Last Friday Benny and I were in the ocean making our way out to join some of our kids and grandkids on a sandbar. We went through an area where we couldn’t touch bottom and suddenly Benny dropped my hand and told me to swim.
I thought nothing of it but he later apologized. “Honey, why are you apologizing?” I asked. “Because I left you to get my footing. I’m sorry.”
I assured him there was no need for an apology. The area leading to the sandbar was relatively short and I had no concerns about “making it” there. Yet Benny was scared and the only thing that would make him feel better is planting his feet on the ocean bottom.
What was the difference between my calm and his panic? 15 years ago off the North Carolina coast he and our daughter, Janelle, nearly drowned. The first few years after his experience and hospitalization he was cautious about the ocean. But over time he has become comfortable…usually. Last week was the first time in years panic set it. The current that day was stronger than it had been all week and it just felt all too familiar.
My husband is a brave man who doesn’t mind taking risks. However, the fear and trauma of that summer day when he knew he was about to go down for the last time in the rough Outer Banks waves made him understandably vulnerable.
The thing is this: when we talked last week hours after his ocean panic he knew his fear was irrational. It was only a matter of minutes that our feet weren’t touching bottom and there were several people nearby to help if needed. In the moment, though, he wasn’t thinking clearly. He was simply having “that feeling” of urgency to feel the ground beneath his feet.
The fearful feeling was there. Period.
Trauma affects people, even years later; even when there’s no legitimate reason to be afraid, feel threatened or react defensively. But Benny wasn’t thinking rationally when the fear set in. The only thing that was going to calm his heart and mind was feeling sand under his feet.
Do you find yourself reacting irrationally to stressful situations? Perhaps bickering between friends reminds you of anxiously lying in bed as a child while listening to your parents fight. Or maybe when a younger child is disrespectful you fear she will openly rebel like her older brother. And perhaps you rush to defend yourself because of false accusations that deeply hurt you in the past.
Yet, in the moment you don’t even realize past difficulties are affecting current responses.
It helped Benny to hear that I didn’t feel abandoned by him. It also helped to realize there was no rational explanation for his panic. Trauma goes deep and affects our reactions. It can help to understand that sometimes the reason why we respond irrationally or in exaggerated ways to situations is because whatever is happening feels like something from which we need to protect ourselves.
When this happens the good news is that God was with us the first time we felt afraid or unprotected or hurt or falsely accused. And He is with us now. What brings comfort and peace isn’t an assurance that past pain or difficulties won’t happen again. Why? Because no one can assure us we won’t be sinned against or have to go through painful things. We don’t know what the future holds, but we know Who will be there sustaining, helping and “causing all things to work together for good” (Romans 8:28).
Some things have happened in my life recently that are causing me to look back. But I don’t want to spend much time doing so. I want to look back just long enough to learn any helpful things about why I react to these situations the way I do. Then I want to quickly look forward in anticipation of God’s nearness, grace and persevering strength through whatever the future holds.
Benny was right. Putting his feet on solid ground was the only thing that would help him. But Christ Himself is the only real solid rock on which we can stand.
All other ground is sinking sand.