He was pointing a pistol at her. I stepped in between him and my mom. The gun was now aimed at me. I calmly told my father, “Don’t kill my mother.” I was ten years old.
As I look back on that night from the distance of more than five decades, I’m still sort of astonished by that little boy. He must have been terribly afraid. But he didn’t do any of the usual fear things: fight, flee, or freeze. And I think he saved his mom and maybe, in a way, even his dad.
Honestly, I think this kid—or at least my recollection of this kid—has something to teach me about navigating fear. Maybe he has something to teach you, too. And I have to say, there’s plenty of frightening stuff happening these days.
The climate is changing dramatically. In the space of a year three hurricanes battered my home state Louisiana. Out west, fires have devoured homes and forests. Reservoirs are drying up from lack of rain.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine threatens the political stability of the whole planet. Supply lines disruptions have resulted in all manner of shortages.
Inflation is eating away at our ability to make ends meet. Crime is on the rise. The Supreme Court seems ready to repeal Roe v. Wade.
In other words, we’re just not sure how things are going to turn out. It’s scary to be human. We could use some wisdom in how to navigate life when we’re afraid.
That brings us back to ten-year-old Jake.
I did not feel courage welling up within me. At no point did I weigh doing the right thing against the risk of getting shot.
Here’s what it came to. I loved my mother. She was in danger. I did the only thing available to me in that moment. In short, love guided me through a confusing, appalling, messy situation.
Wisdom is the habit of letting love be our guide. And by love I don’t mean our affections or our passions. Instead, love is our commitment with our whole being to the spiritual, physical, moral, and mental well-being of another. Jesus called that loving your neighbor as yourself.
That kind of love does well up from within us, but we are not the source of it ourselves. It comes from God.
Actually, it is God at work in us. That’s what Jesus meant by the Holy Spirit. “But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you.” (John 14:26)
Being guided by the divine love welling up within us is what the writer of Proverbs was getting at. “Trust in the Lord with all your heart,/ and lean not on your own understanding.” (Proverbs 3:5 NIV) The Psalmist puts it this way: “The Lord is my shepherd.” (Psalm 23:1)
Life is uncertain, complex, and perilous. We are fragile and will always know less than we need to know. Fear comes with this very human package.
There are various ways to deal with our fear. We can be unreasonably angry and violent. We can cower or run away or stick our heads in the sand. Or we can draw on the love that is always, already given to us. We can follow Jesus as our shepherd. Walk the path of love that he shows us.
Walking the way of love doesn’t buy us a get-out-grief-and-pain-free card. Instead, we will experience what the Psalmist describes: “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil.” (Psalm 23:4)
Love does not guarantee a smooth ride on this planet. But it does free us from the tyranny of fear. And a life shaped by love is inherently worth living. No matter what.
My latest book is Looking for God in Messy Places: A Book about Hope. To learn more about hope—how to find it, practice it, and grow in it— just click here.