Let me tell you about Johnny.
I met him when I was eight. It was during Bible school, those dreaded five days during the summer when you’re trying to fight the sensation that you’re back in school because you’re afraid God will be mad at you if you feel that way.
He was sitting under the big oak tree by himself, which was where the wayward softball Brent Stinnett hit landed. I was playing centerfield, so I was the one who retrieved it. I asked Johnny to toss it to me. He wouldn’t, so I got it myself. Then I asked if he wanted to play.
“No,” he said.
Johnny lowered his head and kicked at a root jutting up from the ground, then shrugged.
“Come on,” I said. “It’s fun.”
“No,” he said again.
So I left him there under the oak.
I found him in the same spot the next day for the same reason (that Brent Stinnett could really pound a softball). This time, Johnny was first:
“I don’t want to play,” he said.
“I didn’t ask if you wanted to,” I told him.
“Well, just in case you were gonna, I don’t want to.”
I suppose the Christian thing would have been for me to befriend Johnny right then and there, or at least do a bit of gentle prodding to see what was really bothering him. But I was your average eight-year-old boy, which often means doing the Christian thing is not nearly as important as playing a game of softball.
Besides, by then the chattering had gone around the Bible school playground that Johnny wouldn’t play because he was afraid. Of what, no one was certain.
By day three, I’d learned that when Brent Stinnett came up to the plate, I should back up. So I did, right next to Johnny under his tree.
“Are you really scared like all the kids say?” I asked him.
Silence. Which to me even then meant yes.
“You ain’t gotta be scared. It’s just a game.”
“I ain’t scared,” he said. Then, as if remembering he was in Bible school and thus that God was watching, he added, “Much. I ain’t scared much.”
“What are you scared of?”
“Lots of things,” he said. “Falling down. Striking out. Getting hurt. Hitting somebody. Getting my clothes dirty. Getting stung by a bee. I’m allergic to bees, you know.”
I didn’t know, but at that moment Brent Stinnett flew out to left field and the inning was over. I jogged back toward the field and shouted at Johnny over my shoulder, “You’re just thinkin’ too much.”
Johnny never did play softball that year. Or any other, as a matter of fact. But he did keep coming to church, and it didn’t take me long to realize he was afraid of much more than playing softball. Much, much more.
Like telephones, radios, the dark, spinach, horses, thunder, and butterflies. The list was endless. Johnny was a walking neurosis. It’s a wonder he’s survived this long.
But he has.
I ran into him at the post office the other day, along with his two children and Mary, his wife. Nice family. Johnny has a big job at a bank now. He’s happy and content. And, finally and completely, unafraid.
There was no psychotherapy involved in Johnny’s transformation. No pills or prescriptions. To hear Johnny say it, there was just his faith and his family. That was all he needed.
Maybe that’s all everyone needs. Because the truth is that we all harbor our own fears, those shadows that crawl and slink deep inside and get in the way of seeing the beauty of things. I’m not afraid of softball or telephones or spinach, but I am afraid. I’m afraid a lot. And there are times when I want more than anything else the opposite of that fear.
For the longest time, I thought that opposite was courage. Makes sense, doesn’t it? But Johnny’s taught me different.
He’s taught me that the opposite of fear isn’t courage, the opposite of fear is Love.