Now that I know I’m probably wired to be afraid, it makes being a wimp a bit more bearable for me. My dear friend, Katie, once commented, “In my neighborhood, you could murder your wife and hack her up into little pieces, and it would all be okay, as long as we all understood your reasons.” I like having some science to back up my hunches.
I watched a film when I was in graduate school that depicted a group of children from birth through age six in a variety of situations. That film described them as being innately Fearful, Feisty, or Flexible. Well before the first birthday, you could tell which was wired which way, and it didn’t change. What did happen though, was that the children in the study adapted to their innate natures in one way or another. Ain’t it grand the way that works out for most of us!
With the help of a loving family, teachers, and the rest of the community around us, we develop some balance. We maintain just enough fear to keep us safe, we are feisty enough to stand up for ourselves, and we become flexible enough to cope with the things we can’t change. I personally think that the dominant type we’re born with is always a part of who we are though.
Sometimes we have no choice but to overcome our fears. I was caught in one of those instances when I climbed the ruins of a Mayan Pyramid at Chichinitza with my family when the girls were in college and I was still young enough to try to keep up with them. I had no problem getting up that mountain of steep, narrow steps with no handrail, but when I got to the top, I struggled with my terror when I looked down.
I knew that I couldn’t survive the terrible heat for very long, and there didn’t appear to be any carcasses of former adventurers… but neither did there seem to be anyone to come to my rescue. So, I bumped down on my backside. I gave real meaning to the catch phrase made popular by Nike. I just did it. Somehow, doing something that seemed impossible gave me a drop more courage from that day forward.
This summer, William took swimming lessons for the third summer in a row. Molly was determined that he would learn to enjoy the water like the rest of the family because his fears were really not much fun for anyone.
What Molly hadn’t counted on, though, was the terror of her youngest as he watched his big brother tackle the water. Owen was not quite two, but his fear for his brother was immense. “No, Winnie, NOOOO…” he howled at most of the lessons the first week.
As Owen watched from the safety of his mother’s arms, he saw William gain confidence and skill, and he eventually calmed down. At this point, Owen has no desire to jump in the pool himself, but he’s no longer afraid that Winnie will be lost forever when he plays in the water.
When I was a child, the story of Noah and the flood never made much sense to me. That mean old God had obliterated a whole society and saved only the one good guy and his small family. That's really not fair! I guess the story motivated me to try to be good though. Maybe I’d be like Noah’s wife and get to go on the ark too. In truth, however, I’m much more of a nag than Noah’s wife was, so he’d probably leave me to the flood waters.
A few summers ago most of my family was at our lake house when a ferocious looking storm brewed up across the western sky late one afternoon. I turned on the afternoon news and was barraged by tornado and storm warnings and watches. Then the power went out.
As it got darker and darker, soon the only idea of what was brewing came from the nearly continuous flashes of lightning. I couldn't even count the seconds between thunder claps they came so close together. Without a television or radio we had no idea where the storm was heading or how serious it would be there in the creaky old house. Our house sits out in the lake, and has for about eighty years, on huge pilings that come right up through the den and support the second floor. Not exactly an ark.
As the wind and waves got worse and worse, I asked my husband, who is a former Boy Scout and Army Engineer, where the safest place in the house was. He replied that there really wasn’t one, but that he planned to hang onto the pilings when the storm hit the house.
Well, my arms barely reached around the pilings, and the probability of my hanging on during a tornado wasn’t great, and I knew it. There was nothing I could do but just wait to see what happened.
I’m not great at just waiting, but once again I had no choice. All the life preservers were out on the boat, and there were too few flashlights and candles for me to go off looking for a safer place. So I waited…and I waited with an unusual lack of fear. And the storm passed.
There wasn’t a beautiful rainbow after that storm, because it was nighttime, but the next day dawned so sunny that it was hard to remember how truly bad the night before had been. The only evidence left was a large metal silo about a quarter of a mile away that the storm had crumpled like a tin can and tossed across the road.
I still don’t like to be at the lake when serious storms are predicted, but John gave us a weather radio so I could at least obsess over it if the power goes off. I have found a hidey hole under the stairs where I plan to go if necessary. That is, if I can overcome my fear of the mice and bugs under there.
I hope all of us find a safe place in our lives today.