Altered State

“Don’t give in to your fears. If you do, you won’t be able to talk to your heart.”~ Paulo Coelho, The Alchemist

We made our annual trek in a rented minivan for family vacation–four adults and three children. On any journey of length it’s helpful if the passengers get along and fortunately we do, but even for the most congenial and heartiest of travelers there comes a time for stretching legs and releasing energy. On the second day of our trip we did just that and made an unscheduled stop in Pensacola, Florida at the Naval Air Museum. We unfolded ourselves, coaxed legs into action, and walked inside without knowing what to expect. The cavernous metal building was filled with different types of aircraft strategically placed to tell the story of flight from Kitty Hawk to the Blue Angels. While our grandchildren quickly rediscovered their land legs in the shadows of every conceivable mode of air transportation suspended by cables from high up metal girders, my wife and I walked at a more age appropriate pace and attempted to take it all in. As grandparents are want to do, we looked for ways to maximize the experience for the kids and our gaze settled on what a sign innocently designated as a flight simulator. With two boys to corral, this was just the thing to occupy a twelve year old and seven year, the only problem being that the height of the youngest required an adult to accompany them. With their father out of sight pushing their younger sister in a stroller somewhere across the museum, the lot fell to me to ride with them. My wife paid for tickets and I climbed inside with the boys. I was as anxious as they were for the simulated flight until the door closed and I remembered my extreme claustophobia. Too late to formulate an excuse to exit, it dawned on me that being in a simulator meant that I would be trapped inside a box for who-knew-how-long with no way to escape with pride intact. While my grandsons laughed and prepared for the “flight”, I frantically looked around for a way out and spied a red handle on the ceiling in front of me with a sign next to it that read “emergency stop.” It might better have been labeled ‘Panic Button.’ I fought the almost uncontrollable urge to jump up, slam my fist into the red handle, and claw my way out of the cage. I was too young to be buried alive. I gave myself the pep talk of a lifetime, attempting to convince that the struggle was all in my mind; I guilted myself to get a grip, to fight through the cold sweat and gritty panic. The box swayed and swerved in sync with the images on the screen in front of us, and as we slid from side to side I sat face to face with fear. Fear is an ugly thing, especially when it is your own. 

Quite honestly, I am unafraid of most things. I do not like snakes, especially a green mamba dangling overhead from a thorny acacia tree while preaching in Tharaka, Kenya. I have a long term dislike of the dark that was forged at an early age, but I am not terrified of shadows. What I do fear is being trapped with no way of escape. It may be relinquishing control, or some other psychosomatic influence, but the bottomline is that fear alters my perception of reality. “We’ve known for a long time that fear and anxiety can disrupt cognitive processes,” says Stella F. Lourenco, PhD, a cognitive psychologist at Emory University in Atlanta. An example is the person who fears losing control over her car because she perceives inclined bridges as steeper than they really are. Again, the mere thought conjures up memories of driving across the Rainbow Bridge near Port Arthur as a teenager. Fear convinces that everything is what it seems to be, even though the perception is far from true. 

As the flight simulator heaved and bucked and I fought to regain breath, I remembered something I had read and decided to fling my hopes upon it: Fear not, for I am with you (Isaiah 41:10). An accurate translation is “Do not continue being afraid because I am with you.” Fear is conquered by recognizing distortion and then focusing on reality. Face your fear and know that God is working gently behind the scenes to bring you to the light, strengthening you in the process.

“I was flying somewhere one day when all of a sudden the plane ran into such a patch of turbulence that it started to heave and buck like a wild horse. As an uneasy flyer under even the best of circumstances, I was terrified that my hour had come, and then suddenly I wasn’t. Two things, I remember, passed through my mind. One of them was the line from Deuteronomy ‘underneath are the everlasting arms,’ and for a few minutes I not only understood what it meant, but felt in my nethermost depths that without a shadow of a doubt it was true, that underneath, undergirding, transcending any disaster that could possibly happen, those arms would be there to save us if my worst fears were realized.” (Buechner, The Eyes of the Heart)

Fear fabricates an altered state of reality, and acknowledging it is a crucial step back into the light of who we are, and, correspondingly, who we are not. See yourself and immediate context as God does, and stride or limp or crawl forward, hand in his.

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