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Where Fear Comes From

As I sat in my driveway Thursday night watching fireworks, I was transported back to a July evening more than 40 years ago.

My family and I were sitting in lawn chairs in front of our small rental house on the Warm Springs Indian Reservation in Oregon watching an amateur fireworks show. As a very young girl, I didn’t know the pyrotechnics were less than impressive. All I knew was that my parents were complaining about the long delays between explosions and that Charlie Brown was scared. And I was worried about Charlie.

Trina and Charlie Brown 1971

Trina and Charlie Brown 1971

From the day my parents adopted Charlie Brown, they should have known I would fall deeply in love. I was born to be a dog lover the way some people are born to be athletes or musicians. According to my baby book, one of my first words was “doggie,” and, as a toddler, I would search out dog books at the local library.

But until Charlie Brown arrived, my family never had a dog.

Since then, my family has never been complete without a dog.

charlie brown

Charlie Brown

And even though we loved Charlie, his early years weren’t easy. He came into our lives at a time when dogs were allowed to roam, and roam he did. When he strayed onto a cattle ranch and started chasing the cows, the rancher shot him. He barely survived, and my parents always blamed his fear of thunder and fireworks on that incident.

Their explanation was reasonable, and I always believed them until I discovered that other dogs, those who have never been shot, also fear thunder and fireworks.

That’s when I began to wonder where the fear comes from. I just couldn’t understand why so many dogs would be afraid of the same thing when their experiences were so varied.

The concept of fear has always fascinated me, especially since I’ve spent my own life overcoming unjustified ones. When I was young, I was afraid to swim in water that was over my head even though I could swim perfectly well when I could touch the bottom. I was afraid to slide down a fireman’s pole, even when all the other kids were expressing sheer joy during the descent. And I’ve always been afraid of rejection and failure to the extent that I avoided potential relationships and challenges.

Then, at one point in my life, I thought I had finally figured out the fear factor.

In college, a Psychology professor discussed the theory of collective memory, and the concept clicked. I might not have experienced an event that would provoke fear, but one of more of my ancestors had. They would have then passed those fears down to me.

That made sense for the dogs as well. They may not have experienced the danger associated with loud noises, but their ancestors had.

For years, as I’ve slowly overcome my fears one by one, I’ve held on to that theory.

Then Rodney entered my life.

Rodney watching the fireworks.

Rodney watching the fireworks.

Rodney is the current canine member of my family. He’s a giant German Shepherd with a lot of energy and very little fear. That is, very little fear unless you count his inability to be left alone.

When we first adopted Rodney from a rescue group, he wouldn’t even go into our backyard without someone accompanying him. Over the past three years, he’s improved, but he still hates to be separated from the family, and, yes, particularly from me.

On Thursday night, as the human members of the family sat in the driveway watching fireworks, Rodney sat in the house watching us. He whined, he whimpered and he cried until I brought him out to join us.

And then he was content. While the city fireworks boomed overhead and the neighbors shot off their firecrackers, he simply watched. And my theory about the roots of fear was forgotten.

Because, at that moment, I realized that no matter where fear comes from, there will always be an even greater force.

It’s called love.