Saturday, March 31, 2012

Be Not Afraid

Tim's preparing a presentation on torture in the Middle Ages, so I've been thinking about fear. Medieval punishment was very painful and very public. The idea was that you could kill many birds with one stone -- dispatch the guilty (?) party and give onlookers big incentive to toe the line as well.

Fear can be powerful.

I remember the morning I was heading off to the doctor after John had battled croup all night. Hours of crying, wheezing, praying, everything but sleeping -- all mixed in with a marathon of Thomas and the Magic Railway that began somewhere around 2:00 a.m. and continued into the wee hours.

John heard the word doctor and launched into a dramatic meltdown. He whined. He pouted. He kicked things.

I continued making my way toward the door. Where's Ainsley's cup? Check her diaper. Is the coffee ready? Grab the keys.

And John's angst reached a fever pitch that could no longer be ignored.

While every part of my sleep-deprived, under-caffeinated self wanted to bark, "Get in the van already!", I found myself saying, "John, why are you so upset?"

"Shots," he wailed. And I mean wailed. He howled with all the gusto his four-year-old self could muster. Oh. My. Goodness.

His last appointment with the doctor had been his four year check and had included four immunizations. John was afraid. To look at his behavior that morning, you might have thought he was rebellious, undisciplined, or just plain obnoxious. On any given day, John can be all those things. But that morning, he was driven by nothing but raw fear, and so he acted out.

"Fear," says Saint Teresa of Avilla, "is the chief activator of all our faults."

Have you ever lied in a moment of panic? Most of us did this as children. I managed to do it as an adult and -- get this -- to a priest no less.

Father John, an old and dear friend of mine, went on a tour of West Africa. He knew I was teaching world history, so he gave me a copy of his videos to show my class. Months later, I ran into Father John right before Mass.

"How did the class like the video, " he asked as he was gathering his vestments.

"Oh, ah, it was great, just great. They loved it," I answered.

Truth was, they never watched it! I had put it on a shelf planning to show it and forgot all about it. Father John asked me about it, and I panicked. In my embarrassment and vanity, I lied.

To a priest! Minutes before Mass!

Good gravy, I was aghast! I told my friend Katharina, and she absolutely busted a gut laughing. Right after Mass, I found Father John and 'fessed up. He laughed even  harder than Katharina.

Oh, the things we do!

I've been in a few deep conversations trying to crack the code on why it can be such a struggle to think, to say, to do the right thing.  Why do mothers invest so much energy in comparing themselves to other mothers? Why did we so often find ourselves -- in our professional lives, in raising children, in our marriages -- on an endless pendulum that swings between judging other women and condemning ourselves?

Mary Lane over at has a great post  called "How to Be Happy for Other People in Four Easy Steps."  She grapples with that green-eyed monster we call envy. One of her key tips for combating envy is to recognize the underlying source. Oftentimes that underlying source is fear.

Mary writes:

Another person’s happiness takes nothing from you

At its core, I think this tendency to comparison and to envy is rooted in fear. We’re afraid that, if good things happen to our friends, there won’t be enough good to go around for us. As a result, it’s hard to be happy for our friends’ good fortune because a small part of us fears that this means there is less left for us. But all we need to do is realize this one simple truth: One person’s happiness truly takes nothing from you.

Long about five and a half years ago, I found myself in a sad, sad place. Dave and I were the parents of two beautiful boys -- Tim and Kolbe. We wanted another child and, instead, experienced miscarriage after miscarriage. In November of 2006, I had just lost my sixth baby. Our doctors had no answers, and I had little hope.

I woke up one morning, poured myself a cup of coffee, and sat at the computer to catch up on my favorite blogs. I clicked over to Testosterhome, my friend Rachel's blog, and found a sonogram photo with the headline "Tiny little rice-sized bundle of joy." My friend was expecting her fifth baby.

And do you know what? I grieved. I grieved. I rejoiced for her, but I grieved for me. I processed every thought a person processes when faced with the reality The Rolling Stones captured in their classic tune "You Can't Always Get What You Want."

We can't always get what we want. We want a trip to the park, and we end up in the doctor's office getting four shots. We want a good night's sleep, and we get croup and nebulizer treatments. We want a baby, and we wind up with pain and loss.

It takes an act of faith -- an exercise of hope -- to look beyond the present and embrace Mary's pearl of wisdom: All we need to do is realize this one simple truth: One person’s happiness truly takes nothing from you.

That day I chose to be happy for Rachel. I posted my congratulations on her blog:

Happy news, Rachel! I’m praying that you will have a great pregnancy. It will be neat to see how much the boys enjoy a baby now that they are all a little older.


I meant it. It was hard to write, but I meant it. It was an act of the will. Adults -- usually better than children -- can choose to do the right thing, can choose to say the right thing, and with herculean effort can even choose to think the right thing.

About two weeks later I found out that I was pregnant. In fact, I was early, early pregnant when I posted that comment. Eight months later, Rachel's Henry and my John were born just a week apart.  Over the next thirty months, Rachel and I both welcomed our first daughters into these families full of boys.

Rachel's happiness took nothing from me.

Mary's advice on being happy for others continues with a quote from Cicero who wrote,"Friendship improves happiness and abates misery, by the doubling of our joy and the dividing of our grief.” 

This is so true of my friendship with Rachel. Her family, her friendship -- they have added to my joy and divided my grief and given me a lot of laughs in between.

Fear has its uses. That state trooper positioned on the median prompts me to slow down and probably saves lives. One frightening encounter with a rip tide instilled in me a healthy fear of the ocean. I want my children to understand that streets and drugs and strangers can be dangerous.

But when fear paralyzes us, when it leads chronic discontentment, when we can no longer rejoice with others, when we lie to a priest!  -- well, then it really can become the chief activator of all our faults.


Rachel said...

Thanks for this Kel. You are such a dear friend. We love y'all so much too! xo

christinelaennec said...

Very interesting post, thanks Kelly! With our older son, who had extreme behaviour problems to do with the trauma he'd suffered before we adopted him, I remember the moment that it clicked with me that behind his rages lurked fear.

And as for jealousy, yes sometimes it's really hard to truly be happy for others when they have something that life has denied us. Currently I find myself feeling sad when I see all the teenagers after high school laughing at the bus stop. The fact that my daughter has been unwell for months now shouldn't make me resent their happiness, but I have to really be strict with myself and stop the internal "It's not fair!". I realise that everyone will have challenges sometime or other, and that even when people look happy they aren't necessarily. So I need to rejoice that other people's teenagers seem to be full of life and health. Most of the time I succeed... I guess we're all human.

Kelly said...

You're a great friend, Rach! Hope your trip goes well.

Christine - We all have to fight hard to avoid the "It's not fair" mentality. Resentment is a natural reaction. What you want for your daughter is a good thing, not a selfish one.

You wrote about reconciling a loving God with long term suffering. It takes an exercise of faith (and really corraling our thoughts) to dwell more on the ultimate goodness of God and less on our present pain.

Much easier said than done.