Don’t be afraid. We hear it from a father, releasing a child to her first solo bike ride, as he lifts his hands from the fender. Don’t be afraid, a mother soothes as a child protests against the dark at bedtime.
Don’t be afraid, says the roller coaster operator as he snaps the steel harness into place before pulling the lever that sets a wild ride in motion. Don’t be afraid, a music teacher urges, as she propels a student onto the stage.
Don’t be afraid, parents tell their children, as they send them off to school.
It’s a curious phrase, especially when spoken with the truest of intentions, the most genuine hope. It’s a gentle urging, meant to relax, to calm hyper nerves and ease an upset stomach.
The words are sometimes an admonition, impatience their driving force. But mostly I think people tell us not to give into fear because they care about us. They might even know something we don’t, have experienced what we are about to go through, and come out the other side, battle-scared, but alive.
Even at that, the truth is nobody really knows the end of anyone else’s story. We can’t see the future. We can’t ignore the possibility that, around the next bend, something truly horrifying might be waiting for us.
Children do fall off bikes and wake up screaming from nightmares. Roller coasters crash, and musicians freeze, the score completely forgotten.
And sometimes, a man with a gun causes us to wonder if the child who feared going to school had it right after all. Something truly horrifying was waiting around the bend.
During this Advent season, I’ve been pondering the repetition of ‘do not be afraid’ in the Biblical Christmas story. It shows up three times, always spoken by an angel, who likely was quite fearsome in appearance before he ever opened his mouth.
We hear it first when an angel confronts a priest in the temple, telling him that even though he’s an old man married to an old woman, they will have a child.
‘Don’t be afraid, Zacharias, you will have a son and he will be a great man.’
We hear it when an angel visits a teenage girl, telling her that even though she’s a virgin, she will have a baby.
‘Don’t be afraid, Mary, your child is the Son of God and he will grow up to reign over a powerful kingdom.’
We hear it when an angel appears to a young man in a dream, encouraging him to follow through with a marriage, even though it looks like his fiancée has been fooling around on him.
‘Don’t be afraid, Joseph, to marry the woman you love. She is pregnant with the Son of God. When he’s born, call him Jesus. He will give people life.’
I find it curious that the angel only tells part of the story. He doesn’t tell Zacharias that his son will eventually be arrested and have his head cut off. He doesn’t tell Mary her son will grow up to be crucified. He doesn’t tell Joseph he’ll spend the first couple years of married life living like a refugee.
Perhaps it is better this way. Perhaps if these three had known how things would eventually turn out, they would never have been able to carry on.
And they, like all of us, need to carry on. For life is far more than the realization of fears. It’s also the realization of grace and goodness, of curiosity and courage, of lessons and of love.
The end of the story, as terrible as it might be, is never the whole story.
There’s a Band-Aid for the child who falls off his bike and an encouragement to get back on again – the ride will be worth it in the end. There’s a hug for the one who wakens from a nightmare and the assurance that in daylight, everything looks better.
The roller coaster ride swoops and loops, a wild ride that delivers wild exhilaration. Musicians falter and forget, then remember and play on, the audience appreciative because they understand courage.
Even in the midst of the awful tragedy of a school shooting, people experience emotions and actions that push back fear. Kindness, compassion, empathy and solidarity rise up against fear, shoving it back into a corner, overpowering it.
Don’t be afraid. These are not words that protect against a terrible ending. But they do have the capacity to release us from paralysis. And, if nothing else, they help us move forward on this complex journey we call life.
Lynda MacGibbon is a transplanted Maritimer living in Toronto. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow her on Twitter @lyndamacgibbon.