I’ve been dwelling on fear lately. Wait, I should rephrase that. I’ve been mulling over the reality of the word again, but I haven’t felt particularly afraid in some time. That’s a kind of cool thing to brag on isn’t it? I’m not afraid of anything. Except it isn’t true, and I actually don’t want it to be. Because I’ve realized that without a bit of healthy fear we aren’t truly living. Without a few butterflies in our stomachs every now and then, we aren’t really taking risks, are we? Without the knowledge that you are stepping into a situation of which the outcome is unknown, you’ll never leave your comfort zone.
See, I hadn’t been afraid in some time. I was cruising. Life wasn’t perfect by any means but there was nothing triggering me on a regular basis. Nothing making me think and overthink my life in the wee hours of the night. There were no big pending decisions in my life where I didn’t see a guaranteed positive outcome. There were no reasons to be afraid. I wasn’t necessarily living on the mountaintop experiences, you know… the really really good ones. But I was probably midway through a trek, somewhere in the middle. Grinding out some never-ending switchbacks. A little tired, a little hungry, but mostly satisfied with the view.
Lately I’ve been mulling over the upside of emotions. I truly believe we were purposefully created with emotions. We were designed to thrive, live, and engage with real life while being tuned into our emotions. Emotions bring us joy, love, and laughter. They unlock new levels of intimacy in relationship, and honestly they just make life a lot more fun to live. They aren’t meant to be separate or numbed; they exist with intention. I also know that fear does wonders to heighten emotion. Have you ever watched someone who is absolutely terrified of roller coasters actually ride a roller coaster? Usually they buckle in, knees shaking, and immediately burst into tears. Or they actually make it through the ride, but the moment it ends they flee the scene of the crime – also ending the experience in tears.
It’s like the only way our bodies can process the extremity of fear is by bottling it into our heightened emotions.
I find that interesting.
So if emotions can be a good thing, and fear can be a good thing, why do they both feel crippling more often than not? I’ve been wrestling a lot with this. Because we don’t currently, nor will we ever experience a perfect life on this earth. Emotions and fear aren’t going anywhere anytime soon. Yet I refuse to believe that we were designed to be a slave to them.
“The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again; rather, the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship. And by him we cry, “Abba, Father.”Romans 8:15
So what if we leaned into fear? What if the worst-case scenario were exposed? Brought to light? Shown for what it really is? What if we began to recognize that all of life is made up of highs and lows? Really tall, breathtaking, beautiful mountaintops and really low, deep, dark valleys. Regardless of how much anxiety we experience on the journey, we are inevitably going to experience bits of both of those throughout our lives.
So, why all the anxiety?
Recently I realized that fear isn’t the valley itself. It’s the emotion you engage with as you freak out about potentially, possibly ending up in a valley. In other words it’s entirely self-made, and entirely avoidable.
I’ve ended up in a couple valleys lately. Often I don’t see them coming. One of them I did. The funny part is that with the one I saw coming, you know, that deep dark scary ditch looming ahead of me? The valley wasn’t actually so bad in the end. It was a pretty short one, and I found myself kind of prepared for it.
The worst part of that valley was the anxiety and fear I experienced before I even entered it.
Did you know that valleys are survivable? Just think about it: we’ve all made it through them before. Sometimes a little worse for wear, but we always survive. You could be in one right now. Not only that, but valleys actually develop good things in your life. I know that’s a hard pill to swallow, but I’ve learned to lean into the valleys more and more, especially as I’ve learned the beauty of community and love. (It’s not really wise to go them alone). By lean into them I mean that if I see one coming I give some friends a heads up. “Guys, it’s getting dark in here. Guys, I can’t really see where I’m going. Guys, I can finally see the end! Can you meet me there?” It’s like taking a little walkie talkie with you on your hike.
But to strip them of their intimidation factor, valleys are simply another place that I occasionally find myself in. But I have found that while I’m in them, if I look up on the cavern walls I can see writings and pictures – descriptions of a God that I never saw on top of the mountain. Attributes and accolades; writings penned by those who have gone before me. Images that describe sides of God I couldn’t see or experience before, simply because I wasn’t in the right place.
But the best part is yet to come. Remember when I said that valleys are dark? What happens to your eyes in the dark: they adjust. They begin seeing in a new low light, picking up on details that would’ve been lost to the bright sunlight of an alpine meadow. Your other senses even perk up and improve. In valleys of my past I learned that I am strong. I learned that I am extremely capable of making my way through uncharted territory. I learned that not only are there these incredible, unknown sides of God – but I realized they’re actually inside me as well. I found inner strengths and gifts I never knew were there, because I never had to use them. But if God carries these strengths, and He lives inside me, then it only makes sense I am also infinitely stronger than I know. Valleys allow you to tap into more capability, more creativity, more vulnerability, and more strength than you know.
“The thing I love about God is He intentionally guides people into failure.” – Bob Goff
I love that quote, because it’s outlandish. That the source of all love would lead us into places of darkness, fear, maybe even heartbreak? But why?
Because we’re on a hike! And on every hike there are many paths that don’t lead directly to top of the mountain. I sometimes wish I could know all the incredible sides of myself without ever leaving the views from the top, but then I think about how unrealistic of a life that is. There will always be unknowns. There will always be curves in the road. There will always be circumstances outside our control. Bob Goff tells a story in his book Everybody Always about landing a plane blind. He didn’t have all three green lights working: the ones that would have told him all his landing gear was in place. He also didn’t have any way of finding out what was wrong with his plane while he was in the air. His only option was just to try to land the freaking plane.
We’re faced with situations like that daily. Not literally, but daily. We all want three green lights. We want clarity. We want peace. We want a map and a headlamp to guide us through the upcoming valleys. That isn’t usually what happens. I think Bob Goff explains it best:
“We’ve all had circumstances like this in our lives. We bank on something happening and it doesn’t. A job. A date. A bonus. An answer. A verdict. We’re all waiting for more information, more confirmation, more certainty at some point. Sometimes anything more will do. We want clarity and instead we get confusion. We want answers and we just get more questions… All the signs pointed in one direction, then in an instant, something went wrong. The flight plan we laid out for ourselves took us high over the mountaintops, but the one we actually got flung us deep into the valleys. In short, most of us want more green lights than we have. It’s easy to forget that our faith, life, and experiences are all the green lights we need. What we need to do is stop circling the field and get the plane on the ground. God doesn’t allow these kinds of things to happen to mess with our heads; He uses these circumstances to shape our hearts.
…God may not give us all the green lights we want, but I’m confident He gives us all the green lights He wants us to have at the time.”
We don’t get all the lights all the time.
But we do get the option of leaning into the fear. Leaning into the unknown. Rejecting the anxiety. Embracing the reality that, no, you didn’t chose the valley, but you’re going to come out a changed person. The more you lean in, the easier that reaction becomes in the future. It’s like anything: practice makes perfect.
I’d love to reach a place in my life where anxious thoughts aren’t my initial response to the unknown. I’d love to continue to embrace the valleys. I’d love to walk into them confidently, knowing full well that when I leave that cavern my life will be all the better for it. And if the valley just really sucks (as they often do) I want to walk out knowing I did nothing wrong. That valley wasn’t a punishment, it just happened to be in my path. I was just on a hike, and sometimes on hikes you end up where you didn’t expect, intend, or desire to go.
But when I think about the hikes where I’ve ended up in the wrong spots and missed all the right turns, I always remember very clearly everything I learned when I wasn’t where I intended to be.
Who knows, maybe there’s something to be said for letting ourselves be where God intends us to be, rather than where we try to place ourselves.
“Failure is just part of the process, and it’s not just okay; it’s better than okay. God doesn’t want failure to shut us down. God didn’t make it a three-strikes-and-you’re-out sort of thing. It’s more about how God helps us dust ourselves off so we can swing for the fences again. And all of this without keeping a meticulous record of our screw-ups.”