In September 2001, I traveled to my first third world country, Haiti. My friend was in the Peace Corps and I went to visit him in a very small village 30 minutes north of Les Cayes. We traveled from the capital city, Port-au-Prince, 124 miles in 6 hours on a local bus packed with chickens, children, and goods.
When we arrived it was night. Pitch black night. In a city with hundreds of thousands of people, there was no electricity that night. The only light came from candles and flashlights. People swarmed us. Trying to sell us goods and offering rides. A wave of fear washed over me that I’d never experienced before. Claustrophobia so immense I thought I might have a panic attack. I had zero control over the situation and to make matters worse, I couldn’t really see anything except shadows and hear voices. I relied 100% on my friend to navigate the situation.
In true Mike form, he hadn’t figured out a way to get us back to his little village. We were stuck in the midst of the chaos until he could arrange a ride. We finally hitched a ride with a neighbor. We sat in the bed of an old white Toyota truck bouncing over pothole after pothole. During that ride, a sense of awe and peace came over me. The night was warm. It was also dark and the only light came from the bright stars and the shining moon. It was amazing and beautiful. I felt thankful for being able to experience such a serene moment after leaving the chaos of the bus drop off in Les Cayes.
When we finally arrived at his village, still no electricity. More pitch-blackness. My feelings of claustrophobia rushed back and a rising level of panic over not being able to see. It was one thing to drive through the night and look at the stars, it was another to not have electricity in a home. It’s not what I expected. What I recognized at that moment was my own weakness and thus fear. Fear over something that wouldn’t harm me. After all, it was just darkness. It was fear based on inexperience and ignorance.
At the moment, I committed to myself that I would not let this type of fear drive my decision-making. Fear would never be a reason to not do something. To not listen to someone. To not embrace the unknown. This was fear that I had control over. With the US elections this past year, I’ve seen that level of fear. On both sides. I imagine a world where all sides channel that fear into an opportunity for dialogue. If we all just lean in a little bit to understand the other side, maybe our fear would be lessened. Maybe, just maybe we might even be able to empathize with someone we vowed we would never understand. And then maybe all communities would rise and work together towards a better future for all.