My first date with my husband lasted eight hours. Sometime after David’s cello performance of Bach’s “Suite No. 1 in G Major,” but before we watched Muppet Treasure Island, we talked over bowls of Tex Mex casserole (his signature dish). Most days I prefer to hide behind a series of well-crafted questions designed to make people focus on themselves, but that night I took a risk and asked David if he had any questions for me. He said, “I recently read a book called Mars and Venus on a Date that said the way you ended your last relationship will determine how your next one begins. So, how did all of your previous relationships end?”
Just two months prior, I had emailed my young adults pastor to explain that because I had not dated a Christian since high school, I had no idea how to share my romantic history. He advised me to wait until the relationship turned exclusive before disclosing anything. Unfortunately, Dr. John Gray did not include this caveat in David’s book.
An invisible restraint tightened around my chest and my stomach fluttered as if I had catapulted straight to the top of an amusement park drop tower. I dangled just long enough to survey my environment, squirm in my seat, and question my sanity.
“Well . . . do you want to go deep and dark, or keep things light and fluffy?” I asked.
David paused, glanced over his shoulder toward the kitchen, and then replied, “We’re eating strawberry jello cake later. That’s light and fluffy. Why don’t we go deep and dark?”
With the whoosh of my exhaling breath, the free fall commenced. I gripped the couch and kicked my legs as shameful regrets poured out of my mouth. When I finished, my eyes locked with David’s. I braced myself for the impact of his rejection. He said, “I’m in no position to set myself as judge over you. Our stories are different, but God’s grace covers both of us, and your past doesn’t change how I feel about you.”
I shot through the air once more, this time with tingling electricity flowing through my body, eager to emerge in the form of a high-pitched giggle. Praise God I managed to contain my laughter until the Muppet pirates contracted cabin fever. When I drove home that night, I called my friend Meredith and left a voicemail, squealing with delight that I found the man I wanted to marry.
Fear as a Conduit
Sometimes I wonder how our date would have ended if David had chosen the “light and fluffy” route, or if he had never asked that infamous question. Would I have had fun? Definitely. Would he have shown compassion had I revealed everything later in our relationship? Absolutely. Would I have left his apartment that night in the same state of euphoria? I wonder.
I grew up believing that because God does not give us a spirit of fear and that any presence of fear prevents us from accessing more “Christ-like” emotions, such as joy or peace or love. But as I reflect on my date with David, I can’t deny the fact that deep fear preceded my profound exhilaration.
According to social science, my experience is not unique. For instance, in a 2014 article in Scientific American, Melanie Tannenbaum describes a psychological study that explored the link between fear and arousal. Specifically, researchers found that men who crossed a shaky bridge were more likely to pursue follow-up contact with the woman who approached them at the end of their feat than men who encountered her after their trek across a stable bridge. Tannenbaum suggests that, much like the men who mistook their fear as attraction, humans must rely on their environments to help them decipher whether their physical sensations result from anger or happiness, fear or excitement.
The shepherds watching over their sheep in Luke 2 started that evening on high alert, keeping an eye out for predators, when out of nowhere a radiant angel popped into the sky. If I jump two feet every time a stranger knocks on my front door, how much more would shepherds who were anticipating wolves tremble when they encountered the divine instead? The angel then exclaimed, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy.”
In the past, I thought the statement meant something akin to, “Calm down so you can hear what I have to say.” However, in light of what research tells us about the physical manifestations of fear and happiness, perhaps the angel’s message was not a directive to the shepherds to quash their feelings, but an invitation to use the forthcoming good news to reinterpret their bodies’ signals. What if, under circumstances like this one, the physical arousal produced by fear can act as a catalyst to experience new intensities of joy, love, and hope?
Leaning in to Fear
There’s an episode of the Nicktoon Rugrats where Chuckie Finster, the red-headed worrywart, endures a traumatic incident at a pizza arcade and develops a fear of something he once cherished: slides. He laments to the other babies that he wants nothing more than to slide again, but he can’t forget what occurred at the top of the big-kid slide. As two of the older children argue about whether he’s a “scaredy-cat” or a “big brave dog,” Chuckie loses his cool and screams, “I am not an animal! I am a human being! And tomorrow I am going on that slide!” Sure enough, the following morning Chuckie quivers up the slide’s steps, gulps as he sits down, and closes his eyes as he lies back on the metal. He lands on the ground with a thud, prompting his friend to ask if he’s okay. Chuckie grins. “That was the best slide ever.”
This summer will mark my ten-year wedding anniversary. I walked down the aisle with sweaty palms, weak knees, and a racing heart, terrified that one day this foundation might disappear underneath me. Yet after a decade of leaning in to scary situations, trading emotional detachment for vulnerable embodiment, and holding on tight through the ups and downs, my relationship with David continues to be the best slide ever.
Cover image by Bannon Morrissy.
 Melanie Tannenbaum, “Fear and Love on a Shaky Bridge,” Scientific American, February 14, 2014, https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/psysociety/fear-and-love-on-a-shaky-bridge/.