I was a weird kid with a lot of anxieties and fears.
Most kids would fear things like a boogeyman or stranger danger. Maybe they’d be afraid of being left alone, forgotten by their parents. Or they’d sneak in a scary movie and suddenly be afraid of werewolves and vampires and ghosts.
Not me. My biggest fear was the Dr. Seuss book, Horton Hears a Who.
Though we owned many Dr. Seuss books, we didn’t own that one. So my first experience with the book was when it was read to me at school in the first grade.
If you aren’t familiar with this particular book, here’s a brief synopsis. Horton the Elephant is splashing in a pool one day when he hears a noise coming from a speck of dust. It turns out there is an entire tiny world living inside that speck of dust (The Whos, from Whoville) and Horton decides he needs to protect that world at all cost.
Horton is then teased and persecuted by a lot of other animals who think he’s crazy. But Horton stands his ground and keeps Whoville on a clover and goes out of his way to protect it. Finally, with all the Whos shouting, and with help from a very little Who named Jojo, who plays with a Yoyo, they are able to be loud enough that all the animals can hear them. And no one thinks Horton is crazy anymore, and everyone helps him protect Whoville.
So what’s so scary about that? There are no bad guys (except maybe that awful bullying Kangaroo and her Joey), and nothing that frightening happens.
And maybe it wasn’t that the book scared me so much, as it caused me a lot of anxiety. Because I was suddenly terrified that all the specks of dust being sucked up in our vacuum cleaner were actually tiny little perfectly formed worlds full of sentient beings who we were killing by our vicious cleaning.
I remember pulling dust bunnies out from under my bed and leaning my ear in real close to try and hear some Whos. I would go out at recess at school and look for specks of dust on the clover. I would be afraid to blow away my eraser dust after making a mistake on a paper because what if a whole world was in that bit of eraser dust????
My stomach was in knots with worry. But I was only six years old and I didn’t have the capacity to explain to anyone exactly how much this was affecting me. I told my mom, but she thought I was being adorable. But this was real and I was having trouble eating I was so upset.
One night I was lying in bed, not yet asleep when a thought occurred to me. What if, while I’d been sitting here worrying about worlds in specks of dust, we were just a world inside a speck of dust? What if we were the Whos? And out there, in some much larger world, we were at the mercy of an elephant who was being bullied by a Kangaroo? What if our elephant wasn’t as strong as Horton and the Kangaroo got his way and drowned us all in a pool?
I learned early that if you’re anxious about something, the worst thing to do to get a good night’s sleep is double-down on that anxiety. Even though I no longer believe every speck of dust has a world in it, I still sometimes get a little anxious thinking about the vastness of the universe and how we aren’t much more than a speck of dust in the grand scheme of things. But mostly, I’m comfortable with it now.