Now that my husband is under contract as a part-time pastor, we all attend (a Presbyterian) church together on Sunday mornings. But some Saturday evenings I still volunteer in KidZone at the Baptist church I attended most of the five years we’ve lived here. Yesterday evening started the summer KidZone program, which this year is called “Fear Knot.”
I tried to think about what fears tie me up in knots. The ones that the lessons deal with, that are common fears in children, don’t generally trouble me. Snakes, darkness, heights, drowning, scary movies, spiders, bullies and strangers – I may not be eager to deal with them but they don’t create panic in me.
There was a time when I found it very difficult to travel alone to an unfamiliar place. I hated it when my parents would put me on a Greyhound bus to go somewhere, even when I knew there would be a familiar face to meet me upon my arrival. What if I got there and the other person wasn’t?
Even as an 18-year-old I hadn’t gotten over that fear. I travelled to Grand Rapids for a missions conference during Christmas break from college. I had communicated with someone from the conference and was under the impression that someone would meet me at the bus terminal and take me to the college where the conference was being held.
No one was there. I waited. No one showed up. I waited, gradually becoming more and more distraught. I had no idea what to do. I didn’t know anyone in Grand Rapids, I had no idea where the college was, and it was a Sunday so any public transportation that might ordinarily have been running was not in service.
Finally I broke down in tears. At this point, the bus terminal employee stepped in, found out my situation, and called the college. Someone came and got me. Situation resolved – but I hated myself for being so incompetent that I couldn’t resolve the situation myself and only by crying had gotten the help I needed.
Six months later, I was travelling even farther from home, in Spain. Now I had cultural and language barriers to deal with as well – though for having studied Spanish only one year I was able to communicate surprisingly well. (That had, in fact, been one of my goals – to prove that I could learn a language well enough in one year to get along in another country, as I expected to have to do on the mission field.)
At least twice I ended up in tears, and was “bailed out” by the chaperone of our group. Determined to prove to her – and to myself – that I could get along on my own, I made up my mind to travel on my own to Madrid, while she and most of the group went on a chartered tour that would end up in the same city. I stayed in a cheap pensión, walked miles to avoid paying bus or subway fare, and acted as my own tour guide using maps and brochures from the oficina de turismo.
I learned that it was not good to walk several miles in the hot sun without a bottle of water. (Quenching my thirst at a city fountain was probably not the smartest thing either, but as I remember I didn’t get sick on that particular occasion.) I visited castles, museums, botanical gardens, and any place else I could manage on a limited budget. And I discovered that I could, in fact, manage reasonably well on my own in a new place.
Two years later, back in Spain as a graduate student, I pushed the envelope further. I had hoped to find other students to travel with during Christmas break, but their itinerary did not mesh with mine, which required me to be in Speyer, Germany on a particular date to stay with someone my father had met during his trips to Germany a few years earlier. So I set out on my own, and in three weeks I visited Paris, Brussels, Amsterdam, Speyer, Munich, Saltzburg, and Venice, before heading back to Spain when I got tired of not being able to speak the language well enough to converse with people.
So what fears do I have now? I still have a fear of talking on the telephone, especially to strangers. But as I did with travelling, I’ve forced myself to use the phone anyway. I didn’t achieve the same comfort level as with travelling, but I wouldn’t call myself phonophobic. I often jump when the phone rings, but I tend to jump at loud noises in general, since the night twenty-two years ago when a man kicked in my apartment door and raped me.
I certainly have anxieties – Can I pay the bills? Will I think of something to say for the children’s story at church? How do I handle some difficult task at work? What will people think of my younger son when he has a meltdown? Will he have a good time at resident camp this summer? Will I have a good time at camp with him?
Before yesterday’s Fear Knot lesson, I watched the DVD segments I would be using, as well as the leader’s devotional. I learned, somewhat to my surprise, that the goal was not to get rid of our fears – after all, some of our fears are healthy. The goal is to “loosen the fear knot” so that we’re not tied up in knots by our fears.
I like that approach, recognizing that our emotions are not bad in and of themselves. Like anger, fear is a signal that there’s something going on that we need to deal with. But also like anger, fear is an emotion that can control us if we focus on the emotion instead of on dealing with the situation appropriately.
“Calm down!” That was the thrust of the first lesson, which was about Gideon, who thought he was going to die when he realized he had seen the angel of the Lord. I’m not sure just how much that helps with the fear of snakes, as people I know who have a phobia of either snakes or spiders simply seem unable to calm down when one of those creatures is present.
But there’s no effective way to deal with fear unless you first calm down enough to think clearly. Even in a situation where running away really is the best course of action, panicked flight is likely to result in tripping and falling, or getting lost, and possibly blundering into an even worse danger than the one you ran from. Our younger son has learned to take deep breaths when he is inclined to panic. (Now if he would just learn to ask for help, instead of concluding that disaster is inevitable.)
It’s useful (I think) to know something of how fear functions from a biological perspective. Goose Bumps! is a traveling exhibit on the science of fear. Since it isn’t scheduled to come to this area anytime in the near future, I’ll have to stick to reading the online resources. This article about fear and the brain shows how the brain processes fear – and how we are able to begin reacting to danger even before we are consciously aware of it.
Of course, there’s more to dealing with fear than recognizing how it works and taking deep breaths to calm down. Yesterday’s “random question of the day” at WorldMagBlog was “Where do you feel the most relaxed?” My first inclination was to say “walking in the woods” or perhaps at the shore (so long as it’s not a crowded beach and I’m not being pestered by mosquitoes or other flying insects). But instead I answered, “When I’m with someone I trust.”
No matter what the situation, if I’m with someone who knows how to deal with it (or at least I believe the person does), I can be calm. Because then I don’t feel responsible to come up with a response, only to cooperate with someone wiser or stronger. I prefer, of course, that this person be flesh-and-blood. My head tells me that God is always with me, and that He is far wiser and stronger than anyone or anything I will ever encounter. But my head also reminds me that God’s idea of keeping me safe is evidently rather different from mine (my rape experience being the chief evidence of this).
The second part of last night’s instruction to the children, after “Calm down,” was “Ask God to help you know what to do.” Many times He tells us through the knowledge/wisdom we have gained from our own experience and from the instruction of others. There might even be someone around to ask for advice. I have also heard testimonies from people that they have received direct instructions from God on what to do in a given situation.
That’s never happened to me, though I try to believe in the possibility of it. If I just prayed more, I tell myself, and learned how to listen to God, I’d be able to hear Him tell me what to do. And if I knew I was doing what God wanted, there would be no reason to be afraid. Then again, I think Jesus felt fear when he knew he was going to die soon – yet he didn’t let it stop him from doing his Father’s will. But it would have to make a big difference, knowing that you were doing the right thing.
What are your fears? Does knowing God is taking care of you reduce or remove your fear?