Reflections on Fear, Freedom, and Growing Up

May 6, 2010 | 4 4 min read



Recently two people who wouldn’t seem to have much in common—my 26-year-old  brother and my one-year-old son—have both had me thinking about wonder and fear, and how their experiences of those two things are similar to each other’s, and different from my own.

My brother Ryan is traveling right now, halfway through a backpacking trip that will last through to the early summer.  Before he left, he took a Saturday morning bus down to Philadelphia to say goodbye.  I waited for him on the front stoop of my apartment building, with my son James perched on my hip.  We spotted him when he was still a block away and even at a distance I could tell Ryan was grinning; as the youngest sibling in our family, he had always been the one left behind, but now it was his turn to skip away.

Each morning I wake early to the sound of James crying down the hall.  Like my brother abroad, the world is a strange place to him and he’s often scared.  I bring him into the bed where he nurses with my wife; then it’s up for breakfast and the official start of the day.  I’ve lately become an expert with our toaster; the bread always comes out just right.  I eat my cereal while James munches on his diced banana, sometimes smearing the fruit across the table, sometimes putting it into his mouth.

Over the last few weeks James has learned to “cruise,” that is to walk side-shuffle by holding onto the edge of a couch or by pressing himself against a wall.  It was while watching him try to bridge the short gap between our bureau and our bed that I first thought about how his days are like my brother’s.  The previous evening Ryan had sent an email about a harrowing bus ride he’d just taken into the Himalayan foothills north of Delhi.  He said that when he’d looked out his window, there was a sheer thousand foot drop where the road was supposed to have been.  I imagine James, if he had the words, would describe his days in much the same way.

In the afternoon James and I take a long walk.  When I first moved to Philadelphia four years ago, I was running a lot and I liked the idea of trying never to follow the same route twice.  Now James and I trace the same path everyday: 20 blocks east to the river on Pine, 20 blocks back west on Spruce.  I like being able to anticipate the topography of the sidewalk, to steer the stroller around the same loose patch of bricks that I avoided yesterday, and to know by the cloud cover whether the children at the nursery school we pass along the way will be playing indoors or out.

Even amid such routine, I still have moments of wanderlust.  Every now and again a whiff of burning trash will awaken the physical memory of being alone in La Paz when I was twenty.  Or something about the way a woman pokes her head out of a third floor window will remind me of what it felt like to watch the sun go down in Darjeeling.  I feel myself drawn towards the airport in such moments, but not in a serious way.  There’s James to take care of, and my wife who’d be surprised if I didn’t come home.  But more than that, I know that the exhilaration I felt when I woke up in Delhi for the first time isn’t open to me anymore.  This is something that I think James, who no longer pays attention to a blue plastic flower he couldn’t get enough of a month ago, understands too.

Of the many misconceptions I had about what it would be like to grow older, two stand out above the rest. The first concerns freedom which I thought about in the same way I thought about candy: I couldn’t imagine how in both cases more was not always better.  It would have been impossible to convince myself ten years ago that the small orbit of my current days would feel as satisfying as it does.  This I think is the kind of knowledge that is hardest to communicate across generational lines, that in the future you won’t desire the same things you desire right now.

The second misconception is about fear.  Watching James, and thinking about how we interact, it’s easy to see why as a child I assumed that the world would becomes less scary as I grew older.  He is terrified of being left alone in his crib and I come take him out; a siren sounds outside, and he clings to my leg.  His days are filled with at least equal parts wonder and fear, and from that perspective, it must seem as though I command the world.

But I don’t of course.  Though my fears are less broadly distributed than they used to be, they are perhaps more deeply felt.  I can go days and sometimes even whole weeks without feeling afraid of anything, but then in a moment at night I’ll understand that my wife and I are not promised to fall asleep beside each other forever, and that James, who cruises around the living room each morning, will have to learn the most important things in life on his own.

[Image credit: Abnel Gonzalez]

, a staff writer for The Millions, writes the Brainiac ideas column for the Boston Globe and blogs about fatherhood and family life at You can follow him on Twitter at @kshartnett.


  1. Great column. I know these exact feelings you’re talking about. I have a 1-year-old daughter, and her mom and I have also ridden the toy train along the mountains from Kalka to Shimla after taking a train north from Delhi. I especially agree with the idea of not desiring what you thought you would when you were younger, and finding some kind of contentment in a smaller orbit. It’s taken me a little while to adjust to this, and even now, I think I’m telling myself it’s just temporary. I might be in denial. The thoughts you talk about in the last paragraph I’ve been having this week actually, and they make me very uneasy, but also grateful for the time we’ll all have together each day.

  2. Thanks Joe. As to whether a preference for a smaller orbit is a phase or something more permanent, I sometimes think about the sadhus in India. There’s a model for returning to the wide open world later in life. (I should add, for my wife’s sake, that I’m not thinking of getting measured for a saffron robe…)

Add Your Comment:

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.