The blinding flashes, followed seconds later by the ominous growing rumble and the deafening, explosive crash, made futile any attempts to ignore the wind whipping the deluge into horizontal sheets. My little sister, just a toddler, with eyes wide, and fear beginning to flicker over her so beautiful features, mustered her recently acquired ability to speak intelligible words, and her even more newly acquired self-control, and spoke with serious intensity. “Thunder and lightning come down and go BOOM!” It struck me as cute and comical, but that was a superficial observation, and something about the moment broke through my exceedingly dense and callow teenage consciousness. The significance of the moment dawned upon me and I haven’t forgotten.
As she spoke, her eyes, looking closely into those of her brother, became calm and her features composed themselves. It was my brother, several years younger even than I, who held her attention and had just said those silly words to her in the midst of the screaming storm. And now she was repeating them back to him.
We have all experienced and come to some kind of terms with the force of a storm, or the source of other threatening events. Some of us display a cavalier bravado that depends entirely on statistical probabilities, or on our foolish assumption of lack of personal vulnerability, or reliance on the silver spoon that may have been presented at birth. That evaporates when our perception of the odds against us looms past our threshold of cockiness, or when reality takes a grim and unexpected turn. Some of us take shelter in a belief that whatever happens, it was God’s plan, and if God fries us with His lightning strike, then He’ll be certain to send us straight to our everlasting reward in Heaven … but only if, when the fatal blow descended, we believed according to the tenets of the particular sect into which we were born or which had smoothly slipped into our cultural bias. Some of us have surrendered to fear by being always fearful, or by trying to avoid any circumstance that might raise the specter. Many of us willingly turn over our precious freedoms to ‘the authorities’ in vain hope that they will protect us. Some of us diversify our portfolio and bank on a shifty combination of all of the above.
My sister was grappling consciously, perhaps for the first time in her life, with real fear. It would not do to mock and laugh at her dilemma. It would be a serious disservice to assure her condescendingly that everything was going to be ok when no one knows that in advance. Neither rational arguments nor lies nor indoctrination would truly help her in her struggle.
It was my brother who recognized and reached out to her with a wisdom and sensitivity way beyond his years. You see, my brother is a loving and a caring person, and the secret I’m sharing with you is that this is the root of real courage. If you wish to manifest exemplary courage when the time comes, then work on love and caring, and forget about rehearsing heroics. My brother’s courage, born of love and caring, burnished and revealed often in the years that followed, shined on our little sister. She could see his great heart in the light of his eyes, and he showed her that day how to master her fear. Not by Pollyannaish denial. Not by memorization of magic phrases. Not by logic or bravado, nor with shame or ridicule. But by quiet example and with love.
Your fear is mine. We cannot make it disappear. But we can be strong and face it when we must. And when we have truly mastered our own fear, we will take great care to never impose it on others.
July 1, 2004