“If Sandy is not afraid, I’m not afraid!” That’s my mantra. I can feel that familiar knot in my stomach. Fear incarnates my entire being. Gary and I and our daughter Sarah are standing at the beginning of a zipline that traverses an enormous gorge over the Zambezi River at Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe.
Having done ziplining once before in Alaska, I assume this would be the same. Silly me. A dozen short ziplines over the canopy of the forest is nothing compared to zipping into a canyon over a river that is closed even to whitewater rafters because of the volume of water cascading over Victoria Falls at this time of year.
I feel like the warthog I saw on his knees “praying” as he ate lunch. “Don’t be silly,” I say to myself, as I imagine what it would be like to tumble a half mile down into the roiling waters. “This is perfectly safe. If Sandy can do it, I can do it.”
Sandy is an adventurous woman in her seventies who accompanied our mission team to Africa University. Earlier in the day we had been buddies, navigating the slippery paths at the top of Victoria Falls. I learned that Sandy did bungee jumping at age sixty. Two years ago she made her first tandem parachute jump with an instructor. Ziplining is tame for her. Sandy remarks, “After raising three sons, I’m not afraid of anything!”
Sandy is always seeking to try new things. Despite a bad knee and having to use a cane for balance, she refuses to cut anything short on our three mile walk through the falls. “You only live once. I am going for the whole thing. I am not going to stay home and be old,” she says.
“Now, why am I doing this?” I mumble to myself, standing on top of the gorge outfitted in a fancy harness and preparing to be hurtled into the canyon. “I am paying good money for something that is causing great internal distress. It’s not too late to back out. Yet if Sandy is not afraid, I don’t have to be afraid.”
Fear is a necessary part of human life. Fear can evoke either panic or courage. Fear can paralyze us or call out the very best in us. Fear can blind our vision and diminish our capacity to act or ennoble us to do great things. All through the Bible we read the words “Do not be afraid.” They come from the patriarchs, psalmist, prophets, Jesus, and the apostle Paul.
- Psalm 118:6 “With the Lord on my side I do not fear.”
- Isaiah 41:10 “Do not fear, for I am with you. Do not be afraid, for I am your God.”
- Joshua 1:9 “Be strong and courageous; do not be frightened or dismayed, for the Lord God is with you wherever you go.”
- John 4:18 “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear.”
Angels appear to Zechariah, Mary, Joseph, and the shepherds, urging them not to be afraid, as each one plays a role in the birth of the Messiah. Jesus encourages the disciples not to fear when they face storms, uncertainty, or danger. At the Last Supper in the gospel of John (14:27), Jesus says to his disciples, “Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.” Nevertheless, Jesus’s followers disappear in fear after he is arrested.
It’s almost my turn to zipline. “If Sandy can do this, I can do this. There is no rational reason for my fear,” I keep repeating. Yes, it is good to be cautious. It is wise to think through situations and not make rash choices. Preparation enables us to make good decisions so that we do not have to fear. “I can do this. I will not be afraid.”
We watch five young adults do the zipline before we’re up. One woman trembles and says, “I don’t want to do this.” Urged on by her friends, she makes the plunge and gives a thumbs-up as she hurtles down the zipline. A man with a camera strapped to his helmet intends to video himself. I assume he would display bravado, but he’s obviously scared as well. He finally lets go of the platform. Another woman goes tandem with a friend, but she is shaking when she returns and says, “That was awful. Why did I ever do that?” Whatever shred of confidence I had is gone.
Does fear ever take over your life? Do phobias get the best of you? Do you miss out on great experiences because of the fear of failing, embarrassment, and physical harm, or the inability to trust? I am not a great risk-taker when it comes to daring physical acts like parachuting, skiing down double diamonds, or racing my bike down a hill at forty miles an hour. I also have a well-developed fear of enclosed places. At the same time I thrive on continually pushing myself physically and professionally because I am convinced that human beings have the capacity to do far more than we think we can.
Even on Easter morning, fear abounds. In Matthew the guards are scared stiff when an angel rolls back the stone and perches on it after an earthquake. In Mark a young man sitting inside the tomb says to the women who come to anoint his body, “Do not be alarmed.” But they flee the tomb and don’t say a word to anyone, “For terror and amazement had seized them.”
In Luke, when two men in dazzling clothes appear beside the empty tomb, the women are terrified. However, when the men say to the women, “He is not here. He is risen,” they overcome their fear and rush to tell the good news to the disciples and all the rest.
My stomach is tied in knots. I really don’t want to chicken out now. Besides, I’ve always tried to face my fears. Every time I preach I am terrified and feel sick to my stomach. I fear that I won’t be able to express what is in my heart and am afraid of looking like a fool. But every single time, for thirty-two years, I have prayed, “God, I can’t do this by myself,” and God has been with me. Should I or shouldn’t I?
Over the years I’ve discovered techniques for facing fear:
- Staying physically fit and rested seems to give humans strength and courage.
- Learning to trust others makes it easier to trust God and tap into the power of the Holy Spirit.
- Acquiring knowledge about potentially fearful situations gives us confidence to act wisely.
- Teaching ourselves ways to keep calm under pressure counteracts fear and panic.
- Reminding ourselves of lessons learned from the past empowers us to formulate a plan for encountering new fears.
- Periodically pushing ourselves to move out of our comfort zone helps us to enjoy new experiences rather than fear them.
- Focusing on caring for others rather than obsessing with ourselves is a great antidote to fear.
Now it’s our turn. I want to go before Gary and Sarah, knowing that otherwise I might just walk away. I rationalize, “Just because Sandy can do it doesn’t mean you have to. On the other hand, you have to learn how to deal with your fears, Laurie, or you will miss out on a lot of great adventures in life.”
“Mom, I’ll go with you.”
I hesitate. I don’t want to ruin her experience.
“It’s okay, Mom. I’d love to go with you.”
“Really? Thanks, Sarah. Let’s do it.”
I give a thumbs up and off we go, riding tandem. Now exactly why was I so afraid? After all, you only live once.