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Fear Is My Teacher

Posted by Christopher Heffron on 9/10/19, 7:00 AM

A look at fear | (c) focalpoint www.fotosearch.comOne of my favorite scenes from A Charlie Brown Christmas is the one in which our hero books some face time with Lucy, the resident psychiatrist. For a paltry nickel, she runs down a list of phobias from which Charlie might be suffering.

Cats? Staircases? Crossing bridges? Nope, none of those.

The rest of the conversation went as follows:

“Do you think you have pantophobia?”

“What’s pantophobia?”

“The fear of everything.”

“That’s it!”

True to her proactive nature, Lucy suggests Charlie busy himself to conquer his fears and curb his deepening, adolescent depression. (Oh, if life could be that simple!) While I’ve never suffered from pantophobia, I don’t remember a time in my life when I wasn’t cautious, tremulous, even afraid. My mom continues to tell this story with relish: When my sister, Lauren, first attempted to walk, my mother steadied her on her feet. Then Lauren charged ahead, arms akimbo like a pint-sized stuntwoman. Of course, she fell on her face and wailed, but even as a baby she was fearless.

Same scenario, four years later. My mom steadied me for my first few steps and then sat back. But I wouldn’t let go of the coffee table. With every step, I made sure my hands kept their grip, as though I had a preexisting fear of what might happen. It’s an instinct that has never left me. I don’t learn with abandon like my sister. I cope with challenges by envisioning every possible outcome and planning accordingly.

Some scenarios, however, I cannot control. One of my greatest fears is flying. My relationship with air travel is multilayered. For starters, I am simply not built for longer flights. I’m taller than average: long on legs, short on tolerance for tight spaces. In November of 2001, I was on a flight to Los Angeles to do a story. The second I sat down in my seat, my mind began to race. My palms were sweaty. My knees started to knock.

I closed my eyes and forced myself to breathe deeply. I was certain that we’d have engine troubles. Or that my luggage was on a flight to Belarus. Or that the pilot had one too many scotch and sodas at the airport Chili’s. I envisioned everything.

I was so deep into my Lamaze breathing that I didn’t notice the young woman who sat down two seats over. And she was in even worse shape than I was. Every noise made her jump. She buckled and unbuckled her seatbelt constantly. As the plane was approaching the runway, she pulled out a St. Christopher prayer card (which never dawned on this Chris—go figure). And as we took off, I saw her grip the card so tightly her fingers turned white. This heartened me. Even though I was filled with anxiety, there was somebody on the flight even more terrified.

We struck up a conversation not long after takeoff. It turned out to be the first enjoyable flight I had taken. I even enjoyed the in-flight movie—Miss Congeniality—and I hadn’t thought that would ever be possible. God sends little remedies all the time and we rarely notice. Sometimes it can take the shape of conversation with a new friend or a bad Sandra Bullock movie. Fear is a great teacher, but God is a better one.

There will come a day—possibly even tomorrow—when I’ll be unsteady on my feet, cautious, afraid, just as I was when I learned to walk. But I’ll put one foot in front of the other, armed with a mantra that has been credited to Joan of Arc: “I fear nothing for God is with me.”


Minute Meditations

Topics: God's Grace, Anxiety, Fear, Facing Fear