The worst riot in Detroit’s history broke out the summer of 1967: forty-three people were killed and over eleven hundred injured. As the violence escalated, my father packed us kids into the station wagon and drove us in to the center of the action (every other car was headed out). Police tried to wave us away while we witnessed looting, fights, arrests, and arson.
My father was fearless and he passed that recklessness on to us kids.
We grew up with a daredevil streak. By the time I graduated from high school, I had broken my left leg twice (and my nose once), cracked multiple ribs, had the tip of a finger chopped off in a lawnmower (don’t ask), fractured my kneecap, and my many stitches give me a Frankenstein look. We knew all the names of the ER nurses, their kids, second cousins, and pet goldfish.
My father could have driven us to our doctor blindfolded. Though he never tried.
The Day It All Failed Me
Ten years after the Detroit riots, I was on a retreat with college friends at a major university. During a break, we visited the university pool. I taught my friends to do flips off the diving board. They challenged me to try flips off the three-meter board.
Piece of cake.
Just to see the view, we climbed to the top of the ten-meter platform. When a friend challenged me to jump, I sashayed my way to the edge and peered down. The clear water let me see the bottom of the pool nearly fifty feet down.
Instantly my imagination ran wild. I visualized an uncoordinated dive ending in a belly flop with my innards bursting out; I pictured a gust of wind blowing me sideways, painting the pool’s skirt with my blood. An inner voice shouted, “Don’t do it.”
Then I imagined the jeer of my friends. And I jumped.
We all fear and we let those fears control us. Some terrors are obvious, like the fear of heights, spiders, and dark. But most of our nightmares lie hidden, and like subconscious boundary markers, they fence us into the ghettos of little lives.
- Some of us would dance at the edge of the Grand Canyon, but we reach for our valium at the tiniest thought of disappointing a friend.
- Others displease friends without breaking a sweat, but our living rooms must look like Better Homes and Gardens before we’d invite those same friends over to dinner.
- Some parents fear letting anyone see that they know very little about parenting.
Our Fears Wear Masks of Honor
Many of our virtuous traits are mere fears masquerading as virtues. We think we’remeek when we’re really afraid to make waves; or patient when we’re afraid to hope; orkind when we’re scared to be honest.
How much of our piety is fear in a mask?
When I swaggered to the edge of that ten-meter platform, I was afraid that my friends would think me a chicken. Courage didn’t get me to jump. My bravery was cowardice in disguise.
We think we’re afraid of the boogie man, but we’re most afraid that others will see the real us.
Well, I survived, landing mostly headfirst, no blood, no guts, no pain, and no shame (externally).
But … when I thought of the reason for my “courage” you could say that my pride took a dive as well.
I also didn’t climb back up for a second stab at it.