Such a nice photo. A proud father, with his beautiful daughter, on a stunning day in the Pacific NW of the United States. Who would know that this father was about to go through some of the most terrifying minutes of his life? It was five years ago, and thanks to FB it re-circulated as some kind of precious memory. (Who, by the way, decides these things on social media like FB? Is it all computer algorithms or some weird human being in a little airless office who is a control freak?)
The proud father is of course me. The beautiful daughter is our youngest, Annalisa, who was graduating from high school, and had done a research project on our local port in Tacoma, Washington. We went together that fateful day to the presentations, where one student from each area high school would give a speech on their findings about some aspect of the port. Annalisa did very well (she hadn’t expected to win, and with full disclosure says she didn’t actually prepare much!) and won third prize. That night there was to be a fancy dinner at a local restaurant for all the parents and kids, and she and others would receive their awards.
But first something else was to happen. Each student that participated was to go, with their parent, for a tour of a certain part of the port. It seemed to be random choices, but we were slated to go with another family to a giant crane in the port area. I didn’t really realize what was happening until we got to the bottom of the crane (which is used to lift huge cargo containers into the ships from above.) Then the fun (nightmare) started. With the port employee who was our guide, we entered a tiny, rickety elevator to take us up and away to the top. As we got in, he handed us a safety jacket and a plastic helmet. I later would think what help those things would be if you fell from hundreds of feet in the air.
As we went up, I wondered what I was doing. I have a relatively mild fear of heights, not as strong as my wife or other friends I know, but it is there. But I wanted to be strong in front of my daughter, right? As we reached the top and the little door opened, we entered a narrow walkway, with a small and flimsy guardrail on each side barely reaching my waist. From there it was a drop directly down to the water from a dizzyingly high height. I started to feel weak in my stomach and clutched hard to each side of the railing.
But being the brave man I am, I suggested that we both walk to the end of the walkway, and have the employee take a photo. To remember this amazing father-daughter memory, right? And it was such a beautiful day. So we have the photo that you see with this post. By looking at it, you would never know how I feel inside, the fear, the birds flying around in my stomach. (but look at how I’m clutching the rail.) But that is how fear is. So often people may not know how scared we are on the inside because we have become masters of illusion that know how to fake it on the outside.
In the next moments, fear would turn to terror. If it had all ended there, and we had gone down the elevator, the day would have been really scary but ok. But it didn’t end there. The employee, who I hope never to see again in this life, suggested that we climb one more staircase to the extreme top. The staircase had no supports on either side, and one slip was certain death. My macho father-ness finally melted away, and I said I would wait where we were standing on the little walkway. But my daughter confidently said yes, and up they climbed, (she said later that she was actually scared, though I’m not sure I believe it, as since then she has bungee jumped, skydived and other crazy things.)
So there I was, clinging to the railings, feeling sick in stomach and trying not to look down. But as I heard Annalisa overhead climbing, the thoughts started. What if she fell? What would I do? I couldn’t go after her with any hope of catching her. As those thoughts assailed me, I began to feel faint, and sheer terror overwhelmed me. Now I have been in several accidents in India and other close calls in my life, but I have never been more afraid than in those moments. I literally thought I was losing consciousness, and so began to cry out ‘Help me Jesus!” Very loud. Half prayer, half cussing maybe. But very authentic in that moment.
I wanted to pray, ‘Jesus, if you save me now, I’ll be a missionary to India for you.’ Then I remembered I already was a missionary to India. Would Africa work? I just kept crying out, and somehow I felt better. Then I heard steps behind me and Annalisa and the employee were down and by me. Within minutes, but not fast enough for me, we were down on the ground. I wanted to kiss it like the Pope does. But I did it in my heart. When we got home and told my wife what had happened, she wondered how this could be allowed legally? I was still too scared to care in those moments.
Fear is a strange thing. It can come for many reasons, and leave quickly or haunt us in the nights at 3 in the morning. Sometimes it turns into terror, and some struggle with panic attacks of different kinds. I am not suggesting in this post that crying out to Jesus the profound prayer of HELP will always relieve what we are going through. Though in the Psalms in the Bible, there are many prayers for help of various kinds. But for many of us, it does help to talk about our fears and terrors. To bring them into the light, into a community that loves us and often shares similar fears. To keep fear in the dark increases the dark, and keeps the light outside.
Facing our fears and terrors also helps us to become more self-aware, of our limitations and weaknesses. Do you think I’m ever going to go up a giant crane again? No. I know myself, and don’t feel a particular need to show off with a mask of competition. No thank you.
I do want to face my fears. But I’m not sure I want to face my terrors. But for me that day five years ago on top of a giant crane, the ‘Help Me, Jesus’ prayer worked.