath is real and he is many,” the teacher, Marshall Ganz, says. “And it’s true that Goliath often wins. But sometimes. Sometimes, David wins. And that’s where the hope is.”