This is the twelfth in a series written by Malcolm Marler and Mary Bea Sullivan, husband and wife, about their journey as Mary, an author, prepares to go to Virginia Theological Seminary. Malcolm is a director of pastoral care at a hospital in Alabama.
“She Said.” By Mary Bea Sullivan
I love to run. Since we live in a rural area, I can go miles in-between houses, and frequently never see a car or a truck. Many times I have prayed, cried, and left my cares behind tromping these roads–they are a sanctuary for me.
Last month I was running early on a Saturday morning, taking a familiar, but not often-used route. I was deep in thought, rounding the corner toward home, when a medium-sized dog started barking at me. I know most of the dogs, cows, horses, and chickens around here. This guy was new.
“Hey sweet baby.” I soothingly called as I sidled to the far side of the road. Most dogs will follow along yapping until I go past their “territory.” This one was different. He didn’t seem to be “alarm” barking, he was growling. Instead of slowing down as he reached his property line, he gained speed. So did I.
I’m not a fast runner, but I picked up the pace as best I could and looked behind. The brown dog seemed to be a chow/pit bull mix and was closing in, snapping and growling. When I knew I couldn’t outrun him, I decided to try scaring him so I turned around to face him, arms raised , yelling, “Go Home!” This only proved to incite him more and he started to bear down on me. I screamed, “Get your dog! Get your dog!” to no one in particular and ran as fast as I could. As I veered into the brambles to find a stick, the dog unexpectedly retreated, barking all the way.
Winded, I ran as fast as I could up the hill. Tears of fear slid down my cheeks, honoring the awareness of a vulnerability that always existed. And then, when I was half a mile from home I could see four large dogs off in the distance–out on the loose. I turned for home before they came near and was never threatened by them, but found myself repeatedly looking back to make sure they were not behind me. In eight years of running here, I have never been attacked by a dog. I have surprised a coyote, jumped over a snake, scared innumerable bunnies, seen soaring hawks, stopped to spot owls, and even had dogs run along side me. But never had I been threatened in this way.
For weeks, I didn’t run, choosing other forms of exercise. Finally, one day I decided to venture out-going just six tenths of a mile, to “Miss Stella’s” and then running back and forth until I had run my standard amount. For a number of mornings I allowed myself to be tethered to this “safe distance,” missing the freedom and scenery of my longer runs. One day I decided to muster up the courage to run a little farther (don’t worry, NOT in the direction of the mean dog).
When I passed Miss Stella’s home, the hymn, “Be not afraid I go before you always, come follow me, and I will give you rest” began playing in my head. Over and over again, “Be not afraid….” carried me until one day I was able to resume my regular route. But I have been afraid. I can’t seem to recapture my former innocence. My runs are no longer relaxing, I am having to my urge myself along–every blind corner a new anxiety.
This morning I read,
“your soul is sunken in that cowardice
that bears down many men, turning their course
and resolution by imagined perils,
as his own shadow turns the frightened horse.” –Dante’s Inferno
I also heard myself say to Malcolm, “I am afraid” in reference to all that we are trying to manage right now. It’s not just dogs that have been nipping at my heels. I have even thought of giving up on going to seminary next month. But I don’t want to live in this fearful place–nothing good comes from it. I want to live the words of the song, believing God goes before me always.
“Be not afraid, I go before you always, come follow me and I will give you rest.”
How does fear operate in your life? What have you learned about overcoming it?