Wednesday, February 08, 2012

Come On In and Make Yourself Uncomfortable

Last week, I did something I hadn't done in ten years. I walked into a boxing gym. In college, I'd boxed a bit recreationally, and it seemed like a good time to pick it up again. In the fall I bought a Groupon to a local gym. Four months later, here I was, ready to take my first class.

The gym was full of young men working out, pushing themselves, and generally having a great time. The vibe was friendly and aggressive. I'd called the day before and knew what to expect. Despite this preparation--and the years I'd spent in similar gyms as a college student--it took almost all my willpower not to turn around and walk out the door immediately after entering.

I'm glad I didn't; the class was excellent. But I was struck by the incredible stress that comes when you jump into an unfamiliar situation or subculture. There was nothing threatening about the people at the boxing gym. And yet I felt threatened, uncertain of whether I was up to the challenge, ready to be the newbie, willing to be a novice woman among men.

We often talk in cultural institutions about reaching out to new audiences and helping them break through the threshold fear that may accompany first-time museum or cultural experiences. And yet for many cultural professionals, "threshold fear" is a hazy term. How could a person possibly feel intimidated, truly frightened, of entering a museum? How scary or confusing could it be? We can't fathom that kind of fear, and so we demean or disregard it.

If you're a museum person and you want to understand threshold fear, don't go to a museum. Go to a boxing gym. Go to an uberhip bar. Go to a place of worship that is not your own. Go to a tattoo parlor. Find a place where you feel an incredible urge to bolt out the door the minute you walk in.

Go there alone. See what makes sense and doesn't to you. Consider what intimidates you and what you feel comfortable with. Note the people, areas, or experiences you gravitate to as safe starting points.

And then go back to your own institution and try to see it through that lens. Hold on to your pounding heart, and imagine carrying that adrenaline through your own front door.

This is incredibly difficult. I can't do it with my imagination alone. But what I can do is put myself in those uncomfortable situations and perceive the raw power of the stress that accompanies them. What I can do is find people who feel that way about my institution and travel the halls with them as my guide. Threshold fear is very real. If we're going to overcome it, we've got to respect it.
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