“You should write that story,” I suggested to Rick. “Call it, ‘Living Scared: An American Odyssey.’”
I suggested the title after Rick shared a few episodes of his first motorcycle excursion through America in the early ‘70s. He, his wife, Joanne, and I tacked back and forth in the gentle winds and rolling seas, between Masonboro Inlet and Wrightsville Beach the weekend before the El Paso and Dayton carnage. Rick did the tacking; I mostly lounged on the stern netting.
Rick was born in British Columbia but has called Wilmington his home port for nearly 30 years. In our professional lives, Rick and I are both psychologists. We see a lot of people struggling with pain, trauma and flat out fear. Rick shared his stories after expressing concern about the number of Americans coping with fear by weaponizing. “Is it really getting so dangerous that everyone has to be armed in America?”
“There are places in Wilmington or Philly I wouldn’t go, but the whole world’s relatively safer than ever,” I said. I cited Steven Pinker’s 2011 “The Better Angels of Our Nature,” as data-driven support for my conclusion. Even with a slight uptick in violence since the book was published, daily life is relatively safer than it was in medieval times—but we don’t like to hear it’s relatively safer than anything. Even the best and brightest of us are bad at probabilistic reasoning. The fight-flight gadgetry in our heads only listens for “yes” or “no,” “threat” or “safe.” Even though some critics see Pinker as overly optimistic, I view his general conclusions as sound and fragile.
After admiring my optimism, Rick told me his El Paso story. First, he said whenever he stopped to eat or camp someone would usually ask him what kind of weapons he was carrying. In El Paso a fellow traveler shook his head at Rick’s lack of proper artillery. The traveler then offered advice echoed in tweets from some of our nation’s highest leaders for three years now. It is explicit in the El Paso shooter’s manifesto, too: “Never trust a Mexican.”
Rick’s bike had a flat in the desert outside of El Paso. He fixed the flat, but, within a few miles, the seal burst and forced him to try to flag down a motorist for help. One motorist stopped about 100 feet ahead of him, left a water bottle for him on the side of the road, and shouted he would notify the proper authorities at the next town. An Air Force colonel pulled over, cracked a beer for himself and another for Rick. After drinking a beer, the colonel drove off. A few hot hours later a rattling pick-up truck driven by a smiling Mexican stopped. The man looked at the bike, said he had a garage on the other side of the border and offered to take Rick and his bike across to fix it.
“Never trust a Mexican,” Rick said. “Right?”
I trust Rick’s judgement as a psychologist and sailor. He trusts me as professional; he even trusts me to take “the skimmer’s” rudder for a few minutes on flat seas with following winds. At least a small degree of trust is vital if we are to rise above the primitive and paranoid to civilize ourselves.
Rick chose to trust the Mexican, got back on the road, and continued to Louisiana. When eating dinner outside of New Orleans he admitted to a Harley rider that he didn’t have a gun. The Harley rider gave him a hatchet and said ominously, “You’re gonna need this before the ride is over.” (Rick did cut a branch with the hatchet before miraculously making it safely back to the Great White North.)
Rick’s El Paso story haunted me after the shootings. The tale reminded me the seeds of racism, fear and paranoia were planted long before the recent shootings, and long before Rick’s bike broke down. Today’s hateful rhetoric from the highest leadership only waters those seeds.
And those seeds are planted deep.
A few days after the El Paso and Dayton tragedies I picked up my son from the airport. He was working on a film in New Orleans and stayed at an Airbnb. Before I got a chance to tell him Rick’s El Paso story, he said, “Pops, the closet of the Airbnb had a shotgun and an assault rifle thrown in there as if they were brooms, and about four or five handguns laying on the shelf. All that artillery made me wonder…
Why is that dude living so scared?