“The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy…” (John 10:10)
Have you ever been afraid? And not just afraid, but truly fearful. I’m not talking about what I will call “scary movie” fear. –Who didn’t feel this type of fear in the movie “The Exorcism?”–The original one–Linda Blair and the pea soup. Scary stuff. I’ll admit my fear in that movie. But it wasn’t the fear that paralyzes. Thinking back, I’ve really just barely touched this type of fear.
The paralytic kind of fear in which your brain sends sudden large amounts of adrenaline to your muscles and it either moves you into heroic action—the mother lifting up the car to free her trapped child, the soldier propelling in to saving his or her comrades in the heat of battle—OR the opposite occurs and fear overpowers you–your muscles are immune to the new fuel they’ve been flooded with and they simply freeze up. Not a chilly “goose bump” freeze, but absolute loss of function. The massive pounding in your chest blasts sound waves of blood pulsating throughout your head and eardrums. Your breathing is nearly non-existent and shallow in your chest, your body poised to strike, yet no amount of will can budge the load of bricks that have become your legs. Your nearly catatonic body that has become utterly non-responsive as deadly rigormortis settles around your soul. Surely you know this by now as the “fight or flight” response. It is (or at least, it can be) life changing. It is where the proverbial “rubber meets the road.”
What will you do in those circumstances? Action or paralysis?
We all would like to think that we would experience that “hero” response and be moved to achieve something transporting us beyond our human capacity. But if you have never been in one of these situations, how do you know?
When a friend of mine told me of her sister’s experience, I realized my fear experiences, though terrifying to me at the time, only skim the surface of this “true fear” that I am referencing. My true fear experiences were ones in which I could’ve lost my life. At least that is how I felt when I was knee deep in the experience. Really, it felt like any future I conceived turned completely moot and void. Nothing but that moment mattered because I didn’t think I’d survive past it. Falling out of the two man raft in a level five rapid on the upper Animas in Colorado. In retrospect, my life seemed in jeopardy but I wasn’t as close to losing it as I thought. That hike up the tallest mountain in Arizona when I freaked. The recurring nightmares haunting each of the 40 years of my life: the dizzying vertigo, loss of control at life’s edge of whatever chasm, bridge, or ledge it might be, the accompanying nausea, paralytic muscles, brain lock, shallow breaths, heartbeats quick rabbit-like but pounding like blare drums. All of this–nothing like what she details. Nothing. –Not to spoil the ending of my true fear story, but, SPOLER ALERT– I survived! I didn’t fall off that mountain and I was pulled back to safety by an experienced guide on the Animas River. However, I did experience momentary paralysis. Frozen in that moment and left with a choice. I will never forget the experience. But it just skims above the depth of what she tells.
Back to my friend.
I use that term judiciously because I see her as so friendly that I think she’d make friends anywhere. Or, it could be that I perceive her differently. Most people in my generation are keenly aware and sensitive to what she must’ve gone through to be here in America. She doesn’t always get this reaction. She’s a U. S. citizen and 23 years my senior. My friend, choosing to be unnamed, is one of five children born into extreme poverty in a small village less than 30 miles from Saigon. As a child, she saw a war-torn Vietnam, blossoming like a fungus as incomprehensible confusion, chaos, unnecessary death and lack of compassion overtook the scenic beauty of her birthplace. To this day, upon her return visits to try to help her village and her remaining family, she still sees the devastating, flesh-eating effects of Agent Orange on the civilian population left there and the health horrors that poverty permits.
We met at a food bank where we both volunteer. Often times the bank is low on food and with no other jobs to do, there is time to chat. My friend, who retired from a nearly 25 year career at Motorola, as she learned English in her spare time, is always one of the hardest workers and rarely is involved in chat time. If she isn’t marking foods or carrying out boxes, she is mopping the floor, sweeping or cleaning out bins. Today, except for the occasional carry-out, all is done.
Time for a rare chat.
Today she proudly wears a red, white and blue embroidered touristy shirt from her most recent trip to Vietnam. She is bubbling over with conversation and telling of her bravery at the doctor’s office. Yesterday she received a cortisone injection directly into her spine to help her deal with the pain and the numbing and tingling in her knees and legs brought on from work-related injuries through her career at Motorola. Yesterday. She refused anesthesia so she could drive herself.
She pounds her chest Tarzan like, “I so brave!” and smiles her huge toothy smile. Did I mention it was just yesterday?
A huge needle, (aren’t they all?) that could actually truly paralyze if moved just millimeters in the wrong direction, was inserted into her spine while she was awake and aware. She avoided burdening anyone for a ride. She’s a master at the self-sufficiency we Americans pride ourselves on. And ready to be working at the food bank today.
“Hey, Mrs. Saigon!” Buddy, who has been around longer than any volunteer (and most human beings! *wink*wink*!) razzes her, “You’re looking quite spry this morning!”
Her big smile erupts again.
She’s been married to an American soldier now coming up on 40 years. With two children and two grandchildren, this woman has more drama in her life than in most incident reports I read from the police department’s “ripped straight from the headlines.” (Can you hear the Law and Order “bong-bong?”)
Several weeks ago she told me one of her memories while living and working in Vietnam. She worked at the Vietnamese military base located just across from the American military base. She often walked between the two. She, totally in character, made friends with many of the Americans. The Vietnamese Military Police didn’t like this.
“Feel ‘dis.” She nods at me, picks up my hand, places two of my fingers on the top of her head, just to the left of her black hair’s part-line. My fingertips register the sheen of her soft hair. She pushes down on my finger and I feel it. Rough and uneven through skin, scalp and silky hair: granite.
Unaware, while walking between the two bases, she was stoned. Not that kind; an actual stoning. Out of the blue, she felt something smack into her head. Confused, disoriented, tears stinging her eyes and in pain, she realized her own countrymen were hurling rocks at her. Bloodied, and too embarrassed to tell anyone about her pain (and too poor to do anything about it,) a quarter-sized stone is still lodged in her scalp to this day.
I felt it.
Other drama in her life story includes very unwelcoming parents-in-law. It wasn’t until ten years ago (only 30 years in to her marriage) that her in-laws, still skeptical, admitted their continuing mistrust in her relationship with their son. They believe she is using him for her “green card.” For the record: she obtained her citizenship outside of marriage and on her own. They are from a different generation that is immune to her style of cooking, refusing her food at family gatherings and refusing the overwhelming kindness in her heart, and apparently severely lacking in the compassion department for what this woman has experienced and overcome. She is proud. Their treatment of the overly compensating, foreign daughter-in-law borders on the criminal.
The Pastor of the food bank, who missed being drafted and serving in Vietnam by answering God’s call to serve those back home, asks her to delve into her experiences. Being the same age as my friend, he is very curious about her time in Vietnam and her journey to here–right now.
The three of us stand in an alcove and she diverts the focus from herself and chooses to tell us about her sister.
Both her and her sister dreamed of escaping the poverty, the confusion, and the madness of what overtook their country. She–newly enamored with a young G.I.–has been offered (through this new love) an opportunity to leave.
She takes it.
She is in the U.S. just two years and then– April 30, 1975. The day she describes as “the day the world ended.” The U.S. attacks Vietnam. Through her new connections, her military husband is willing to help her sister and sister’s entire family to come to the U.S.—The sister must simply collect her five children, her husband and, at the predetermined rendezvous point, at the designated time, there is an arrangement for them to get out for free. All can make it out. Freedom. Opportunity. A new start. A new place. No more war in your backyard. But she must choose it.
The designated time and place come and go.
My friend and her husband-to-be wait for her sister and the family at the rendezvous point. All the while, the sister is crouched low, in the dark of the dirty walls of the one room that is home for her family of seven. Paralyzed. Tears of terror escape eyes that have seen too much. The tears run down this mother’s face as a sick example. She doesn’t heed their message. Her body is frozen in the crouch. Paralyzed at the opportunity. Paralyzed about a new place. A new start. The unknown. Freedom?!?
The depth of the fear that must’ve permeated this mother’s soul as she crouched there.
Maybe true fear isn’t what I comprehend it to be. Maybe this fear is actually a more subtle enemy. Maybe true fear is simply the doubts that cloud our minds when we are about to step off a ledge into the unknown. Maybe it’s more about choices. My friend’s choice to move to a country that doesn’t understand her, mistreats her and yet, gave her opportunity and freedom to live without fear. Maybe this explains why she is so friendly. She lives without fear. She lives in the chasm of opportunity that was opened to her when she took the leap into the unknown.–To work hard, to live fully, to give unconditionally, to forgive hurts, and to live with the rocks that have been embedded in her soul. And later, to return to the fears of her birthplace as she visits her sister and family who live in an abyss of regret each day in the country of their birth. She returns to try to understand and to try to change her remaining family by giving whatever she can.
But she can’t stay long on her visits there.
“My heart bleed too much there,” she explains to the Pastor and me tilting her head to the side. Her eyes drift away from us and her brows crease in confusion.
“…I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.”
Where does your heart bleed? Are you courageous enough to re-visit those places? Are you ready for the leap of faith or are you crouched in paralysis?
“The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy…” (John 10:10)