Fear is helpful. Imagine if you will, that you are walking through a forest when a demented lumberjack with a hatchet jumps out from behind a tree! In this imaginary scenario, you would experience the emotion of fear. Physiologically speaking, your body would release the chemical called adrenaline, which would ready your body for a possibly life-saving response: running away from the bad man with the hatchet. Your breath would become shallow, allowing you to run away with abrupt hastiness. Your pulse would quicken, aiding in your ability to think expeditiously and move rapidly through the forest and away from the life-threatening man with the hatchet. Once you were out of the forest you could thank your body’s reaction to fear and then question your life choices because, really, you probably shouldn’t have been out traipsing through the woods alone.
Fear prompts three responses: fight, flight or freeze. It is good and natural for you to feel fear in a dangerous situation.
To feel fear is healthy. To live in fear is not.
I have been in several legitimately dangerous situations in my life: situations in which the stimuli surrounding me indicated a true threat to my life and/or the lives around me. What I have learned is that I have a strong instinct to flee in these situations. I will offer a few examples to provide both understanding and, perhaps, a giggle or two:
Growing up in Los Angeles I was afforded the opportunity to spend many a day with my friends and family at Disneyland. On one such trip, my good friend Andra and I (both about 14-years-old) were waiting in line inside the Haunted Mansion. If you have never been to Disneyland, it is helpful to know that the inside of the Haunted Mansion is very dark because, as we all know, darkness adds an element of horror to most situations and environments. There was enough light skillfully provided by Mr. Disney and his designers to see the people close to you, as well as the spooky portraits hanging on the walls featuring zombie-like visages, spiders and other ghoulish figures. The kind of fear one experiences inside the Haunted Mansion is the kind that gets the heart racing a bit but, psychologically, it is more thrilling than fearful. It provides the same feeling you might get if you were sitting in the comfort of your own living room watching a scary movie. So, the Haunted Mansion isn’t truly fear-inducing . . . until it is.
When Andra and I were about ten people away from transitioning from the part of the attraction where you walk through the house to the part where you get into a car and begin to ride through, we heard two men behind us begin to argue. The muffled, tense voices quickly moved from tension to anger and then to outright yelling.
Remember, it is dark, there are about fifty people moving like cattle through red velvet ropes and there is nowhere to go. Just as the two men’s anger moved from vocal to physical, there was an audible releasing of something that sounded like hairspray. Instead, it was Pepper Spray. Suddenly, as the air was filling with some sort of chemical, the two voices became twenty voices and the emotions being communicated switched from anger to fear. My body reacted and gave me a choice: fight, flight or freeze. I flighted!
I said loudly, in her general direction, “Come on, Andra,” I ducked under the velvet ropes and pushed past some of the other people who had begun spilling out from the once orderly line. I wasn’t sure what my “plan” was. All I knew for sure was to run into the darkness. I kept running as fast as I could until I found an exit door. I pushed through the exit door, Andra breathing heavily behind me, and we followed a maze of concrete and fluorescent lighting until we got to a closed gate. The gate was wrought iron, in the fashion of the rest of the attraction, so we could see through it but we could not push past it. So, we did what any teenage girls would do in this situation and we began screaming, “Help!”
Within moments a Disneyland employee came to the gate, asked what was wrong and we told her the story as quickly as we could, “A man, pepper spray, pandemonium I tell you! Let us out!” The young woman calmly radioed to someone with a key and maybe 2 minutes later we were free. Free with our lives, our adrenaline and a really great story to tell the rest of our friends who experienced no such thing at the substantially lamer “Country Bear Jamboree” for which they had opted instead of the Haunted Mansion.
Looking back, that really was a potentially dangerous situation. Los Angeles is not a place where you want to “hang around” once angry men begin yelling at one another. I am glad to know two things: that I had the confidence to run away into the dark until I found an exit, and that I had the wherewithal to bring my friend with me.
Some of the other instances in which I found myself running from danger include the following:
- I was sitting at an In-And-Out Burger at 2:00am in Los Angeles, along with 20 other members of my youth group. For some reason, this scenario seemed like a good idea to our youth group leader. Even as a 13-year-old I remember thinking, “This is ill advised” as we all piled out of our vans and into an already substantial group of young men donning red bandanas and dressing to one side (both of which indicate gang membership). Maybe the youth group leader was lulled into a sense of safety because they were all eating hamburgers? I couldn’t tell you. So, against my better judgment, we sat and ate amongst the sea of red . . . until we didn’t.
About two bites into my burger, a series of three cars pulled up to the outdoor dining area and the tinted windows of the first car electrically rolled down about 1/3 of the way. Living in Los Angeles taught me that tinted windows rolled down about 1/3 of the way meant one thing: get out of the line of fire. So, I put my burger down on the wrapper, grabbed my friend Melissa’s hand, whispered to the rest of the kids at my table, “Come on, guys” and then ran through the young men who smelled like testosterone, mustard and marijuana. I did not stop until we reached the minivan that brought us to this god-forsaken In-And-Out Burger.
Soon, me and three other girls crouched down in the back of the van and peeked out over the seats to see the rest of our group, wide-eyed and frozen while young men donning blue bandanas and dressing to the opposite side began yelling at the “red team.” I remember the sound of men yelling and then seeing guns being raised through the windows that were rolled down 1/3 of the way. My heart was pounding so loudly I had a hard time hearing anything for several minutes and then I had a hard time seeing anymore so I just crouched down and did what any teenage girl would do in this situation: I screamed into my hands.
Ultimately, what could have turned into a story on the next morning’s news ended up in the sound of the blue team screeching away behind their tinted windows and the sound of a stampede of youth group teenagers running back to the vans all at once (as I invited them all to do in the first place, I would like to point out).
- During the 1987 earthquake in Los Angeles, I fled to the door jam, as I was taught to do in elementary school. As soon as the 6-point-something earthquake was over, I ran straight out the front door.
- When a fight broke out on the school bus in high school, I climbed over several seats and burst out the emergency door in the back of the bus like I was wearing a cape and a pair of high-heeled superhero boots.
All levity aside now: because I have been in truly dangerous situations I understand what it is to experience real and helpful fear. I am the woman who “flights” when she can.
I also know what it is like to be in a dangerous situation—not life threatening in nature—and not be able to flee.
For example, being put into a closet and made to stay there until I “chose” which sexually abusive act my perpetrator would enact upon me. That kind of fear—the kind of fear that takes away your choices and stunts your own ability to act on instinct—gets buried somewhere inside of you. I believe these moments of stolen instincts can cause the harmful kind of fear: living in fear.
I lived in fear until 2013. Though I still have bouts of fear that is not based on real-life danger but, instead, on perceived danger I now have the experience and the tools that help me rationally face fear and then push through and past it.
Fear is like a cloud: it seems like an insurmountable fog until you step into it and realize it is made of mist so delicate that you can prompt it to dissipate by poking your finger through it.
The kind of fear that you “live in” is a liar. It will tell you a lie about your inability to do or feel or say something . . . and it is exposed for the liar it is when you do or feel or say the thing with which it threatened you.
In the summer of 2013, I went on a trip to Krakow, Poland that changed my life. I traveled with Holocaust survivor Eva Mozes Kor, as well as about 100 other people, who were traveling with her as part of a trip to Auschwitz that is organized by her museum, CANDLES Holocaust Museum. The reason I was traveling with her was to gather every detail I could fit into my brain, my psyche and my iPad for the purpose of writing a play based on her experiences in the camp, as well as her decision 50 years after liberation to forgive her tormentors.
Once the money was raised, the travel plans were set and after I had completed as much research about the Holocaust as I could handle, I almost decided not to go.
Fear was telling me that I had made a big mistake and that I should not get on that plane.
I was horribly afraid to fly. As a child I flew often between California and Missouri. I was never afraid to fly . . . until I was.
On a trip in 2000 from New York City to Missouri the airplane in which I flew encountered the worst turbulence I had ever experienced. Still, to this day, I have never experienced anything like it. From that day forward, I was afraid to fly.
Think about that. I had flown maybe 50 times in my life without fear and then ONE bad experience planted a seed of fear. Instead of plucking that seed right away through talking about it, praying over it and rationally dealing with it, I let it sit in the soil of my mind until it became a weed so large that I missed out on important events in my life (including my graduation from graduate school and a friend’s wedding in another state): a bowing to fear. Yuck!
God knew what He was doing. I believe that in 2012 He allowed all of the years of built up and suppressed fear in my life to reveal itself in the form of anxiety. It was time to feel the full weight of all of the unresolved issues that I had pressed into the side of my mind and heart like paper Mache homages to fear and my self-imposed decisions to try to control the fear instead of releasing it. During this time of counseling, crying, shaking, exercising, medication, doctor’s appointments and learning what fear is, and how it had wreaked havoc on my life, I also learned how to face and conquer my fears.
The Bible says in Romans 8:28:
“And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.”
God used every dark moment of my life as an instrument with which to help strengthen me, grow my courage, learn where to place my trust and to teach me how to interact with Him as a friend, father and confidante.
And so, when the moment finally came for me to board the plane to Poland I felt fear come at me like a tidal wave. Instead of fighting the wave, planting my feet and trying to control the moment, I jumped into it, trusted God and floated a bit violently through the water until the wave was behind me.
I did not let fear stop me. Instead, I did it afraid.
On the other side of that tidal wave of fear was a new friend that I would meet moments later. A young woman named Hanna who sat next to me on the plane and who will be my friend for the rest of my life. On the other side of that tidal wave was a great sense of accomplishment, pride, courage, excitement and purpose. On the other side of the tidal wave was my destiny: to learn Eva’s story, to write the play Throwing Stones and to become a forgiveness advocate to help others in their own lives.
What is the fear that you coddle? What weeds have grown from the seeds of that which you have feared for too long? What tidal wave of fear has kept you on the shore and away from the destiny you so much wish to enjoy?
Isaiah 43:1-2 says this:
“Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you.”
—Jill Szoo Wilson