Stray Kernels – Fear of the Unknown

Posted: August 17, 2018

When I was 5 or 6 years old, I was afraid of sirens. So much so that hearing one made me tremble and worry. I’m not sure why, but my guess is that I learned from TV that sirens always meant something very bad had happened.

So when I heard a siren—thankfully a rare occurrence in rural Ogle County—I wondered and worried. I would run around the outside of our house to make sure it wasn’t on fire. Until I could no longer hear the siren and was sure it wasn’t our house on fire, I was scared. During those long moments of unknowing, my heart would pound with anxiety.

If you’ve ever had a difficult-to-diagnose illness or been close to someone who did, you may have reached the point where you couldn’t take another inconclusive answer from yet another doctor. You may have thought, “Look, at this point even a scary diagnosis is better than no answer at all.” The longer you waited without an answer, the more frightening the possibilities that loomed in your mind.

Or maybe you’ve been waiting for a loved one and they were late. You tried to contact them and they didn’t answer. At first, you assumed that they were just in heavy traffic, or had stopped to talk to a friend at the gas station or grocery store. But moments turned to hours, and you began to worry in earnest. Anger may have set in, too. Why weren’t they answering their phone? Why didn’t they call and at least put your mind at ease? What if they had gotten into an accident? What if they were badly hurt? What if…? Once again, the longer you went without knowing, the more worrisome the images that crowded your consciousness. When your loved one finally arrived, you may have greeted them this way: “Where the heck have you BEEN?!”

What do these situations have in common? I think there are two interwoven threads: the element of unknown tangled with a sense of fear. A prolonged illness without an identified cause becomes a heavier and more terrifying burden. Waiting on a family member whose whereabouts and safety go unexplained can be more frightening with each passing moment.

In recent weeks, our office has received calls regarding aerial applicators (aka crop dusters). Those callers have had a number of perfectly understandable questions. What are they spraying? Will it harm my garden? The chemical smell is bothersome; will it harm ME? Who can I call to report this? Why wasn’t I notified before this was done? As with the situations I described above, the sense of unknowing was followed by concern, which in some cases evolved into fear.

It’s a short trip from fear to anger. Anger feeds fear, fear feeds anger, and pretty soon it’s difficult to be rational. “Where the heck have you BEEN?!” “Why are you spraying so darn close to MY HOME?!”

I’m certainly not saying the callers concerned about aerial applicators are irrational, nor am I saying that sometimes anger isn’t justified. What I do hope to point out, however, is that unknowing can be damaging. Damaging to our state of mind, to our relationships, and to our communities. How often do tempers flare and misunderstandings arise when fear and anger outrun civility?

I believe we share a responsibility to fill the gap of unknowing, either by providing information when we have the power to do so, or by seeking it out when we have questions. In the case of farming, maybe that means farmers reaching out to neighbors before undertaking potentially alarming activities like aerial or ground-based spraying. In the case of non-farm neighbors, it might mean getting to know farmers to learn what they do and why.

In all cases, being friendly, sincere, and open-minded can go a long way towards alleviating fear of the unknown.

Rhodora Collins – Ag Literacy Coordinator