In 1980, I was an American exchange student in Moscow during the Cold War. It was brutally cold one short school day in February, so I borrowed ski bibs from a Dutch student to stay warm as I set out to explore more of Moscow–on my own. I must have hopped on the wrong train as the station names were unfamiliar. Rather than head to my original destination, I decided to continue on. After all, learning something new was the bigger goal.
The subway car started filling up. Ahead of me, I saw a not-so-small group of guys looking my way. They were talking amongst 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 these guys were very strong. Maybe they worked in construction. As if by invisible command, they all started moving toward me at once. Then, their movement stopped. There was no more talking, yet they were still looking straight at me. Two of them advanced. I didn’t know what to expect, but
something inside me started to feel fear.
I looked around but stopped the motion because I realized finding somewhere to go wasn’t 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, yet their progress was resolute. They headed straight for me. I looked for support on the faces of the people surrounding me, an old lady, a couple of high-schoolers, and a businessman. They didn’t engage. Their bodies swayed in unison with the others as the subway train car jostled us all from side to side. The next thing I felt was a sharp poke on my leftshoulder.
“Are you American?” the broader-shouldered of the two shouted at me in Russian over the screeching of the train’s wheels on the track. “Da” (yes), I responded, careful to not start a stare-down or a worse encounter I would have no chance of winning. “Are you an athlete?” he quickly asked in succession. It wasn’t a strange question as the Summer Olympics were happening here in just a few months. “I’m no athlete,” I thought to myself. My brow must have furrowed as I tried to figure out why he wanted to know that. And why would he ask that–of a total stranger. His expression matched mine as he cocked his head to one side. I started to worry about what might happen next; locked in a closed subway car (that now felt much smaller) with self-absorbed commuters and that small crowd of construction workers inching closer. Finally, I muttered “Nyet” (no) as I looked down at the borrowed clothes I was wearing. No wonder he thought I may have been an Olympic athlete. I was dressed like a downhill slalom racer. There was a long pause in this conversation of very few words.
My questioner stared at me again, then looked back at his comrades gesturing for them to come closer. They did. I felt alone, scared, and in imminent danger. Without warning, the stoic expressions turned into smiles. Several shouts and friendly shoves came next, ending with a hug as I was congratulated by a group of working-class Russians on America’s stunning upset over the Soviet hockey team. This hockey match, which had just played out in Lake Placid, NY, later became known as the “Miracle on Ice.” Baseless fear told me that the people I was facing were out to harm me. The shorter the distance between them and me, the higher my discomfort. I wanted to make the space between us larger. 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 to get closer. It hit me. We weren’t Russians and Americans, just humans.
As the subway doors opened at the next stop, we dispersed–as friends–each with our stories to share. Learning something new was my goal that afternoon. Mission accomplished. Giving into one’s fears without consciously thinking about another’s point of view, can mean missing out on amazing experiences. Experiences that can positively transform you. Now, when I notice fear in myself, I take a millisecond to consider the story from the other side before deciding what to do. Don’t fear fear. Lean into it because it may lead to something better than you ever expected!