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Fearing Fear

Is it possible to be too overprotective?

by Jane Ulman

January 3, 2002 | 7:00 pm

My husband, Larry, and I had been training, or so I thought, for the Avon Breast Cancer Three-Day, a 60-mile walk in from Santa Barbara to Malibu last October.

But now I realize that we were really training for a grave new world -- for when an act of God, or more likely an act of godlessness, blindsides Los Angeles, shutting down our streets and transportation systems.

"I always wondered, if I could walk the 11 miles home from work in an emergency," Larry said before Sept. 11." Ñow I know I can," he says.

And now I know I can walk to my sons' schools, the farthest being 13 miles away.

Worse, I know I might have to.

For on Sept. 11, with the force of a 767 hitting the north tower of the World Trade Center, reality slammed into our lives, forever destroying our concept of invincibility.

And so, with a Californian's knee-jerk reaction to any crisis, I replenish the emergency backpacks with radios, batteries, work gloves, flashlights, flares, power bars, water and walking shoes. And I buy a longer-life battery for my cell phone.

But in truth, I don't know how to prepare -- or for what. I can only guess that the next attack will be unforeseen, unfathomable and deadly. And I wonder if I should be lining up my family for smallpox vaccinations or stockpiling gas masks, guns and canned goods -- or merely praying.

As a mother, I have worked to create a risk-free world for my four sons, now ages 10, 12, 14 and 18. I have put them in car seats, seatbelts and helmets. I have removed alar from their apple juice, drawstrings from their sweatshirt hoods and second-hand smoke from their environments. I have taught them not to talk to strangers or pick up guns. And I have electronically tethered them with cell phones and pagers.

As a Jew, I have merely been following the danger-avoidance dictates of my religion. "One should guard oneself against all things that are dangerous, because 'regulations concerning health and life are made more stringent than ritual laws,' " the Shulchan Aruch, the Code of Jewish Law, states.

Ironically, I also worry that I'm overprotecting my kids, doing them a disservice by destroying their sense of self-confidence. And I worry that I'm not concentrating enough on my sons' emotional needs. My rabbi, Zachary Shapiro, associate rabbi at Los Angeles' University Synagogue, tells me, "We need to give children constant reassurance that they're in a safe place when they're with us."

He recommends, especially for younger kids, a nighttime ritual that includes prayers such as the Shema and the "Hashkiveinu," a prayer for peace that includes the words, "Shield us and remove from us foe, pestilence, sword, famine and sorrow."

For the older kids, the rabbi advocates tzedakah activities, such as organizing a clothing drive, giving blood or collecting donations. This is in keeping with Judaism's teaching, "Justice, justice shall you pursue" (Deuteronomy 16:20).

Meanwhile, as a parent, I take solace in the fact that the terrorist attacks, as well as most crises and disasters, are much scarier to me than to my sons. I have a greater ability to comprehend the seriousness, as well as the long-term ramifications. Or perhaps I've succumbed to "phobophobia," the fear of fear itself.

Also, I take solace in the fact that statistics are on my side. Yes, Rabbi Harold Kushner has indelibly and eloquently taught us that "bad things happen to good people." But they happen rarely and atypically.

But most of all, I take solace in the fact that anytime and anywhere, thanks to my training for the Avon Breast Cancer Three-Day, I can grab my emergency backpack and walk to fetch my sons.

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