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STRONGER TOGETHER: Beyond the Blaring Alarm - Reflections on Fear and Compassion

Last updated: 27/11/2023

"STRONGER TOGETHER" is a weekly column where Tanya explores key issues. This week Tanya reflects on the unpredictability of life's challenges, discussing fear and compassion, and emphasises the significance of approaching others' responses to fear with empathy and understanding.

By IMPACT Community Services Managing Director Tanya O'Shea

Tanya O'Shea, IMPACT Community Services Managing Director

Imagine this: you find yourself on the 43rd floor of a building in an unfamiliar city, sound asleep, when suddenly you're jolted awake by a blaring alarm in your room. Disoriented and unsure of the time, you contemplate your next move.

First, you step outside in your pyjamas to see if others on your floor are reacting. No smoke, no commotion, and no armed individuals in sight. You decide there's no immediate danger or urgency—or that everyone has already been evacuated and you’re late to the party—so you take a moment to put on some pants. While slipping into jeans, you open the curtains to peer into the dark outside, finding no signs of movement or life. The alarm persists, but you stand still, thinking only, "Damn, that alarm is loud."

As your brain finally kicks into gear, you grab your room key and head out the door, now on the lookout for the stairwell exit. Ignoring the internal voice cautioning against using the lift in an emergency, you press the lift button. Still, no sign of another soul, and you start feeling like the last survivor in a post-apocalyptic scenario. You press the lift button frantically until the doors finally open. No smoke, no immediate signs of danger, it is safe to exit. Wait, that’s an emergency evacuation from a plane. Damn. The doors close again. Mind racing, what to do, what to do. Eventually, you press the down arrow, get in, and the lift stops on the 10th floor. The door opens, but no one is there, kicking the apocalypse story into overdrive.

Reaching ground level, the lift doors open to a long corridor. The alarm persists, but you spot about 15 people gathered around the front entrance of the building. You breathe a sigh of relief as you realise that you are safe, and calmly exit the elevator, thankful you took the time to put on pants.

Heading across the street, you wait to see what unfolds. It’s at this point you realise you can’t see anything more than 10 metres in front of you because you forgot to put on your glasses, and you have no idea what time it is because you aren’t wearing your watch and didn’t grab your phone. Over the 10–15-minute period that followed, people casually exit the building, some geared up for a run, others ready to walk their dogs. Clearly, they’re accustomed to this routine.

I would love to be able to tell you that this tale was one from my youth, at a time when I was naïve and unprepared for the unexpected events that life occasionally throws at us. The reality, however, is this happened to me last week. After a life filled with unexpected turns and challenges, I found myself on the street with nothing but the clothes on my back.

I share this story because fear is a funny thing.  For some, fears are something to be avoided, overcome, minimised, or simply ignored. Fear can also shine a light on something that we need to learn or discover about ourselves.  In that moment, I was unprepared, and it's tempting to blame the situation—unfamiliar surroundings, an early wake-up, and a deafening alarm. Waking up in an unknown place tilted my world, and fear momentarily shut down my rational thinking. Thankfully, there was no Ant Middleton scrutinising my decisions, or his head might have exploded given some of my choices in those early hours (SAS fans will know what I’m talking about).

It is easy to judge others for the poor decisions they make when faced with fear. Sometimes, because a situation is so familiar to us, we don’t appreciate the fear that the same situation may create for others. The calm exit of some from a potentially alarming situation may not signify complacency but rather a unique approach to managing fear.

My experience last week was a gentle (but “alarming”) reminder to approach fear with an open mind and heart—let us not only be considerate of our own perceptions but also empathetic and compassionate toward others.

Please note: This website may contain references to, or feature images, videos, and voices of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples who have passed away.

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