For some reason, I've been thinking a lot about fear lately. It's definitely in the news, of course. I've been in the Brussels subway and on the streets of Paris; I've been saddened by the ways in which our current politicians seem to play on this country's deepest fears. People ask me fairly often if I'm afraid to travel to European countries, or to a place where a war is happening, like Ukraine.
But I also feel and hear fear in my work. I hear from colleagues who are afraid that others in their organizations will not embrace change; from people who fear change; from those who are afraid of failure in attempting to be more inclusive; or those who are just afraid of being inclusive. Fear of surrounding authority still resounds loudly for many. Some parts of one generation of colleagues fears technology or irrelevance; another generation fears that first generation will never retire; and yet another fears finding meaningful work. And of course, there are loads of things I'm afraid of too.
It's really easy to think that the opposite of fear is courage. That's a big thing, and many of us, like the Cowardly Lion, think it's too big to tackle. But I think the opposite of fear might be curiosity or empathy or some combination thereof. There's no question that curiosity is a driver in my work and travel. I'm curious about new places, about people different than me, about new food, about the way museums work in different settings. But that curiosity isn't quite enough.
Empathy is a word that seems overused these days, but I still think it might be the right way to push that fear away. A couple weeks ago, I was in my favorite bakery in St. John's, Newfoundland, Canada and this poster was up. I didn't take a great photo, but in case you can't read it, it says,
They are coming to meet you. Find out about their past struggles as new Canadians, and their future endeavors...Think about the fear that these families have had, to come from their homes far away, to Canada. Think about the fear you would feel in the same situation. Empathy, that sense of understanding another--for people different than us, whether it be our colleagues, our community members, or people we will never meet, is what can make the fear melt away and lead us to action. Any museum (and there are a growing number of models to draw from) can learn those stories, provide support, and build bridges. It doesn't matter what your focus or your location is.
I'd been thinking about fear, trying to puzzle out what I was really trying to understand when this came across my Facebook feed yesterday. It's the video from Robert F. Kennedy's speech in Indianapolis the night Martin Luther King was shot and killed.
Watch it. Think about the fear that night that so many people had, Kennedy included. Think about the way he expresses empathy and makes a choice to share his own pain and sorrow as a way of connecting; think about how deeply human a speech it is. (to say nothing of the fact that I can't imagine any politician today being able to quote Aeschylus and then to say,
What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence and lawlessness, but is love, and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or whether they be black.We talk about the need for museums to be relevant, but several times this winter, I had the chance to be in places with Sarah Pharoan, of the International Coalition of Historic Sites of Conscience, who spoke movingly about the need for museums move beyond relevance to become essential. That's something that will only happen if each one of us steps past our fears and puts our curiosity and our empathy to work.
(and, by the way, I'll still be traveling and hope you will too)