“When I was five, growing up in Pittsburgh in 1950, I would not go to bed willingly because something came into my room. This was a private matter between me and it. If I spoke of it, it would kill me. . . . I lay alone and was almost asleep when the damned thing entered the room by flattening itself against the open door and sliding in. . . . The light stripe slipped in the door, ran searching over Amy’s wall, stopped, stretched lunatic at the first corner, raced wailing toward my wall, and vanished into the second corner with a cry. So I wouldn’t go to bed.” (Annie Dillard, in An American Childhood)
“I tell you, my friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body and after that can do no more.” (Lk. 12:4)
Though I have forgotten much of childhood’s events and even more of the depth of its emotions, I will never forget the sense of fear that darkness could bring on. One of my earliest memories is of a hysterical conviction that the burning red face of Satan resided in the window air conditioner in the dining room of my first childhood home. I would not enter that room willingly or alone. I tell you, it was real. And I was two.
We moved, trading suburb for suburb, and yet the darkness was still populated with shadowy child-eating goblins that I could see just out of the corner of my eye, just on the edge of vision, bogeymen that sprung up when my back was turned only to disappear when I turned around (if I dared). If I was in the basement coming up the stairs, I ran. I could feel the heat of its hand on my backside, just inches from grasping me before I emerged in the light at the top of the stairs, the kitchen, where the settled warmth of lamplights and the smell of evening coffee dispelled the fear. I quickly closed the door, composed myself, and took my place at the table, another narrow encounter with the Underworld avoided. I was safe, for now.
It wasn’t just the basement. My bedroom, shared with my younger sister, lay off the hallway between my parent’s and sister’s bedrooms. The back of the room was a bank of windows, barely curtained from the dark, cold thin panes of glass all that separated me from the devils of the outside. I made a game of it. If I ran as quickly as I could, toward my parent’s bedroom, I could avoid his gaze, his prying eyes, the glare of the creature who looked in my windows at night, who saw me lying in my bed, asleep, who but for the window panes’ thin veneer of security would have me, would spirit me away.
There was another problem. I couldn’t sleep. I lay awake, long after the stirrings of my sister had ceased, the rise and fall of her breathing taking on a quiet regularity, and long after my father began to snore, lightly. I lay awake, my head covered by the sheets, listening to a house alive, the structural and mechanical murmurings and whisperings of the day now rising to lively conversation in the dark --- the hum of the refrigerator motor answering the intermittent call of the air conditioner fan, pipes groaning like some inexplicable digestive mystery, and then a creaking, just now and then, like the house was settling back on its haunches, its vigilance giving way, cracks appearing in its armor, mice and ants and other nocturnal animals and insects entering in. I lay wake for a long, long time, for what felt like all night, convinced that my mother would enter the room at any time, telling us to get up for breakfast, asking us how we slept, and then comforted by the first rays of daylight I would spring to my feet and insist that I had not slept at all and felt just fine. That never actually happened.
At one point, my insistence that there were creatures outside became tiresome. I moved to a cot in my parent’s room. I know that they tried many things I cannot now remember before resorting to this, telling me I’m sure that God was with me watching over me. I wouldn’t have disbelieved this, but I needed something I could see. I lay awake watching my Dad sleep. I lay awake long after everyone had gone to sleep.
I lived. I grew up. Like most kids, I shed those monsters somewhere along the way. Some kids have those fears, some don’t. Maybe it’s that we thought about things more, analyzed life more and didn’t just live it. Maybe we had well-endowed imaginations. Maybe some event, real or imagined, provided the explicable or inexplicable reason for our insecurity. Maybe it’s genetic, a “chicken-heart” gene. But I know it is not unusual for some kids to have fears of the dark, to see monsters in the shadows.
We grow up. But we trade fears of bogeymen for new fears --- fears of death, perhaps, or losing our job and being destitute, of being embarrassed or of failing miserably, or of being alone. These are the phantoms of adulthood, the ones we may laugh at, distract ourselves from, or suffer under. Just like the creature in the cellar, the monster outside the window, they are real.
Jesus says time and time again, "do not be afraid." Do not be afraid of those who kill the body. But wait a minute. That hurts, and I don't want to die, yet anyway. I'm sure my mother told me something like this. And I'm sure I wanted something with skin on to calm my fears.
In the end, it's impossible not to feel fear, not to realize that bad things can happen, that life won't be a holiday tomorrow, or the next day, even if it is today. But I've come to a new understanding of these admonitions to not be afraid. Jo Kadlecek says that in addition to warning us of danger and keeping us safe, "fear was also meant to push us overboard --- arms flailing, legs kicking, eyes stinging --- so that we could be, have to be, rescued." Saved, she means. Saved by a story, the story, by the One who we can trust to be with us in our fear and uphold us. That doesn't mean I'm not afraid at times, but it does mean I don't live there in fear, I'm not debilitated by fear, when I leap into Jesus's arms, when I rest on him alone. I move my bed into his room. I lie awake looking at the placid calm of His rest, while storms rage around him and phantoms move in the dark, keeping my eyes on Him when everything around me may look mighty scary. I rest in Him alone.
One day, though I don't remember when, I got up from my cot in my parents room and looked at that dark pane of glass in my room, and then got in my bed again. I didn't live in fear.
And Annie Dillard figured out that the light stripe that came in her room was just the reflection of the car headlights on the road outside. Then she slept.
All I know is the deliberativeness of resting on Jesus alone, of casting myself into His arms. Fear may not be dispelled immediately, but like melting ice cubes in the hot sun of His care, they will depart. We'll live, in Him.