Somewhere along the line, the fire department decided that the way to promote fire safety was to get into the minds of elementary school kids.
Once a year, a representative from the fire department would come to my elementary school, show us a soon-to-be-classic video complete with talking smoke detectors, and assert the need for an escape plan from our burning homes. Fear would spread like wildfire as we were reminded of the imminent danger we were apparently in. It was an annual reminder of our parents’ procrastination. 2006: Make a fire safety plan. 2007: Make a fire safety plan. 2008: Seriously, you still don’t have one? Make a freaking fire safety plan!
And on that same day every year, I would repeat these words when I returned to the house I suddenly viewed as kindling. I would strictly inform my mother of this “Need. To have. A. Fire. Safety. Plan!” I was terrified by the thought of my house erupting in flames and not having an orderly set of instructions to follow.
I was paranoid. About everything. I remember being 10 and not allowing anyone to eat in the car for fear they would choke. I remember being overly cautious on the swings, never jumping off because I was scared of falling to my unfortunate doom. I made people promise me they wouldn’t do this, wouldn’t do that. Kind of jokingly, but also kind of not.
And you should be scared. There are a lot of things out there that can hurt you or your loved ones. Maybe I’m crazy, but worrying about the risks means I’m aware of them at least. I recognize the existence of danger. Perhaps worshiping the fear keeps it from become reality. And frankly, I’d rather leave danger to hypothetical situations, thank you very much.
“Please don’t hurt me,” your paranoia whispers, worrying whether we know to swim parallel to the shore in a riptide and to not run with scissors and to never text and drive or do flips on a trampoline and to never laugh while we eat or poke a 400-pound black bear. We can avoid danger and pain, right?
Isn’t this just being responsible? Doing the safe and smart thing and looking out for others, even when motivated by the simple fear of “what if?” They never tell you responsibility comes with fear. And in theory, the two shouldn’t be related. Doing the right, rational thing should be possible without imagining the horrors that might happen if you don’t. But in reality, it just makes sense that fear is the primary motivator in making responsible choices. In making good choices. The right choices.
And this mindset works a lot of the time. My cousin’s irrational fear that a shark was going to eat her kept her out of the ocean on beach vacations, and she never got hurt. My fear of falling kept me from jumping off the swings. And I never fell.
But paranoia, fear, and even responsibility can be crippling. I’ve never felt the rush of flying off a swing. My cousin hasn’t discovered how fun swimming in the ocean is. Fear can limit your life. Don’t let it.
Having a little fear, a little paranoia, in your life is a good thing, but don’t let it get excessive. “Stop, drop, and roll” exists for a reason. Fire safety plans exist for a reason, inspired by the idea that burning alive sounds less fun than, well, not burning alive.
Live a little, but only so much that you don’t die. You’ll thank me.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.