The best advice I ever received came from the Douglas Adams book “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” and was concisely stated in only two words: Don’t panic.
Yet, in truth, those words can apply whether you’re escaping Vogons or giving a presentation at work.
Because panicking doesn’t solve anything – though unfortunately, that tends to be something that has to be learned the hard way. Let’s face it, staying calm is a hard lesson. I know I, myself, have had my fair share of panicked moments.
The earliest I can remember happened when I was 2 years old. After being scared by our energetic dog, Nakishka, I ran, which of course meant that Nakishka thought I was playing.
Long story short, I ended up tackled by a furry behemoth, and I developed a fear of dogs that would last until I was in my pre-teens.
Granted, “don’t panic” is a little hard for a 2-year old.
Then, only last summer, I was on vacation with my family in Gatlinburg. We had decided to walk through some of the short hiking trails, and I had only one thing on my mind: taking some awesome nature photography.
And I was determined that nothing was going to stop me from getting the perfect picture, even some silly rule like staying on the trail.
That’s more of a guideline anyway, right?
At last, we came to the perfect spot: a gorgeous river with rapids. The sun glinted off the waves, and the rocks shone black and wet in the summer afternoon.
I wandered from the path, getting closer and closer to the water with only my desired photo in mind.
Some other hikers had gone off the trail, and I passed them as I continued down the slope. They said something, more to my parents than to me, but I paid them no heed.
I got closer to the water, bending down to try and get the perfect angle.
My parents shouted something.
I focused my camera.
My parents shouted again.
I snapped a photo, then another.
The shout shook me from my photo-induced trance.
“Sarah, there’s a copperhead!”
In retrospect, if there was a copperhead around, running through the heavy brush, yelping, probably wasn’t the best idea. (Though, luckily, I didn’t meet the snake.)
Again: Don’t panic.
Just in my own life, panicking has never had a good outcome. If I hadn’t panicked, perhaps I would have grown up with a furry friend. Or maybe I wouldn’t have looked so silly in the middle of the Smoky Mountains.
After all, there are lots of ways to avoid panicking: taking a deep breath, putting things in perspective, attacking a problem one bite at a time.
But one of the best ways, in my experience, is humor.
In our family, my brother, in a moment of fright, had a stroke of brilliance which is now simply known as “the fear dance incident.”
My brother was in kindergarten at the time. And, because he had seen my canine phobia, he, too, had adopted a fear of dogs.
Unfortunately for him, a classmate brought in a dog for show and tell.
Even more unfortunately, it was a Great Dane.
So my brother did what any sensible 5-year old would do: he coped with his fear.
While the other students crowded around the dog, my brother began to run around the room with his hands clasped together. Every few steps, he would raise and lower his arms between his legs, like some sort of catapult, shouting, “Ah-wooga, Ah-wooga!”
Concerned, the teacher approached him and asked, “Seth, what are you doing?”
My brother paused, and then matter-of-factly said, “This is my fear dance.”
I would argue that my brother did the very opposite of panicking: he dealt with it (and gave us a fun story in the process).
After all, moments ideal for panic creep into every day life, like grass poking out of sidewalk cracks. In fact, the night before I wrote this column, the pipes at my family’s house burst because of the cold.
But panic, like so many things in life, is a choice. We choose our emotions like an optometrist chooses lenses during an eye exam: What we pick helps us to either see clearly, or to approach a situation in a dizzying blur.
So, as we’re choosing, we should take a moment, relax, assess the situation, and above all:
Sarah Allen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.