Essays from an Adventure, Part 6: Free and Unafraid

Submitted by Mary on Fri, 05/11/2018 - 14:20

I might have been a great physicist, had I been given a brain that didn’t commence automatic emergency shutdown procedures at the first sign of anything more complex than simple multiplication.
As it is, my fate has limited me to having an enormous respect for the work that physicists do, and a passionate fascination with their field of study. Hence, I do have a rudimentary understanding of physics in a rather instinctual way, even though I couldn’t explain the mathematical technicalities if my life depended on it.
So I understood that a large plane’s wings had to be flexible to keep from snapping off under the pressure of flight. I just didn’t realize they would be…that flexible.
Once again seated next to the window, this time of a British Airways 747, I was staring in something like horrified fascination at the jet engine bobbing away cheerfully under the bouncing wing. Rudimentary physics notwithstanding, I returned to my earlier wonderings of how a monstrosity like this ever got off the ground.
Seated immediately behind the wing, my view of the clouds was somewhat narrowed, but I was still able to enjoy it. I had hoped the clouds would clear up, actually, so that I could see the east coast of the United States as we passed over it, but it was not to be.
Dinner was served, and I was immensely glad, since all we’d had to eat since breakfast was the trail mix Amanda had packed.
Since I had now flown for several hours with no sign of motion sickness, I tentatively tried reading and found that it didn’t bother me. I spent little time on it, though, because I was still too absorbed in the new layer of magic that sunset had given to the cloudscapes below me.
As we flew east, I noticed a darkening in the sky ahead of us. We were well above any clouds, so I knew it couldn’t be that. As we came close and it grew larger, I realized that it was Night. I could literally see night ahead of us, even though we were still in daytime. I watched as the inexplicable line of dark blue grew taller and taller. The rest of the sky deepened into purple and red and pink as we drew closer and the darkness arched over the sky above us like a curtain being pulled. It was breathtakingly beautiful.
I had been looking forward to star watching from a plane, but as soon as it was dark the stewardesses made us close all the windows. Just as well, I thought. Tomorrow was going to be a big day, and I needed sleep.
I’d heard enough about airplane seats that I didn’t expect to be comfortable, and I’ve never been able to sleep in a car, so I wasn’t expecting much by way of a good night’s sleep when we set out. By the end, though, I would have settled for just a good night—sleep or no sleep. Every time I dozed off, turbulence shook the plane. A few times the jarring got so violent it even woke those passengers who had managed to get to sleep.
I was surprised by how oddly calm I was considering that, twelve hours ago, I had been terrified of flying. And yet here I was, feeling no fear as the plane shook, shuddered, and dipped through the sky.
Perhaps it was because I had already accepted the fact that, if the plane crashed, I was going to die, period. I wasn’t concerned about trying to survive, or about the flotation devices the stewardesses had pointed out, or about the ridiculous lap seatbelts that wouldn’t have kept us alive in a bad car accident, much less a plane crash. Perhaps it was because I had already stared death in the face once, less than a year earlier; maybe once you’ve done it and made your peace with it, you simply don’t feel afraid of it anymore.
Or perhaps it was because, somehow, I had finally started to believe what Aaron had said: that God had not brought us this far, through so much, only to tear us apart now.
It was a hard thing for me to believe and accept. Over the last year I had struggled with the balance between hope and realism. While my heart desperately longed to believe in happy endings, and that I would get one eventually, a sneering, cynical realism argued that happy endings were only in fairy tales, and that I should give up on my hope of one. If nothing else, happy endings could be real, but only for other people. Not for me. Didn’t the Bible say that God made some vessels for honor and some for dishonor? What if I was just one of those dishonored vessels, never meant to have a happy ending in the first place? What if God’s plan for me was that I be miserable and alone and heartbroken for my entire life? He never promised us happy endings in this life, after all. Maybe His desire for me was simply to keep serving Him throughout a life of suffering.
My counselor at the time had tried to show me that my understanding of that scripture was skewed, that I was not a dishonored vessel, that God’s plan was not for me to live a life of constant, never-ending heartbreak, that at some point, however distant it may be, the trials would come to an end.
I wanted so badly to believe it, to hang onto the hope that my life would not always be a battle, to know that the black pit of depression that was always a mere misstep away, ready to swallow me, would not always be there.
I wanted to hold onto the truths I knew, even when circumstances seemed to prove them wrong. I lost count of the nights I cried myself to sleep, praying “God, I know You’re not cruel. I know You’re not cruel. I know You’re not cruel,” always with the unspoken question: “So then why are You doing this to me?!”
I interrogated myself, searched myself ruthlessly. Was this punishment for my past sins? Was I sinning now in some way I couldn’t see, and God was trying to awaken me to it? The longer the pain went on, the more desperate I became, scouring every corner of my soul I could find in search of some unknown sin I had not already repented of.
Believing myself to be endlessly wicked, hopelessly blind to my own errors, and incapable of making good decisions on my own, I ignored what I believed were the right decisions and actions, and meekly accepted what I would later realize was emotional abuse from multiple people in my life. No matter how much it hurt, no matter how many times I was metaphorically kicked while already on the ground, no matter how close to the edge of a terrifyingly deep clinical depression it pushed me, no matter how wrong it seemed, I submitted to it, firmly convinced that it was God’s will sent to me through others because I was too willful and naïve to see the truth for myself. I believed that by submitting I was doing the right thing, and that God was using the pain and suffering to make me more righteous, and so I allowed the abuse to continue…even when my counselor spent weeks urging me to break free of it, to pursue what I believed was the right thing to do, to act and make decisions like an adult rather than a child, to believe that my own judgment and perception could be valid, and to stop shouldering the blame for the actions of others.
Ironically, it was a completely unrelated incident—the seemingly random circumstance that brought me suddenly face to face with death—that began to open my eyes.
A strange man walked into my church halfway through the service, carrying a backpack, sat down in the pew right in front of my mom, my sister, and me, with his backpack on the floor between his feet, and spent the rest of the service rocking unnaturally in his seat, fidgeting with his backpack with visibly shaking hands, muttering to himself, leering pointedly at church members, and then giggling at their visible discomfort.
Every alarm my brain had was going off—nearly every sign from every article I’d ever read about how to spot a potential shooter was there…and I was sitting right behind him.
It was an odd sensation as my brain withdrew from its initial fear into a calm, detached perspective of calculation. A few of the men of our church, including a commissioned police officer, had noticed the man’s odd behavior as well and quietly repositioned themselves to be closer to him; so, if he pulled a gun, I reasoned, they would be able to stop him before he did very much damage. If he had a bomb in that backpack and decided to detonate it, though, there would be no way to stop him in time…and I was seated right behind him.
If he had a bomb in his backpack, I was going to die.
I felt no fear or sadness at the realization that I could be dead in the next five minutes, just a resigned acceptance. Perhaps it was even, in a veiled sense, relief. If this had been God’s plan for me all along, to die in a church bombing, then everything else—the misery, the suffering—began to make more sense.
“God,” I prayed silently, “I’m ready. If Your plan is for me to die today I’m okay with that. Just take care of Aaron and Amanda for me.”
I ended my prayer and took a deep breath, resolving what I would do if the man made his move. It’s remarkable how easy it is to plan things when you’re not concerned with your own safety. From where I was I could easily grab the man’s hair from behind and pull him over backwards. What I would do then, I didn’t know, but that would at least buy some time.
The sound of a zipper being pulled sent a shot of adrenaline through me. Here we go, I thought. This is it.
Movement from another part of the sanctuary caught my eye—one of the church ladies, seated in front of the stranger and unable to see him, had just zipped her Bible up in its case.
False alarm.
Wait—she was putting her Bible away. The sermon (of which I hadn’t heard a single word) was ending, and nothing had happened.
Church dismissed. The stranger hastily got up, said a few nonsensical things to various people he passed, and headed down the road on foot.
Of course, the obligatory second-guessing began. What if he was just some poor, mentally unwell homeless man wanting to get in out of the heat, and I’d been having such thoughts about him? I couldn’t deny the signs I’d seen, though, and I wasn’t the only one who had seen them, either. A trained police officer felt alarmed, so surely I was justified in feeling that way too.
My family had a “debriefing” on the drive home, talking through everything that had taken place, discussing our responses, and if there was anything we should do differently should such an event happen again. I took part in the discussion like everyone else, but internally I could feel something shifting—something I didn’t want to discuss.
Until you have met Death face to face and merely given it an acknowledging nod rather than running away, there is nothing anyone could say to describe what it feels like, or what it changes inside of you. It’s as though your life truly becomes your own in that moment, as though you’ve fully come into it—as though, in being willing to give up your life, you’ve received it in a new, deeper way.
A part of me had always wondered how I would respond if faced with the kind of situation I had just faced. I hoped I would be brave, courageous, ready and willing to sacrifice myself if need be, that I wouldn’t just collapse in fear and become a helpless victim, that I wouldn’t be a coward, but there is really no way at all to know until you’ve been there.
Well, now I had been there—and I hadn’t run away. I hadn’t been a coward. I had thought clearly, made decisions, and hadn’t given in to fear. I had been strong and courageous in the face of death. I had been willing to die to protect others.
The implications of that were staggering—it meant that I wasn’t weak, I wasn’t an ignorant, helpless, incapable girl unable to know right from wrong. It meant that I was willing to do the right thing, even to the point of giving my life for it. It meant that I wasn’t too selfish, too blinded by my own emotions and desires to do what was right. It meant that I was capable of knowing the right thing to do, and of overcoming my fear to do it.
The world began to shift that afternoon. A few days later, I told my counselor what had happened, and that I was ready to start taking action. I started making decisions on my own, doing things that part of me had known for months needed to be done, but that I had been too afraid to do.
There was still a long road ahead of me from that point—months of struggle, heartache, and incredible pain. My actions and decisions triggered backlash that was worse than anything I could have imagined. There were moments when I thought the pain would kill me, and moments when the old thoughts, the old questions of whether I was really able to make good decisions on my own, would creep back in and terrify me.
But even through the pain, the entire length of that road was marked with signs assuring me that I was going in the right direction. The havoc that stress and emotional abuse had wreaked on my mind and even physically on my body began to heal. The shallow sleep awash with nightmares deepened into peaceful rest. My performance in the workplace excelled. Coworkers began remarking on how different I seemed, how much happier my countenance was on a daily basis. The pounds of body weight that stress had stolen from me began to come back, erasing the skeletal look my body had taken on. “You sound one hundred percent better,” one friend remarked on the phone. “You don’t look like an old lady anymore!” another (more blunt) friend said over tea. Health issues that I had dealt with so long that I had assumed they were normal, disappeared almost overnight. I carried myself with a new confidence.
I was free. Free, and unafraid.
And now, here I was, calmly sitting on a plane on my way to my biggest adventure yet…
Free, and unafraid.

Author's age when written

This segment took a very different turn than I was expecting. My original intent was just to write about the trip - I didn't realize that looking back on it and musing over it would lead me down such a heavy path. It's been good for me, though. Writing this has really helped me process a lot of things, and has been another good step in moving past the things that happened. I realize it gets kind of dark and heavy; sorry if that wasn't what you were expecting. Hopefully the rest of the series will be lighter from here on out! I've tried to approach the darker topics with a degree of vagueness, since the issues in question obviously involve other people as well, but if there's any clarifying I need to do or any discussion anyone needs or wants to have, I'll happily discuss or answer questions as much as I can in the comments.


Though this was definitely a surprise, I think that this part of your story actually helps me to connect more with you. I'm not sure about anyone else, but I've definitely wondered what I would do if faced with a life and death situation like yours. The way that you wove that into your story got me unconsciously sympathizing with you so much more right away.