We meet Horace Hopper, the protagonist of Willy Vlautin’s quietly devastating new novel Don’t Skip Out On Me, as he sits before a notebook and records the thirty-third instance of the same bad dream.
Vlautin never spells the point out, but reading between the tally marks, Horace believes writing his dreams down will help him wake up for good.
Every writer I know does the same. Although we might never close the gap between our writing and our living, we commit our virtues and vices to the page, hoping one set grows to maturity, while the other shrivels up and dies.
I feel an overwhelming urge to write down my fears, to say them out loud, all in good faith that airing them out sets in motion the Rube Goldberg machine that eventually kills them.
Retracing my steps, the word “coward” seems an obvious way to describe me. When a moment breaks down to fight or flight, I pick flight every time. Fear frequently visits me. Fear like dirt under my fingernails. Fear clapping on heartbeats one and three. Fear thick in the air like a Mississippi summer funk.
Not a fear of things—snakes, spiders, speaking in public—but of people and of situations. Most days it seems, as The National’s Matt Berninger sings in his punch-drunk baritone, “I’m afraid of everyone.”
Listing my fears, three sit well above the rest. The first, driving and defining all my other fears, is the fear I will ruin somebody or something. Whether by leaving the gas stove on, pressing the gas pedal at the wrong moment, making a rounding error, or saying the wrong words at the wrong time, I tremble at the thought of making a mistake that would alter someone else’s life forever. This fear leads to benignly obsessive behaviors, re-checking locked doors and memorizing the positions of appliance dials.
Next by weight class, the fear my marriage will stall out. After thirteen years of trial and error, I harbor no fears my wife will leave me. She entertains the temptation to give up on me far less than I do. Rather I fear the drift into stagnant waters, the seemingly inevitable idea sold us in the stories we consume, that she will stick to me even as her eyes dull when I enter and exit a room. I fear waking up one day next to a roommate, not a lover.
The last great fear takes the shape of prematurely leaving my son fatherless. My beloved, this one I call “my favorite boy,” entered our family through adoption. The thought of him enduring loss a second time unmoors me.
My chest tightens when he calls for me on the playground. I stand just a few feet beyond where his eyes focus—he will see me. But for a moment, I glimpse him crying out for me with no response. I can’t breathe until I hear him say my name again, and see him smile his little smile of recognition.
Three fears, all tuned to the same frequency: You are not enough, so surely you will fail the people around you.
Many of the Bible’s main characters hear a sermon in this vein: “Fear not.” I hear those words and turn into the child dwelling on the one idea they’ve been told to forget, the old church lady who worries over committing the sin of worry.
St. John wrote “Perfect love drives out fear.” After a lifetime in the church, I still don’t know what that phrase means. We quote it as if to say perfect love drives out fear for good. Perfect love drives out fear to the middle of nowhere, leaving it for dead.
Either we misuse these words or I am a man of little faith, because my experience won’t hold hands with that translation. Everything I know testifies that Jesus loves me perfectly, yet the fear sits in the next room. I hear it breathing deep and heavy; I feel its presence in the creep across my skin.
Wrestling John’s words, trying to make them cry “uncle,” I encounter realities that force my cheeks to flush. We skip the rest of the passage at our peril. John continues: “Fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.”
The fear of making a mistake paralyzes people—God only knows how often my feet sink into that quicksand. It cripples marriages and sinks basketball teams.
John says we can reject fear’s premises, not because we have perfect records, but because of God’s flawless love. The one who loves us perfectly faced his fears so we would never encounter our ultimate fears: spiritual death and separation from God, the pain of punishment.
When we walk to the precipice of great mistakes, even when our foothold gives way and we topple over, we fall certain that we’ll land on a soft place. Neither the ultimate punishment our mistakes deserve or the punishments we’ve invented in our heads await us.
Freed from the fear of punishment, our eyes widen enough to recognize the presence of perfect love. Perfect love answers to the name Jesus. He stands beside us in the situations that trigger our fight-or-flight responses; when we face our fears, he faces us, bringing a consolation that exceeds the fiercest courage.
History tells me ninety-nine percent of what I fear never comes to fruition. And, even if it did, any possible ruin doesn’t exceed the grasp of redemption. My marriage takes hard work but, sealed by the Spirit, it thrives in good health. I can’t control the time and place of my mistakes, or ensure my own mortality. But no possible future scenario, even those existing in the wilds of my imagination, will escape him and his ability to convert all to good.
The truth is the tune of my fear rings true: I am not enough and I will fail the people around me. As much as I want to believe with Horace, writing down my fears won’t prevent them from being realized. Saying them out loud won’t scare away the fear likely to linger my whole life. But Jesus, just as present as fear and infinitely more true, reminds me to render unto fear only what it deserves.
I owe fear no debt of attention; nothing requires me to bow to its demands; I haven’t signed my name to any contract handing over the best of my years and my energy.
I live in fear of fear itself, but fear itself eventually loses out to perfect love himself.