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I’ve been working on a writing project, and an unexpected theme has emerged.
The book isn’t a memoir – not really – but it has lots of stories, and one of the recurring themes in those stories is how afraid I have been in certain situations over the years. How could I have lived so long and not been aware of so much fear?
I am a healthy, white male – and what my mother lovingly described as “big boned.” So, fear has not been something I think much about. Beyond my physical presence, I grew up in a safe suburban neighborhood, with lots of nice – by which I mean white – neighbors. I have always felt safe. I recognize, of course, that all of this was privilege. My life, from the beginning, has been safe and comfortable and – mostly – without fear. In those rare occasions when I have felt fear, it was always because I was taking a risk or, in my mind, simply having an adventure.
In the research for my writing project, I found that risk-taking behavior can be a product of both nature and nurture. Some of us grow up in families or have parents who are curious and love to explore and experience new things, and sometimes that rubs off on children. That is true of me, though I should note that my parents, being Christian Reformed, imposed some strict limits on their curiosity. In other words, I was raised to be curious but only to a point.
As for the nature component, scientists have apparently identified a gene called the DRD4-7R, which has been dubbed the “adventure gene.” Twenty percent of the population has this gene, and those people, according to the studies, are more likely to be restless, curious, even intrepid.
I don’t know if I have the DRD4-7R gene. My ancestry.com results were silent on the matter. But looking back, much to my surprise, I realize that I can sometimes be a risk taker, which has resulted in unexpected (but very real) fear.
Here’s an example: I once led a mission trip to Israel – to the village of Ibillin in the Galilee region. On the last day, a “free day” in Jerusalem, I decided to go to Mount Sinai, which I had not seen on previous trips to Israel. And so, I rented a car, and along with my 19-year-old nephew drove nearly 200 miles south from Jerusalem to Eilat, an Israeli resort town on the Red Sea.
We left our car in a hotel parking lot and walked across the border to Egypt. Once on the Egyptian side, we hired a cab driven by a Bedouin driver who would take us to St. Catherine’s Monastery at the base of Mount Sinai (one of several locations thought to be the biblical Mount Sinai).
About the time my nephew and I set out in the rental car for Eilat, however, the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv issued a warning to all Americans to stay in their hotels – for their safety. The reason? That night, in 1993, then-President Bill Clinton ordered the launch of 23 Tomahawk cruise missiles into Baghdad – in retaliation for the assassination attempt on George H.W. Bush, the former President, who was visiting Kuwait. At the time, no one knew how the Arab world would react.
As we drove along in the darkness of the Sinai Peninsula, after midnight, our cab was stopped by the Egyptian army, and our driver was ordered out of the car. We could hear our driver speaking with an army officer in Arabic, but had no idea what they were talking about, only that the conversation was animated.
After finishing with our driver, the officer approached the cab and shone his flashlight into the backseat where we were sitting. In excellent English, he asked to see our passports. “Haven’t you heard what happened tonight?” he asked. We could honestly say no. So, with an annoyed tone, he explained what had happened, and we quickly realized that we were in a precarious situation.
I had felt responsible for my young nephew during the entire trip, but that sense of responsibility suddenly took on new meaning. I decided in that moment that I was going to give my life in exchange for his, if it came to that.
Finally, after a few long minutes of deciding what he was going to do with us, the officer tossed our passports into the backseat and told us to “be careful.” Our Bedouin driver hopped back into the driver’s seat, and we set off again for Mount Sinai.
We arrived at the mountain just before 2:00 a.m. and started our climb. We reached the top of the mountain by 4:00 a.m. and could see little, so we sat down and dozed and waited for the sun to rise over the Gulf of Aqaba. By the time the sun was finally over the horizon we could see at least two hundred other pilgrims at the top of the mountain. There was no sound, only the smell of burning incense coming from a small Orthodox church. I felt a wave of gratitude that we had survived the night.
I am aware that the Bible often mentions fear. The word is apparently used more than 360 times, though often in connection with “fearing the Lord,” which is a different kind of fear.
Here’s the thing: commands like “fear not” or “be not afraid” have never been helpful to me. Like “have no anxiety about anything,” the command to “fear not” never produces in me serenity and calm. Even words like “perfect love casts out fear,” however profound they may be, have never helped me when I felt fear. I tried to love my nephew and the entire Egyptian army in the back of that cab, but I was still afraid.
As I get older, I sense that my fearfulness is occurring more often. Being white, male, and “big boned” doesn’t count as much these days. I am pretty sure that I won’t be able to win as many fights as I used to – that is, as I used to in my imagination. And so, I will probably be taking fewer risks, which may be a good thing, and I will probably be doing more risk assessments, looking for danger where I never used to. But that isn’t the same thing as conquering or overcoming fear.
I suppose I am like the disciples in the boat while Jesus sleeps in the back. I am one of those “little faiths” who is learning – ever so slowly – to trust in God’s care. I want to be able to say, “The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom [or what] shall I be afraid?”
I am not quite there, but I am making progress. A first step has been to acknowledge that my fears are real.