Diversity Lesson 101: Face your Fears

Photo Credit: Cole and Marmalade

“I just bought a new India Arie CD,” I remarked, while attempting to buy myself some time. “Would you like to listen to a few more songs before we go upstairs?” I asked my sister.

“But Grace is expecting us now, she has dinner waiting.  Come on, let’s head upstairs to her apartment.” said Tish, rather impatiently.

“We can go up in just a few minutes. Why don’t we wait for some of these stray cats to scatter first.” I begged.

“We shouldn’t be rude. Grace has probably prepared a Kenyan feast, and what do these stray cats have to do with our visiting Grace anyway?” asked Tish.

As kids, Tish and I followed a strict ritual of fraternization. We would get off of the school bus, hurry to complete the day’s homework and chores, and then ride our bikes a few blocks to my cousin Nevada’s house. We were eager for an afternoon of exploration.  The world awaited us. The main attraction to Nevada’s home was that he happened to live in front of the coveted neighborhood creek, and as luck would have it, there was no shortage of video games at his place, either.

During this particular afternoon visit, Nevada’s unassuming, small, gray cat named Lester did something that was completely out of character. He attacked me! That furry ball of yarn actually attached me! I merely looked in his direction; he glared into my pitiful 10 year-old eyes, lunged off of the banister, and clawed my bloody chest before scurrying off.  Although physically my chest ached from my wounds, emotionally I would be scarred for the next 20 years. From that moment on, I was terribly afraid of cats. In adulthood, I observed a zero-tolerance policy for cats. I refused to enter a home where a cat resided and roamed freely. I even boycotted cat-related terminology. My victimized lips would not so much as utter terms and expressions such as cat´s got your tongue, it´s raining cats and dogs, when the cat´s away, the mice will play, and certainly not scaredy-cat, that one was entirely too close to home.

“Shauna, I asked you a question, what do these cats have to do with our visiting Grace?”

After a long, deep sigh, I figured it was time to confess. I continued, “Tish, do you remember when we were kids and Nevada’s cat attacked me for simply looking at him? From that time forward I have been extremely afraid of cats. I fear that they are so erratic that they will attack at any moment.” I explained.

“Are you serious? That’s what you’ve believed for 20 years?” Tish asked, accompanied by hysterical laughter. “That’s not what happened. Lester didn’t attack you without cause. I yanked his tail, and you just happened to be in front of him. By reflex he leapt forward and reacted.” I sat in silence as I contemplated the revelation. 

“Are you hearing me? Cats don’t attack at will, they attack when idiots like me pull their tails.” Tish insisted.

For 20 years I had allowed my perception of one ugly moment to forever cloud my judgment against an entire species. When I got married, I even forbade my husband to move his cat into our new home. Notwithstanding, the cat was a black and white striped cat named Integration. It should be a sin to reject a cat that has been named Integration. To this day my husband’s poor cat is still under the custodial care of a sympathetic relative.

How many of us have cradled a moment in time, and allowed it to hold us back? How many of us have imported our negative experiences into new relationships? How many of us have prejudged and discriminated against others, based on the wounds and prejudices of the past?  How many of us have judged and even written off an entire group of people, based on one instance. I had to wrestle with many of these questions. Although I continue to heal from my 20-year restraining order against cats, I am growing more accepting each day. I understand that the source of my fear is irrational, and today, I am beginning to face my fears. What about you?

Krishauna Hines-Gaither, Ph.D.


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