Michaela is away for the weekend to meet an old school friend in the Lake District. The kids and I needed an little adventure of our own and so I somewhat reluctantly agreed to a trip to an amusement park.
I am not a fan of these places. They are very expensive, and I usually feel rather depressed by the tacky pre-packaged fear-tainment- each step we take carefully ‘monetized’ (forgive the Americanism.)
They are all about noise, smelly fast food and rust-streaked mass manipulation and they offer a quick adrenaline buzz which is over in a flash of neon and a wave of nausea.
It is a far cry from the trips into empty wild places that I love so much- and try to inculcate into my children’s souls.
But to be honest, like most parents I am happiest when I have made my kids happy.
It was touch and go for a while. We arrived in a burst of excited chatter from the kids, and paid out the best part of £70 for tickets then walked around the park as the rides opened deciding what seemed possible and what we would avoid at all costs.
We all had such different thresholds. Emily would go on most things, me on a few- Will became increasingly quiet, and I knew that his world was getting smaller.
And so in this rather dreadful modern excuse for living fuller and more present lives, we all began a kind of journey.
Emily went on almost every ride- daring herself towards the extreme. There was also a reptile house, and she overcame her fear of spiders and held a Tarantula.
I too was banged and crashed around on roller coasters, and soaked on log flumes and water chutes.
But the greatest journey was made by William.
William is at his happiest when with his friends in the forest with a stick and a head full of pokemania. He is comfortable with what is known and understood and has little interest in what lies beyond this. So standing before a huge Ferris wheel, or a plunging water slide, or even a roller coaster aimed at little kids-he was transfixed with fear, and no amount of persuasion or encouragement would force him forward.
Emily was great, and took him on some little rides. He had a go on trampolines and crazy golf. But he was not happy. When I pushed him a little too hard, he wept into my shoulder.
So began a long conversation about how life was full of things that will shrink us down into ever smaller boxes- and how the only way to deal with fear was to face it and take some small steps into the danger zone. And how we often find that when we do the the fear itself retreats and new things become possible.
And there in that artificial and rather unpleasant space, that is just what happened to Will. After a gulp he decided to go for the big scary Ferris wheel. He was visibly shaking- holding every muscle rigid, but still he climbed into the cage…
And the old magic happened. As we are exposed to fear, our autonomic nervous systems fire into fight or flight mode- thoughts become hyper focused and instinctive, blood flows to muscles, breathing becomes shallow and quick. We become totally pre-occupied with making the fear go away- and making the symptoms of the fear go away too. But for most of the time (particularly when the risk is measured or even unreasonable) if we stay in the moment- face up to the fear but act anyway- then we find that over a few minutes (around 5-20 mins) the fear tails away, and the most primitive part of ourselves recalibrates to view this action as ‘safe’.
In this way, like the ripples made by a stone on still water, we expand.
Alternatively, if we avoid the fear then not only does this unlearning fail to happen, but actually we are likely to entrench the autonomic response still further. In some cases, the fear then encroaches on other areas of life like a kind of psychological gangrene.
Fear of falling then may extend to ladders, to tall buildings, to airplanes, to staircases.
In some cases, mixed with the right amount of vulnerability and damaging childhood experience, these fears make us a prisoner in our own bodies. They stop us coming out of our protective huddles- sometimes they stop people leaving their front doors.
It is kind of easy to visualise the fears of childhood- but so much more difficult to understand and unlock the fears that hold us as adults. I am reminded of that point where Jesus sends out his followers in twos to declare the New Kingdom in acts of healing and deliverance- and when some demons prove to be beyond them, he says that some only are over come by prayer and fasting. It is almost as if he is saying- there are no magical answers to this kind of freedom- it requires work.
Yesterday Williams faced up to his fear- and stood on top of his own mountain. And I was so proud of him.
May we stand on ours.
Because it is for FREEDOM that we are set free.