Fear, Trust, and Skinny-Dipping in the Platte

fear

fear

I have trust issues. It’s precisely this fact about me which limits my public self-revelation, and which more than anything else explains why I’m still a bachelor in my middle age. In the imprecise, even sloppy way we use the word love, to love someone isn’t necessarily to trust them with our vulnerabilities. We have affection for them; we’re loyal to them; we do many things for them. But trust is affected by self-interest and is crippled or lost when uncertainty or fear is present. And trust is an essential component not only of faith but of Christian love.

Once Upon a Time …

It was the summer of 1992, half a lifetime ago, and I was a young man in my late twenties struggling to come out of a prolonged adolescence and into responsible adulthood. Though not yet clinically obese, I was overweight and self-conscious about it. Since I was barely making more than minimum wage in the fast food industry, I shared a two-bedroom apartment in the Benson area of Omaha, Nebraska with my best friend Larry and his girlfriend Mary, now his wife of over twenty years. Although this arrangement had its tensions at times, we were and still are close friends.

On this warm June evening, Mary’s best friend Susan came to visit. From what I remember Mary told me, Susan, who was married at the time, was the “bad friend” many of us “good kids” have had in childhood, the scapegrace with whom we got into minor trouble in search of fun (which was never our idea!). Like most such friends, under the mischief she was (and is) warm-hearted, loyal, and good. This night, Mary and Susan’s reminiscing carried them back to memories of skinny-dipping in the Platte River just south of Offutt Air Force Base near Bellevue. At some point, however, my mind dissociated from my body; the next thing I knew, we were all in a car, stereo blasting Boston’s “More Than a Feeling”, heading towards Bellevue.

Through much of the experience, the details of which have somewhat faded in memory, this feeling of unreality persisted. Somewhere in the back of my mind, Distrust kept yammering, This is a bad idea. We’re gonna get caught. I don’t wanna be naked in front of anyone, especially not another man’s wife. But something else held my tongue, kept me moving with my friends, even out of my clothes and into the river. Let go. Don’t be afraid. And as my friends and I swam and played like children in the dirty, shallow water of the Platte, the voice of Distrust finally gave up and left in a huff.

Prudence, Courage, and Fear

Certainly, skinny-dipping anywhere other than a nude beach is imprudent. But prudence, as a virtue, is a rational weighing of potential benefits and consequences; it takes others into account as well as oneself. In modern terms, it’s “risk management”, albeit a risk management that can’t be reduced to mere numbers or dollar signs. Fear should never be mistaken for prudence. In any event, if there was anything in my reluctance born of rational caution, that something had stifled it in the crib: Ah, shut up, you worry-wart. Can’t you, for once in your life, enjoy something without doing a cost-benefit analysis?

And, in thinking back, there have been other times that feeling of unreality struck me: situations in which I was calm in the face of danger, such as the two times I was robbed at gunpoint. (I did tell you I worked in fast food.) But the system which releases adrenaline as part of the “fight or flight” reaction doesn’t make the choice between fighting, fleeing, and staying put. I can’t call it courage. Rather, it was as if something pre-rational had dismissed my fear as irrelevant: There’s no time for this fraidy-cat nonsense. Let go, and do what you have to do.

Of course, the prospect of getting caught by the police or being ridiculed by others isn’t in the same league as the prospect of getting your brains blown out all over the makeline. But while we say as a manner of speaking that someone has “good reason” or “rational grounds” to be afraid of this or that, the fact remains that fear itself isn’t rational. It can’t be argued away; it can’t be disproved; by the very nature of all emotions, it’s un-reason-able. You must either let it rule your actions or find a way to subdue it.

Agapaō and Phileō

Now, if we read the Greek text of the exchange between Jesus and St. Peter (John 21:15-17 KNOX),* we see that the Evangelist uses two different verbs we translate as to love: agapaō and phileō. This facet is subtle and sometimes goes missing in English translations. Let me give you a dynamic equivalence:

Simōn Ioannou, agapas me pleon toutōn (Simon Bar-Jonah, do you care for me more than they do)?

Nai kyrie, su oidas hoti philō se (Truly, Lord, you see I [only] have affection for you).

Simōn Ioannou, agapas me (Simon Bar-Jonah, do you [at least] care for me)?

Nai kyrie, su oidas hoti philō se (Truly, Lord, you see I [only] have affection for you).

Simōn Ioannou, phileis me (Simon Bar-Jonah, do you [only] have affection for me)?

Kyrie, panta su hoidas, su ginōskeis hoti philō se (Lord, you see all things; you know I [only] have affection for you).

Keep in mind that this same Simon Peter, when John cried, “It is the Lord!”, jumped out of the boat and swam to shore to be with his Master, leaving the others to deal with all the fish they had just caught (John 21:7-8 NRSVCE). It’s also the same Peter who raced John to the empty tomb (John 20:3-4). But it’s also the same Peter who had been shamed and humbled by his craven denial of his Master (Matthew 26:69-75). As strongly as he felt for his Messiah, it hadn’t sufficed at the test. Made painfully aware of his limitations, Peter couldn’t say agapō su to one who knew all things.

Philos Isn’t Enough

Now, let’s look at Jesus’ response to Peter’s confession. He doesn’t offer comfort; he doesn’t offer reassurance. He doesn’t say, “That’s okay, Pete, I forgive you. You’re a pretty swell guy despite your faults.” Instead, Jesus hands Peter a task, stated three ways: “Feed my lambs.” “Tend [or govern] my sheep.” “Feed my sheep.” And in the last instance, he tacks on a prophecy:

Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go. Follow me. (John 21:18-19)

The Catholic Church properly interprets the whole exchange as Jesus handing to Peter the task of being his stand-in (vicarius, the root of vicar) as the Good Shepherd. But on another level, Jesus is warning him — the shepherd can’t run away when the wolves come to ravage the flock. To be his stand-in, when the time comes, Peter will have to make the hard choice to follow Jesus onto his own cross … as, according to tradition, he did over thirty years later.

And when Peter asks, “What about [John]?” (What does he get out of this?), Jesus replies, “If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? Follow me!” (John 21:21-22). Peter can’t make his choice by doing a cost-benefit analysis, or by weighing whether he “gets” more by carrying out Jesus’ will than does John. Fear is irrelevant. Self-interest is an obstacle. Even prudence is unable to speak on the matter. Peter must make himself vulnerable, and do so willingly. Philos — fraternal affection — won’t be enough.

Faith and Certainty

Agapē, or caritas (the Latin root of charity), can’t be explained away as “enlightened self-interest”. With enlightened self-interest, the value of the thing I sacrifice is worth the same as (or, better yet, less than) the value of the benefit I derive from it. But enlightened self-interest isn’t willing to take a loss on the deal, let alone lose everything without any benefit whatsoever. “Win-win situations are fine, so long as I win, in some sense. If I don’t, stick it where the sun don’t shine.” At the end of the day, “enlightened self-interest” is still self-interested.

In his famous passage on love, St. Paul distinguishes between faith (pistis) and love (agapē). French philosopher and linguist Claude Tresmontant observed that pistis meant “objective certitude regarding the truth” (The Hebrew Christ: Language in the Age of the Gospels 151). If I walk out into the rain, I know I will get wet, not because it’s happened to me every time before but because I have no cause to suspect this time will be different. Skepticism isn’t self-validating; if the doubter can’t show his grounds for doubt, it can be dismissed. That, my friends, is faith on the rational level.

But not all doubt or uncertainty comes from reason. You can pile up many rational arguments for believing in God’s merciful love and Christ’s salvific death on the cross. But if fear prevents you from placing your trust in the Holy Trinity, all the reasons in the world won’t give you the strength to jump the chasm from mere belief to faith. So with self-interest: you have to love God with the love that doesn’t count the cost; otherwise, no offer of “pie in the sky” will help you let go of what holds you back.

To Throw Ourselves Into the Void

In this sense, faith isn’t irrational in the sense that emotions are irrational. Rather, it’s pre-rational: not only doesn’t it require proof, to try to disprove what it knows would be futile and foolish (like, for instance, proving that you don’t exist). It’s not “believing what you know ain’t so;” it’s knowing what you believe with the unshakeable certainty that casts fear and doubt as irrelevant. Can such certainty be placed in the wrong things? Sure; we see this happen everywhere, almost every day. But as the old Latin legal maxim says, the misuse doesn’t invalidate the proper use.

To have such certainty, we must learn to trust, to throw ourselves into the void like trapeze artists knowing that God will be there to catch us. It takes greater strength to do so with your eyes wide open than to trust blindly. I must learn to do consciously what my subconscious did for me on that warm summer evening so long ago — let go of the fear and doubt that weighs me down. I now know why it felt so unreal: Freedom takes some getting used to.

Do not be afraid! Open wide the doors for Christ!

Pope St. John Paul II

* Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture citations are from the Catholic Edition of the New Revised Standard Version (NRSVCE).

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1 thought on “Fear, Trust, and Skinny-Dipping in the Platte”

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