Ever since a 6th-grade bully kicked open a bathroom stall where I sat in 1st-grade vulnerability, laughed at my terror, then clicked off the lights and left me in darkness and shame, the beast of fear had stalked my every move. It lurked behind me, making me question every step and decision for possible unintended consequences. It sidled beside me whenever I was confronted with anything new, limiting desire to try the unfamiliar or test the possibilities of paths unpaved. But mostly, it hovered above me or before me, a constant reminder that I was small, helpless and hopeless. It would be my companion for years.
It contributed greatly to my pathetic performance in Junior High gym class, especially dodge ball games where my skinny little arms did little to help our team. Stan “The Man” Connor, on the other hand, was the consummate athlete. He could hurl the rubber orbs (accurately) with greater force than any three other kids combined. He literally knocked opponents off their feet as they vainly attempted to flee the wrath of Stan.
I recall one game where I somehow managed to avoid being hit and ended up in the unenviable position of being the last man standing against a hoard of foes on the opposing team, including Stan. Normally when this happened, the opposing team would gather up several balls and hurl them simultaneously at the lone holdout, who would summarily be vanquished in a flurry of flying limbs and minor curses.
In this instance, however, all but two balls ended up stuck on my side of the court. Instead of two people throwing at the same time, the opposing team handed both balls to their alpha-chucker Stan. I held one of the previously captured balls as a defensive shield, deflecting incoming balls to the side when possible. With my puny arms, there was no way I could possibly win this contest, but I thought if I could just avoid the two remaining balls and somehow keep them from rebounding back to the opposing side, I might possibly be able to force a draw by refusing to throw any balls back at the other team. It would be considered a cheap trick of course, cementing my image as a mewling coward.
I can’t say from whence the idea percolated, but one thing was certain: I was tired of being afraid. The exhaustion of constantly looking over my shoulder or worrying about what came next had done nothing to help me. It had prevented nothing but progress, created nothing but dread. And I was tired of this cowering sameness.
The word came as a glimmer of hope through a crack in a fortress wall, as clear as a trumpet in Jericho.
Unless...I could do something to show some courage...something like catching one of the last two balls and thus eliminating Stan. It was a maniacal idea – like catching a cannonball. But wasn’t I dead already?
Stan’s first throw seemed like it was going to be off target, a bit high and to my left. As the ball came closer, however, it seemed to change course. I raised my shield ball just in time to deflect what would have been a perfect head shot. The guy had thrown a curve with a dodge ball! College baseball scouts would have been salivating had they seen that pitch. It came screaming in with such force that it nearly knocked the shield ball from my hands. Instead, it caromed off the wall behind me and bounded back across mid-field; they would have another shot at me. So long as Stan was throwing, they would likely have as many chances as they needed.
In the meantime, Stan was preparing for his second attempt. He had moved all the way to the back wall and began a loping gait towards the mid-line, accelerating as he approached. It was like he was preparing to hurl a javelin. Speed and balance, form and grace, control at the edge of human performance are always a beauty to behold, except when focused against your continued existence. Then it becomes a perfect terror.
As Stan planted his front foot and twisted forward, the ball was already an elongated red blur. As it left his hand, time slowed as my mind began to race with options: if it comes in high, I’ll duck and deflect, if it is low, I’ll either jump over or deflect it to the ground, if off to the right or the left, I’ll dodge the opposite direction. It soon became clear, however, that none of those conditions applied. Stan had thrown a perfect strike, and a fastball at that. There were only two options now: 1) attempt a difficult straight-on deflection where, at the speed Stan’s throw was coming, it was likely I would lose my grip on the shield ball and end up taking one in the face, or 2) try to catch the cursed thing.
Despite its velocity, I didn’t think I would have a better chance at catching one and winning a little glory. The ball was headed straight for my gut where I hoped to smother its heat and trap it with both arms. I dropped my shield and prepared for impact. I knew the timing would have to be perfect. Trying to soften the blow, I took a little hop backwards and arched my back to form a pocket for the projectile. As it invaded my personal space, I closed my arms around the ball as quickly as I could.
It is amazing how swiftly the human spirit can cycle through emotions. In less than a second, I travelled a journey through fear, wonder, determination, surprise, exultation, concern and more. Fear had been lurking ever since the opposing team handed the two remaining balls to Stan. As he let fly the second, however, fear gave way to awe at the beauty of the toss. A steely resolve set in as I dropped the shield ball and decided to go for the catch. As my arms wrapped down around the ball, I was both stunned at the force of the blow which now drove me even further back and knocked the wind out of me, yet exultant that I was in position to actually make the catch; the plan was working! My arms were in perfect position to counter the expected rebound of the ball off my midsection.
The ball, however, had other ideas. Having been hurled with what kids nowadays call a “buttload” of backspin, it did not rebound back into my waiting arms as expected. Rather, it took a downward course, bouncing first off my thighs, then up to my arms on an oblique angle, then off my chest and grazing my chin as it escaped through the top of the trap I had so carefully laid for it. I lunged to retrieve it before it hit the ground, swatting desperately at air as the ball arched just out of reach.
To be so close to glory after years without a hope or glimpse of it, to then expect and anticipate it even for a split second, to hear it at your front door then rush to open it only to find the porch empty – the promise of glory a doorbell ditcher – left me utterly disheartened. Despair rushed in to finish off the parade of emotions.
But despair too was only temporary.
A corner had been turned. Deciding to drop my shield ball and attempt that catch was pivotal. At that moment, the beast of fear was in the ball. Rather than trying to run or dodge it, for the first time I had confronted the beast. And facing fear was exhilarating. Even though the exhilaration was short-lived, it was enough. From that point on, I saw fear differently, felt it differently. I developed an intense curiosity about it and discovered when you look at it straight on, it usually disappears or shrinks so small as to lose its terror. In short, it can be mastered, but only when you stand and embrace it for what it can teach.
I was no better at dodge ball, but I would never cower again.