One year ago I floated toward the sights and sounds of Pride Festival on a cloud of kitten-shaped rainbows just given to me by the Supreme Court. Their decision in Obergefell v. Hodges stated in legal terms that same-sex couples have the right to marry while shouting in human terms that all love is equal. Electricity and the air at Pride were indistinguishable. I did not represent an L or G or B or T or Q or ally—we were all one people, bound by Love, and gleefully celebrated this moment in history when Love won. But that was last year. This year, I spent the morning before Pride searching for my rainbow sweatband and wondering if I should carry a knife in my pocket.
My pocket knife typically requires several moments of forearm-deep digging in my purse to excavate, which is not convenient should there be a crisis that required an immediate response with sharpened steel. I keep it in my purse because I watch too many survival shows and zombie shows and sometimes it truly comes in handy, like when a twig must be sharpened to spear a marshmallow and on Christmas morning when presents are restrained with impossible knots. The only time I carry the knife in my front pocket is when I think I am at greater risk of dying.
What happened at Pulse in Orlando could happen anywhere, I repeated to myself, resuming the argument between my head, heart, and gut, whether to carry a weapon with me or not. This decision weighed far more than the three-inch blade, even though it was a decision I had made several times before. I carry my knife in my pocket whenever I hike or am alone in a parking garage, without pausing for second thought, without having to calibrate the scales of my conscience.
My heart said that a weapon is a physical representation of readiness to act nobly in the face of fear. That defending life, my own or someone else, even if I used a lethal weapon to do so, was brave and honorable. Responding to danger with courage has been a virtue coveted since the birth of human culture.
Then my heart proclaimed with Shakespearean flair, “I want to be virtuous!”
But to say bravery exists only in the presence of weapons is untrue. Appearing defenseless before an enemy and calling for peace feels more honorable. A profound respect for life is shown when reaching for someone’s heart with compassion instead of stabbing it. Even if the outcome is death for the peace seeker. Self-sacrifice, in service of what one believes is the greater good, is widely considered a sacred act. Is this the same self-sacrifice that ISIS murderers seek?
Survival instinct always surpasses the heart’s craving to do what feels right. The decision for my gut was simple: Carry the knife in your hand! You can count only on yourself for protection! Better to be safe than sorry!
My head then mocked, “Lolllll! You think a knife shorter than your finger will keep you safe?!”
My head said if guns were feathers, the people of Kentucky could dress an entire species of birds. The logic seemed obvious: vast accessibility to weapons amplifies the opportunity for an ill-intentioned person to possess such a weapon, providing them with tools to inflict maximum harm. Therefore gunshots were a tangible possibility in Lexington, Kentucky, the host of the Pride Festival I would eventually attend once I made up my mind.
A mass shooting, a hate crime, a terrorist attack, could happen anywhere. I thought about the other cities in the United States celebrating Pride that day—Cincinnati, Bend, Flagstaff, Minneapolis, Nashville, St. Louis, to name a few—what were the odds of something bad happening at this festival on this day? Chances were nothing would happen here.
Although my head loves to rely on the numbers game to extinguish anxieties, I know there exists a day for the exception and not the rule. And if today was the day social media would be overcome with hashtag prayer requests for my city, I needed to have my mind made up—should I carry a knife in my pocket?
My feet came to a sudden stop as I identified the root of my inner conflict with one word: Fear.
If the goal of a terrorist is to inflict terror, then they had defeated me.
It isn’t unusual for scenes of horror to flash across my imagination when I enter a movie theater, school building, church, or a large crowd, like one gathered at the end of a marathon race, wondering what I would do if it happened to me. Fear of mass shootings, suicide bombings—so far they haven’t stopped me from living my life but they have influenced the habits of my life. The dilemma to carry the knife was not the cause of my fear, but one of its symptoms.
How does one eliminate fear? I considered two options:
1. Deny fear completely, which is impossible. Fear is a basic motivator. Just ask Ron Swanson. Fear has a well-established role in human life and cannot merely be ignored if it is to be conquered.
2. Replace one fear with an even bigger fear. It’s like fearing the ocean and being forced to swim in it. Once someone screams, “Shark!” the fear of the ocean is suddenly replaced with fear of the shark.
So I need a shark.
What I fear more than being attacked is losing my humanity. I fear losing compassion. I reminded myself to live in the present moment, to enjoy friends, to love, to stand tall with my queer family, feel the electricity of the community once again. To empathize with murderers I picture them as the children they were (some still are), the houses they grew up in, societies that shaped them. Then it’s easier to find how cause created the effect. It’s a science of the heart, which isn’t perfect, but I find it the most satisfying when trying to understand why people do the things they do.
I entered Pride with my knife buried inconveniently in my purse, to appease the always be prepared department of my generalized anxiety instead of the three-inch knife will protect me during any crisis variety. Once I crossed beyond the first row of vendors and saw a couple draped together in a rainbow flag, laugh and then kiss, all thoughts about my knife evaporated.
Later that night I arrived home, happy to have seen friends, proud to have added my coming out anniversary date to the community wall, spirits buoyed by the display of people living brave and free. The light of the television guided me through my final moments before bed. The news was on. Six shots had been fired at a residence in Texas. Two people were dead.
As I rummaged around my purse to untangle my phone charger I realized that my knife was missing. After some searching I found it had been at home all along, still in my hiking backpack from the week before.