A Senior Moment
by Rev. Bob Johnston

November 6, 2016

New Perspectives

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"I have learned that courage is not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it"
                                 ... Nelson Mandela

                                  (Brain Quotes)

His name was Bob, an old soldier and a faithful member of my congregation. Early in November a few years ago, I was preparing my Remembrance Day sermon and approached Bob as part of my research.

The question I asked him was about bravery in battle. How does a soldier conquer fear long enough to jump out of the safety of his foxhole to attack an enemy machine gun emplacement? How can a pilot and his crew fearlessly climb into a Lancaster bomber to fly over Germany, knowing that murderous anti-aircraft fire will soon greet them? How did those sailors overcome an understandable dread of being torpedoed and leave a safe harbor to search for Nazi subs lurking under the stormy and frigid North Atlantic?

Bob smiled indulgently because he had been asked this question many times. His honest response surprised and enlightened me: "Not afraid? Of course, I was always afraid. In Northern Germany near the end of the war, I remember jumping into a baker’s large brick outdoor oven to escape an artillery bombardment. And my fear told me to stay there---but I soon crawled back out."

I learned a lesson that day, a truth lived out daily by Nelson Mandela through his own difficult years of persecution. To be courageous is to do what needs to be done even in the midst of being afraid. After all, who would need to call upon courage if there were no risk of danger or pain or death?

As we approach November 11, it is timely to remember those men and women of our armed forces who lived with fear and still acted with courage wherever and whenever they were called upon to serve our country.


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Their example also has resonance for us in our own daily lives, even if far removed from those horrific dangers of warfare. Two lessons emerge from their stories: FEAR IS OK. How often we deny our fears. Many men, from an early age, have been taught that fear is only for sissies. As a result we have swallowed those fears and denied their existence.

Any painful emotion which is buried usually and eventually makes its reappearance elsewhere through some seemingly unconnected, unhealthy psychological or physical manifestation. A better approach is to acknowledge a fear, preferably with someone who will neither judge nor condemn that emotion, but who will validate its reality. Their support and reassurance can then provide helpful motivation to confront and complete whatever task evoked that fear.

TAKE ACTION. We often make the mistake of waiting for a fear to subside before attempting a task. A better approach might be to accept the presence of that unwelcome “companion” and move ahead anyway to achieve a goal. That was the essence of Mandela’s guiding philosophy.

A note of caution is needed! Obviously, fear can sometimes be a healthy warning signal not to proceed. A soldier might hunker down in his foxhole until danger passes. A bombing run or mission at sea might be cancelled. In our less dramatic daily lives, fear can also act as a wise deterrent to restrain us from an unwise action. Fear of being stopped by a police road check can stop us from drinking and driving.

Despite the above caution, there is still much to be said for my friend Bob’s story. When we know an apology is needed, we can move ahead to offer one, despite the fear of its feeling awkward and embarrassing. We can learn a new skill or start a new business despite the fear of failure. We can overcome fear to begin a new relationship despite the pain of a past rejection. We can book that colonoscopy!

John Wayne was role model for many of us boys who wanted to learn about manhood. In most of his films Wayne remained the proverbial “strong, silent type,” a cowboy or war hero where fear could find no room. With that in mind it is instructive to come across a reference from Brainy Quotes attributed to this tough Hollywood legend. I think our veterans might agree:

Courage is being scared to death—and saddling up again.

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