When I was a little girl, our house was situated a short distance from an active freight train route. When a train would come through town, we could hear it from inside the house, loud and clear.
Apparently I was terrified of the train and its shrill whistle because, as my mother will still tell you, whenever I heard that train whistle blow, I would dart through the house and dive under my bed, lying there with my hands over my head until the train had passed and I felt it was safe to come out.
I do not have any direct memories of this duck-and-cover behavior, but I do have a pretty clear picture of what life looked like from under that bed, so I’m inclined to believe my mother’s recollection.
These days it seems I’ve gone back to those early childhood ways: When trouble comes, I still have that same innate desire to head for cover and wait for an all-clear signal.
This desire, basically the flight half of the fight-or-flight response, is one of the instinctive ways that the human body reacts to threatening situations.
While I am happy to say that I do not always act on this desire (even if I want to), the fact that the impulse is there has led me to realize at least 3 pitfalls of the flight response.
Pitfall # 1 • Puts the pressure on other people to handle the situation.
If we are hiding under the bed while trouble is going on in the world above us, we force others to bear the weight of the situation and the responsibility of decision-making. After all, they are not under the bed with us—which is a good thing because there is trouble to be addressed and somebody needs to address it!
Our running away does not make our trouble go away. It just means we have unfairly burdened someone else—a spouse or coworker or family member—with a load that we were meant to help carry.
I daresay that many of us have probably been in a situation where we were the ones who carried the load alone—and we probably didn’t like it too much. Let us not do the same to others, even if it’s not our intention. Sometimes we may not realize how our acts of self-preservation affect the other people involved in the situation.
Pitfall # 2 • Makes us bystanders in our own lives.
Maybe the first pitfall sounds all right to us. If other people are willing to take care of the situation for us, then let them! If they’re fine with it and it’s less work and less trouble for us, then what’s the problem?
For one thing, when we let (or force) other people to handle troubles and make decisions for us, we give away some our own freedom and autonomy. We may be letting others have more control in our lives—or in the lives of our children—than perhaps they should. We could be forfeiting our rightful place in certain settings or situations by allowing others to take over the portion that God may have intended for us.
In this way not only do we give up the opportunity for our voice to be heard, but we also are not fully engaged in the events and relationships God had placed in our path. We become passive observers rather than active participants in our own lives.
Our failure to be fully engaged could keep us from deepening our spiritual growth, resolving our problems, or even developing the close personal relationships we desire. Let us not deprive ourselves of the fullness of the life God has for us simply because we would rather avoid the hard and undesirable thing set before us.
Pitfall # 3 • Lets our imagination run wild—but in a bad way.
Oftentimes we let fear take control, even when we know that what we fear is not a viable threat.
For example, as a small child I was not actually afraid of trains. In fact, I liked to watch them as they thundered alongside the road or sped by a crossing gate. Rationally I knew a train would not come crashing through my house or interfere with my life in any significant way, yet that knowledge didn’t stop me from darting under the bed whenever heard the whistle.
I knew I had nothing to fear, yet I acted in fear anyway. I let the feeling of fear take over. We tend to do the same thing in our lives today.
We may know in our minds that certain outcomes are not likely or even possible but still find ourselves in the grip of a nameless fear, acting on feeling rather than on reason. We respond to a whistle—that is, to an idea, a projection, a nothingness—that dredges up worry, insecurity, and doubt.
In the instant our fears are alerted, we would do well to change our responses to the train whistles in our lives, those personal stress triggers of various stripes. Instead of letting those signals work against us by activating the flight response, let us make them work for us by prompting us to prayer and the rehearsal of rational thinking, reminding ourselves that most of the things we worry about never happen anyway.
These pitfalls can be overwhelming and discouraging: We may not mean to make other people do the hard work while we hide under the bed. We may not want other people to have such control over our lives. We may even tell ourselves that we know our worst fears are not likely to be realized.
But we are still scared.
And we still feel like running away. After all, it is our body’s natural response. So what do we do?
We do it anyway.
We do it scared. We do it worried. We do it with tears and fears in faith and love.
We act in the courage that we do not feel like we have. We learn in 2 Timothy 1:7 that “the Spirit God gave us does not make us timid, but gives us power, love and self-discipline.”
Of course, we may say to ourselves, “Power and love I’ll take—but self-discipline? Do I have to?”
Though self-discipline may be the last attribute listed in the Scripture above (and possibly the last one we wish to acquire), I believe it is the first one that comes into play when we face a situation we fear: God’s gracious gift of self-discipline is quite likely the very trait that allows us to step out of our fear and into His power.
Through self-discipline God teaches us to act on faith and not on fear, behaving as we should and not as we feel.
In this way we can do as we are instructed in Psalm 27:14: We can “be strong and take heart and wait for the Lord.”
Let’s just be at work while we wait. Let’s face up to the hard situation, do the thing we fear, be engaged in the task at hand, and not let our imaginations run wild with worry.
Let’s get a clear picture of what life looks like all around us and not just what it looks like from under the bed.