I had a weird and literal awakening last week. I woke up to the sound of a woman in my garden, just after sunrise, carrying a bag down the street. She’d rummaged through our spare fridge outside and helped herself to a roast chicken, a frozen pizza and an assortment of beers.
(I called the police and filed a report, but that’s not a major part of the story.) I followed her in slippers and pajamas to a bus stop. I approached her cautiously. I told him how much I liked that pizza. (It was shipped to me overnight from Chicago in dry ice.) I took a picture of her with the pizza next to her, then asked her to return my groceries. She agreed and I went home with my things.
I informed the police after reviewing my security alerts. She had been in my garden all night, leaving twice for short periods. Nothing was touched except the refrigerator, as far as I know. No door or window was opened.
I didn’t feel in danger – mostly just confused. I didn’t feel threatened, but my assumptions did. That in itself is a feeling of unease.
My first urge – it was incredibly fierce, a compulsion, really – was to tell someone what had just happened. Then, after sitting for a minute, another craving came more quietly. I didn’t want to evoke fear in others.
Then came a third dilemma, then a fourth. (The mind races!) Why was this first urge felt so strongly? Does this isolated incident indicate a larger (and more worrying) trend that we may not be seeing?
I have told this story to only one other person – a friend who is a therapist by trade. “The urge was strong because it all made no sense. We sort things out by talking to others. They might notice a detail we overlooked. Even your attempt to organize the details into a cohesive narrative makes it all less chaotic.
Could envy be epigenetic – a hard-wired instinct? (It was so profound.) Describing a danger to others would keep the species safer, thus gaining genetic favor. It certainly has all the elements of a good story – fight-or-flight angst, tight timeline, surprising twists. It’s bound to elicit sustained attention – an immediate reward for me, not my species.
But what if I don’t want others to be unnecessarily afraid? I lived here for 25 years and nothing like it ever happened. This context will not matter because the listeners have the same primitive urges. Since we have campfires, we come together to tell scary stories. NextDoor and other apps trade on those instincts.
Can we dissuade ourselves from this alarmist urge? And if we can, should we? In the days following the intrusion, I wondered if the woman herself was scared, hiding in my yard from danger. Does she eat enough? Should I have called White Bird instead of the police? Could the dispatcher have routed the call to a social service agency? I didn’t have that real-time clarity, but first responders could.
Human despair may be approaching us. I happen to be selling an old laptop and a buyer offered to trade in his e-bike for this one, except he didn’t have the charger. I refused. The next day, the same guy gave me an $800 mountain bike instead. I ignored the offer, but I could have suggested that we meet at the police station to make the exchange.
Why does he need a laptop so badly? To keep a spreadsheet of his stolen bikes? Maybe someone will trade it for a Chicago-style pizza.
Don Kahle (firstname.lastname@example.org) writes a column every Wednesday and Sunday for The Register-Guard and archives past columns at www.dksez.com.