The 99th Monkey

One man's spiritual quest—and his continuous and utter failure to find the answers.

Fear of People

Why I prefer to stay home in my pajamas.

There’s actually a word for it: anthropophobia. Wiktionary (Wiktionary? Really?) defines it as, “A profound fear of human beings, or of human society.” Wikipedia adds, “An extreme, pathological form of shyness and timidity…it may manifest as… awkwardness and uneasiness when appearing in society. Like most phobias, anthropophobia can be traced back to traumatic experiences.”

I don’t quite fit that description. I can be very socially and intimately engaged with any number of friends and familiar groups. But it’s all those “other" people I am afraid of. All the strangers. And especially the bad guys. The ones who are out to kill me based on all sorts of notions I can’t begin to fathom, given that none of them has ever hung out and gone for a bike ride with me or talked with me about the meaning of life and love, or even cats and music.

I live in the direct lineage of the Holocaust through my German mother who managed to get to the United States just in time, but the family was forced to leave her beloved Grandmother behind, due to a visa quota. Naturally, Grandma insisted they all leave immediately, without her. She only survived another few months before being loaded onto a cattle car and shipped to a camp in Gurs, France, where she starved to death.

That very well could be the traumatic experience that my anthropophobia can be traced back to. As a sensitive kid, I grew up inhaling the scent of grief and terror that still lingered in the air, and even today still lingers in my heart. I was born in ’52, only seven years after the war. Thus, I had the classic symptoms of a “Second Generation Holocaust Survivor”: I was afraid to be alone, I was afraid to go to school, I was afraid when my parents weren’t around, and I was especially fearful of those that I referred to as “big kids.” And I saw evidence right before my eyes that justified my terror: on numerous occasions I witnessed kids my age getting beaten up by big kids; bloodied, losing teeth, noses breaking. All this in a normal, safe, Leave-it-to-Beaver suburban school ground in Fair Lawn, New Jersey. But I may as well have been observing Nazi atrocities, the way my heart pounded, recognizing that such a thing could just as easily happen to me.

And nearly did. An over-sized galoot of a guy showed up out of the blue one afternoon, as I was walking the one and a half blocks home from Hebrew School. He glared at me like the big bad wolf, and growled: “Are you Jewish, kid?” To which I instantly squeaked, “No, I’m Catholic.” “Good,” he said, “Because I beat up the Jewish kids.” I nodded and slowly turned away and continued walking home, cautiously, glancing over my shoulder to see if he was watching me, as I gradually picked up speed, my heart racing, tears coming, then running full speed and at last crashing through my front door to find myself facing a gathering of my parents and relatives.

I gasped for air and spilled out my story, as if I had just narrowly escaped annihilation in the gas chambers and crematorium. Their response was to laugh when I told them the bit about being Catholic, and my Uncle Sam assured me, “You did the right thing.” Which triggered an instant theological dispute in my mind between my Uncle Sam and Rabbi Bodnick, who had taught us in Hebrew School that it was a sin to deny one’s Jewish heritage, even at the cost of life and death. He had also thrown in some juicy tidbits for emphasis, about Rabbi Akiva being thrilled and delighted as he was skinned alive because it finally gave him the opportunity to praise God even while going through agony and death. And here I was, denying my heritage just to avoid getting the crap kicked out of me! I decided to go with Uncle Sam on this one, though to this day I remain plagued with guilt about Rabbi Bodnick’s take on the matter.

Nearly 40 years ago I participated in an exercise at a workshop in which 250 of us were lying down in a big, carpeted, hotel ballroom, and the leader guided us through a visualization of seeing someone and being afraid of him or her, so going the other way, and running into someone else you were afraid of, and so turning and moving again in another direction, or into a store, or out of a store into the street, and it escalated and finally peaked at a point where there was nowhere you could run, no place to turn in the entire world where there weren’t more people to be afraid of. They were everywhere. By that time the room was collectively screaming in terror. We really got into it, and actually felt it. (It was the 70s, the “me” decade; that’s the kind of stuff some of us did back then.)

Then abruptly, as if on cue, the screaming suddenly stopped and there was silence. A moment later, someone giggled. Then another, and another, and that too escalated until the entire room was laughing uproariously. The leader said:

“For the few of you who haven’t gotten the joke yet, here’s the punchline:

"Everyone is afraid of everyone."

I had an epiphany about my fear of people on my 50th birthday, nearly 10 years ago. I decided to spend three days alone in the wilderness, a place where the bears wander free, where I wasn’t likely to see other people, and where I’d have no cell phone contact. I am not a seasoned outdoorsman, so I was a bit apprehensive about the three-day trip, but was determined to do it, and did.

I had my revelation within the first 20-30 seconds of my hike. The very moment I set foot on the trail, I could tangibly feel my fear physically vanish from my body and mind, and I recognized in a flash of insight that I had no fear of being in nature. I had no terror of trees, no shyness around rocks and streams. I had no argument with the sky and nothing to prove to the mountains. Then I figured out what was going on: The reason I suddenly felt so safe and relaxed was the absence of people.

Because the problem is, there are people out there who want to kill me: neo-Nazis and radical Islamists, for example, just to name two that come to mind. As a result, ever since I was a kid, if given the choice, I much prefer to stay home in my pajamas then leave the house and possibly encounter God-knows-who out there. As a writer, I've managed to arrange my life to allow me to do just that on a lot of my days. 

But I do wander out occasionally, and if you see me, even if you’re not a Nazi or radical Islamist who hates Americans and Jews; even if you’re a decent, friendly person who intends me no harm or even wishes me well; please know that on some level, beneath my conscious awareness, your very existence scares the s*@& out of me, and know also that, on some level, I know that my very existence scares the s*&@ out of you!

So for now, if you don't mind, please leave me alone. You’re freaking me out.

 

Eliezer Sobel is an author, musician, and retreat leader.

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