Biking and Fear

Yesterday it was almost a hundred degrees in Chicago—the kind of heavy, humid heat that hits you like a rolling wave when you step outside. The cicadas were crazy buzzing, the beach was mobbed by high schoolers and mothers and babies escaping stuffy apartments, and Curtis (he's very wonderful) spent the day drinking gallons of water and sweating more while he worked at a picnic in the park.

I set out to ride my bike to the store. Put aside the granular details about context (do you really care how high the curb was or how busy the road was or how it seemed like THERE WAS BROKEN GLASS EVERY 20 FEET?).

About three minutes into the ride I started regretting it—but by then it was too late to turn around. I continued along the narrow street with too much traffic and not enough space for me and my pretty red bike.

A metallic grey Audi whizzed past me, notable only because it was going a little too fast. Moments later, after I'd passed the line of traffic in the constant ebb and flow of biking patterns, the Audi reappeared. The driver, a well dressed, manicured woman, had rolled down her window in preparation for the moment when she would pass me again, so she could give me 


I still don't understand what she thought I was doing wrong—something about me being on the sidewalk or not. It's probably hard to be articulate while yelling expletives and instructions at a biker out of your passenger side window as you're driving 30 miles per hour.

I spent the rest of my afternoon thinking about what would prompt someone to react in that way, and had a few ideas:

  • A past offense. The biking culture in Chicago is startlingly arrogant. Bikes do whatever they want, wherever they want to, with little regard to rules of the road and other cars. An accident or two and about a half dozen close calls later, I try not to ride this way—but when there aren't any cars at a four-way stop, yes. It's very hard to want to obey the law on a bicycle.

Maybe the nice lady hit a biker the day before and was still upset about it. Maybe she was a biker once and got hit and was trying to help me. Maybe her husband works in the emergency room and always tells her about the bike accident patients he has to stitch up, and she's secretly trying to put her husband out of a job by preventing bike accidents. Maybe she just hates Chicago bikers.

Your guess is as good as mine.

  • A bad day. She could have just been fired. Maybe her teenage daughter got a tattoo that says, "My mom's breath smells awful in the morning" and she was upset about it. Her husband could have walked out on her, her neighbor could be stealing her mail, her father could have told her he was disappointed in who she's become.

If these are the case, I'm happy to help her out, though I'd rather do it by expressing sympathy for her than by being a human punching bag.

  • Fear. It's likely that the first time she whizzed around me, she was closer to my shiny red bike than she wanted to be. In some combination of being afraid to wreck her car and not wanting to hurt me, she decided to express how she felt about me (which wasn't great).

Giving her the benefit of the doubt, I think her fear motivated her. If you have any experience with fear (if you say you don't, I'm moving into your house and taking your job and stuff and hoping that works for me too), you know it's a strong motivator—unfortunately, often it motivates us to make poor decisions.

David Ogilvy, in Confessions of an Advertising Man, lays out ground rules for clients to keep a good relationship with an advertising agency. One of them is to "emancipate your agency from fear."

Most agencies run scared, most of the time. This is partly because many of the people who gravitate to the agency business are naturally insecure, and partly because many clients make it unmistakably plain that they are always on the lookout for a new agency. Frightened people are powerless to produce good advertising.

After I resigned the Rolls-Royce account, I invited myself to visit the Ford Motor Company, "to get acquainted." To his everlasting credit, the advertising manager of Ford refused to receive me. He said: "Detroit is a small town. If you come to visit me, you would be seen. Our present agencies would hear about it, and they might be alarmed. I don't want to alarm them."

It's not that fear automatically makes people make the worst decision (i.e., agency sees client with other agency and all copywriters automatically commit suicide). It's more of a chain reaction: fear often brings out the worst in people as they scrape around for a shred of protection (e.g., agency sees client with other agency and everybody assumes they'll lose jobs so stop trying to write ads and start looking for other jobs). When I'm operating at my worst and seeking protection, I don't think about the implications of my actions. I become reactionary, lash out, and hurt the people who are closest to me, all for my own safety.

I used to think I was the only one responsible for being afraid—if I'm scared of the dark, of war, of death, of insignificance it's up to me to get over. But I think there are two parts.

One part is the story I'm telling myself. Do I believe there's a monster in my closet that only comes out at night? Is death going to be eternal separation from all that I love? Is war coming over Lake Michigan at every second? Will my grandma and my mom be the only ones in the world who ever read any of my books?

The stories you tell yourself become your reality, so work to keep your reality grounded in the truth.

Look in the closet.
Know the truth about death and eternity—that while we yet sinners, Christ died for us.
Read the news, pray for the authorities, trust God's plan to do good to those who love Him.
Remember that your significance doesn't hinge on the number of people you impact, it hinges on Who you're doing things for.

But the second part is new to me. As far as you are able, surround yourself with people who help bring you freedom from fear. Make friends who tell you the truth—both when it's hard, and when it's easy. Don't jump to conclusions when people say something, ask for clarity. Find colleagues, associates, and relationships that care enough about you to work on protecting you from fear. Know too, that in His very nature Jesus is freedom from fear. Find refuge in that.

I'm still learning to do both, and it's not easy. But it is healthy.

That way I don't go out and scream at an innocent biker on the side of the road.