Last Sunday I helped in the four-year-olds’ room at church. It has been years since I spent extended time with children this age. I teach teenagers and raise teenagers, so I can tell you all about that particular species. However, these little people smelled sweeter (like applesauce) and acted sweeter (shouting “I love Jesus!” during story time) than the aforementioned teens (who never smell like applesauce and rarely exclaim, “I love Jesus!”).
After story and snack time, we erupted from the classroom onto the playground to release our Goldfish-fueled energy. I found myself by the swing set pushing children on side-by-side swings. One after another they lined up for a turn, and each of them gave me the same instruction: “Higher.” When my attention would wander from the job at hand, excited little voices in a singsong chant reminded me, “Higher, higher, higher!” They had no fear as they sailed high, rushing through air and toward the sky.
What a stark contrast to the last time I was on a swing! Five years ago my friend, Jennifer, and I were at a retreat center that had one of those “two-man” harness swings. It was called “The Screamer”. The prior year I had backed out when a friend and I were headed its way. So, this time I was resolute. I would not give in to fear! I would not back down! (This was my internal dialogue, in addition to some name calling, I’m sure.) Jennifer and I stood on the platform, high atop the trees, getting our harnesses secured and helmets fastened snugly. I was strangely calm. The guide urged us onto the precipice of the tower and instructed that on the count of three we would step off…into nothingness. 3…2…1.
As we plunged and began flying through the trees, back and forth, back and forth, my eyes clamped shut. The voices in my head shut up. And for the first time in its history, “The Screamer” was eerily silent. If you listened closely, you could probably hear Jennifer asking, “Are you okay?” and then providing calming words of encouragement. As soon as our feet hit the ground and my jelly legs could hold, we walked up the hill, away from the onlookers. It was only then that I burst into the shaky tears of someone scared to death.
I’ve been captured by these two contrasting images since saying goodbye to the children on Sunday.
I see these little ones, in their freedom, soaring toward the heavens, and I see me, in my fear, falling apart.
I wonder why? Why did I lose my fearlessness and replace it with an internal warning sign cautioning “danger ahead”?
After my experience on “The Screamer,” I spent some time processing the deeper story it revealed. Why did I push myself to do it? And why was I so afraid? I’m not necessarily scared of heights, and I’m not aware that I suffer from death anxiety. Here’s what I realized: I believed that I was conquering the spirit of fear inside me by jumping off that platform—fear that had nothing to do with heights or death. I viewed my fear as weakness, so I wanted to crush it. In that effort, I actually caused more harm.
I once heard a counselor/speaker describe a similar situation. He, along with his beloved dog, ventured off on a hike while camping alone in the woods. He pushed forward on the trail, even as it became extremely hazardous. Soon it turned into a life-threatening situation for both of them. Later, settled safely into his tent, he reflected on the harried ordeal, and a young part of his heart spoke up: “You always do that to me.” Charging forward, taking risks, facing danger without checking in with his heart. When I listened to that story, I identified that in the moments after “The Screamer,” while I was still trembling with fear, a small voice was whispering, “You always do that to me.”
Since that time I have become increasingly mindful of my fear—what rouses it, how I react to it, and how I respond to myself in the midst of it. Rather than taking matters into my own hands and pushing through (or jumping off, as the case may be), I give myself permission to sit with the fear, examine it, and try to name it. Sometimes this requires more courage than charging into danger. When the voice I hear speaks (or shouts) demeaning words and accusations, I recognize that this might not be my inner voice, and it certainly isn’t the voice of my Father. Then, I invite His healing into those fragile, fearful places.
As God lovingly tends to these places in my heart, I am increasingly becoming free: free of self-condemnation, free of timidity, and free of fear. His Word tells me that he has not given me a spirit of fear (2 Timothy 1:7), but instead, “where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom (2 Corinthians 3:17). I want this freedom. I welcome this freedom. In the days and years to come, I want to soar toward the heavens as my Father pushes me forward, chanting in delight: “Higher, higher, higher!”
Susan Tucker spends her days mothering her two teenage sons, teaching middle school English, and savoring rare moments of quiet and solitude. She lives in Knoxville, Tennessee, with her sons and her husband of 21 years. Susan finds life in a beautiful story, an authentic conversation, worship music, and ultimately, in Jesus, the giver of all good gifts.