In 1980, I was an American exchange student in Moscow during the Cold War. It was extremely cold on a short school day in February, so I borrowed ski bibs from a Dutch student to keep warm while I left to explore more Moscow – on my own. I must have got on the wrong train as the station names were unknown. Instead of heading to my original destination, I decided to continue. After all, learning something new was the ultimate goal.
The subway car began to fill. Ahead of me, I saw a not-so-small group of guys looking my way. They were talking to each other and pointing – at me. Even though everyone was wearing multiple layers and thick jackets (it was -4F / -20C), it was easy to tell that these guys were pretty strong. Maybe they worked in construction. As if on an invisible command, they all started moving towards me at the same time. Then his movement stopped. There was no more conversation, but they were still looking right at me. Two of them advanced. I didn’t know what to expect, but
something inside me started to feel scared.
I looked around but stopped the movement because I realized that finding a place to go was not an option. I was in a high-speed subway car in a dark underground tunnel with closed doors and nowhere to go. The faces of the two who approached were expressionless, but their progress was resolute. They went straight to me. I looked for support in the faces of people around me, an elderly woman, a couple of high school students and a businessman. They didn’t get involved. Their bodies swayed in unison with each other as the subway car pushed us around. The next thing I felt was a sharp nudge to my left shoulder.
“Are you american?” the broad-shouldered one of them yelled at me in Russian over the noise of the train’s wheels on the tracks. “Da” (yes), I replied, careful not to get a stare or worse, I wouldn’t have a chance of winning. “You are an athlete?” he asked quickly in succession. It wasn’t a strange question, as the Summer Olympics would take place here in just a few months. “I’m not an athlete,” I thought to myself. My brow must have furrowed as I tried to figure out why he wanted to know this. And why would he ask that – from a total stranger. His expression matched mine as he cocked his head to the side. I started to worry about what might happen next; locked in a closed subway car (which now looked much smaller), with self-centered passengers and that small crowd of construction workers approaching. Finally, I muttered “Nyet” (no) as I looked at the borrowed clothes I was wearing. No wonder he thought I was an Olympic athlete. I was dressed as a downhill slalom runner. There was a long pause in this conversation of few words.
My questioner looked at me again, then looked at his companions gesturing for them to come closer. They did. I felt alone, scared and in imminent danger. Without warning, the stoic expressions turned to smiles. Several cheers and friendly shoves followed, ending with a hug as I was congratulated by a group of working-class Russians on America’s impressive turnaround with the Soviet hockey team. This hockey match, which had just been played in Lake Placid, NY, later became known as the “Miracle on Ice.” Unfounded fear told me that the people I was facing wanted to hurt me. The shorter the distance between them and me, the greater my discomfort. I wanted to increase the space between us. It was my perceived safety zone. The Russians wanted to shorten the distance between us (in both senses of the word) because they were curious and friendly. Closing the gap was simply a way of bringing us closer together. It hit me. We weren’t Russians and Americans, just humans.
When the subway doors opened at the next stop, we dispersed – like friends – each with our stories to share. Learning something new was my goal that afternoon. Mission Accomplished. Giving in to your own fears without consciously thinking about someone else’s point of view can mean missing out on incredible experiences. Experiences that can positively transform you. Now, when I see the fear in me, it takes me a millisecond to consider the other side’s story before deciding what to do. Fear not fear. Get closer because it can lead to something better than you ever expected!