When I was eight years old, my good friend Barry was the first one in the neighborhood to have HBO, and everybody knew it. But it wasn’t because he was a blabbermouth. Back in those days, there wasn’t cable TV, so HBO would come and install a giant antenna at your house. Standing at the end of my driveway, it looked like someone tried to build a full-scale replica of the Eiffel Tower in the Cunningham’s living room, then cut a ginormous hole in the roof when they figured out the ceiling wasn’t high enough.
One summer afternoon, weary from our escapades on the Slip-n-Slide, we sat down for some R&R in front of Barry’s console TV. That day, HBO’s midday programming consisted of a kid-friendly, non-stop marathon of Friday the 13th Part II. Even though he was a couple years younger than me, the terror and gore didn’t seem to faze my buddy one bit. But me? I had been raised on a steady diet of The Price Is Right and Brady Bunch reruns, so seeing people hacked to death at summer camp left me mortified. Most kids would just look away or fake a stomach cramp and go home. But I couldn’t. I was riveted by the terror.
That same night, my parents went out on an “overnight date”, and I stayed at Barry’s for a sleepover. I was still scared out of my mind, imagining that a madman in a hockey mask might appear at any moment and stab me with a lawn dart, but I did my best to hide it for fear of looking like a sissy.
As bedtime approached, Mrs. Cunningham directed me to the master bathroom to get cleaned up. She filled the tub for me, and left me alone in the tiny, echo-filled room to defend myself against a bloody massacre using only my limited wit and a wilted bar of Irish Spring.
That’s when it happened.
As I twisted to grab the shampoo bottle, my keester slipped on the bottom of the tub. My flailing arm hit the bottle, knocking it to the floor and making a loud noise that most certainly sounded like a murderer breaking down the door. The surprise scared the crap out of me.
That’s right. Overwhelmed by fear, I had turned my neighbor’s sunken tub into a giant toilet.
Now, for those of you who have never pooped in a bathtub (which, I assume, is every person on the planet except me) allow me to elaborate.
When you’re terrified, half-submerged in a small pool of water, and surrounded by little tugboats of your own feces, many thoughts come to mind.
This can’t be good.
I’m eight years old, for Chrissakes!
OH MY GOD!
I am going to stink FOREVER!
What if Barry finds out?!
It’s floating towards me!
Am I dying?
SO MUCH POOP!
Although no self-respecting, axe-wielding maniac would come within a hundred yards of anyone trapped in my revolting situation, I saw no silver lining. I was in a full-blown panic mode now. Fear on top of fear. Unable to make any rational decisions. So, I did what any panicky second-grader might do.
I got out.
Toweled myself off.
And pulled the plug.
As the water drained from the tub, I could tell that there was no way the evidence of my crime would be washed away. Kohler doesn’t make drains that big, and Jesus doesn’t answer that prayer. So, in a final bout of irrational thought, I just walked out of the bathroom, hoping for the best.
Now, some careless mistakes might go unnoticed by a busy mom. Like a capless tube of toothpaste or a toilet seat left in the “up” position. But soggy turds in a bathtub? That’s hard to miss. It wasn’t ten minutes before I heard Barry’s mom bellow from the bathroom.
“What is that?!” (insert uncomfortable, mortified pause) “Is that poooooop?!”
As soon as Barry heard his mom shout the word “poop”, our epic Hungry Hungry Hippos battle didn’t seem to matter anymore. He ran past me to investigate. I followed.
Standing over the tub, we all gazed down at little nuggets of doodoo surrounding the tub drain like it was some sort of campfire. Since I was the only wet person around, it didn’t take Barry too long to realize I was the culprit. He reacted with as much restraint as you might imagine a six-year-old can muster. And, while a broad spectrum of understandable responses were at Mrs. Cunningham’s disposal, she chose the humane route.
“Barry, be quiet!” she scolded, doing her best to stop his giggles and schoolyard taunts. Then she focused on me. “Scotty, are you feeling OK?”
Admitting that I was terrified of scary movies would have been second-grade social suicide – akin to throwing up in the lunchroom. So I lied.
“Yeah. I don’t feel so good. My stomach.”
At this point, the woman felt horrible that she had a sick neighbor’s kid on her hands. She was anxious to take care of the situation, while simultaneously “awfulizing” about how my folks might react if their night of romance was interrupted by news of a soiled tub.
“What do you need, honey?” she asked.
“Can I bring Buckwheat to sleep with me?”
Buckwheat was my little dog. Cute. Cuddly. And just as sweet as a wolverine after eight shots of espresso and a surprise prostate exam. Even so, Mrs. Cunningham compassionately walked me to my house and we retrieved him.
Fear piled on top of fear, and bad decisions multiplied.
That night, not to be outdone by his owner, Buckwheat peed on the corner of Barry’s sister’s bed. And next morning, Mrs. Cunningham just happened to be painting the hallway with a fresh coat. As I opened the door to let Buckwheat out of the room, he ran through the roller tray and tracked little footprints all over the hall. I added to the mess by chasing after him.
It was a complete disaster.
Some may see this episode as evidence why we need parental controls on television, complete with statistics showing how kids who are exposed to ultra-violent TV shows and video games are more likely to be abusive adults. Or axe-wielding psychopaths.
But it’s bigger than that.
I’ve been somewhat paralyzed by negativity and fear lately. Scrolling through Facebook and news sites, I am presented with an ever-growing list of headlines designed to scare me. And they’re incredibly effective.
- Stories abound showing how vaccines are killing our kids, or how anti-vaxers are going to kill us all.
- And GMOs? (genetically modified organisms) Depending on what you read, they are filling us with cancer. Or, without them we won’t be able to grow enough food to feed the planet.
- And let’s not forget the election. Donald Trump will start World War III. And Hillary Clinton will usher in the Apocalypse.
Don’t get me wrong. I have strong opinions on all of these issues. But the more I read about them, the more fearful I become. So, against my better judgment, I end up sharing “my side” of the story in the hopes of giving voice to the voiceless. To rise up against injustice. To stand up for my cause.
Only none of it makes me feel better.
Not a single heart is changed.
And not a single problem is solved.
In fact, by highlighting the most negative aspects of an issue or a person, or painting the future in the bleakest of terms, I only pour more gasoline on a raging inferno. Encouraging fear of the “other.” Driving a wedge between us. And scaring everyone stupid until we’re all sitting waist-deep in a sewer of our own making, unable to think straight.
But why is that?
Neuroscientists agree that our brains have a basic filing system. Anytime we encounter new information, we perceive it as either a threat or a reward. The default appears to be the threat state, which is good. If a poisonous snake crosses your path, you wouldn’t want to instinctively try and pet it.
The challenge is that the more we perceive threats, the more anxious we become. All of our mental energy is channeled toward our fight or flight response. We become trapped in our reptilian brains, cut off from logic and reason. No capacity to listen. No energy for empathy. Running away from those who don’t share our beliefs, and fighting off our imaginary enemies with one-sided arguments.
And this scares the crap out of me.
Maybe you feel it, too? Not so long ago, to disagree with someone you actually had to get to know them first. Have a conversation. Learn their story. Human to human.
I somehow believe that a Facebook post or a yard sign is all that’s required to truly know a person. As if you can know a book by reading just the middle chapter. So I enter an imaginary fight by posting “my side” of the story, and flee by “unfriending” those who don’t share my beliefs. Cordoning off my own little section of the world where we can share a common distaste for the “other”. Growing ever more irrational and intolerant by the day.
Piling fear on top of fear.
And it’s time we stop.
As Christians, we must do better. It’s our call. The greatest peacemaker to ever walk the Earth implores us to love our neighbor and our enemy. And the funny thing is, the only thing separating the two is our own faulty judgment. But Christ reminds us that our job is to love without condition. And in tackling this troublesome task, he also reminds us…
Do not be anxious…
Do not fear…
Do not worry…
For every day has enough worry of it’s own.
And every person has a story to tell.
So today my prayer is this: That I can do my part to move beyond the fear. That I can move beyond my discomfort and get to know others who are different from me. That I can see beyond the sound byte and hear the true story. The story of another human who simply longs for peace. And contentment. And joy. Just like me.
And in truly connecting with my neighbor, may we tackle the challenges before us.