When I was young, perhaps six or seven, I was bullied by a boy named Bart. He waited for me one day outside the corner store, just out of sight of the school, and beat me up. The shopkeeper rushed out and broke us up, but I got the message: the world is a dangerous place.
A few years later, when my family moved to Montreal, we became only the second Protestant house on a Catholic street. At first, that meant very little to me. I had always known church to be a safe place. So the day the boys from across the street invited me to play road hockey with them, I was pleased to be included, until they placed me in goal and raised a slap shot to my kneecap. I couldn't walk for a week, and they all snickered as I limped home. From that day on, my street became a war zone, and I was the target.
My home was a safe too, or so I'd thought. When we were little, my older brother was my self-appointed protector, though sort of like the Mafia, the price of his protection being my absolute loyalty. Then he entered his teens and needed to deflect all his social anxiety and insecurity onto me. Suddenly the war zone came into the house, where he taunted me and berated me and, once, punched me in the stomach, winding me, as I walked through the door, for no reason at all. "I hated you, Bri," he told me years later. "I don't know why."
All of us eventually learn that the world is not a safe place. It's part of growing up. We carry wounds and traumas, some big, some small, that create the stories we tell ourselves about the world and our place in it. Some people never survive their childhood traumas; they become fearful and watchful for the next blow to fall. Others seem able to gain enough perspective to recognize that while the world is a dangerous place, it's also a beautiful place.
The difference is what we do with our fear. If we're afraid of what others might do to us, we can close ourselves off, hide ourselves away, or even go on the offensive, becoming the very bullies we ourselves would fear. But if we can face our fears, learning from them, we might tell a different story, that the world is filled with wounded people and that, while some need to be avoided, others need to be healed, including ourselves. One story perpetuates fear, the other turns fear into compassion.
Gareth Higgins grew up in the north of Ireland. The city where he lived really was a war zone. People were targeted, people were hurt, and people were killed. He never knew if, rounding a corner, he would become one of those people. It terrified him. And so did the way in which he felt "different" from other boys, his emerging sexuality derided from the pulpit as "sick" and "demonic." But something inside him knew that these were not the only stories he could tell of his childhood, or of his neighbourhood, or of his church. If he could change the story of fear and self-loathing, perhaps he could rise above his own terror and take a few others with him.
So, he became a peacemaking activist. And a storytelling speaker. And a hope-wielding writer. Every chance he gets, Gareth tries to tell a different story than the one about the world as a dangerous place. Because a story about love and peace actually makes the world a little less dangerous. For all of us. And the world desperately needs stories like that right about now.
Gareth's recent book, How Not to be Afraid, considers "seven ways to live when everything seems terrifying." We talked about some of those ways in our conversation in The Mystic Cave, and we wondered how we might change the stories that imprison us to become the stories that give us life. Because he himself is living that story.
To hear our conversation, please tap the Play button below. To learn more about Gareth's work, follow the Information link (i) to the show notes.