“Stick your hand in it, mom! Go for it!” my son says. He looks at me with a challenging grin.
I take a close look at the three glass boxes in front of me housing a king snake, a huge hairy tarantula and an oily black scorpion the size of my hand. An opaque tube runs from each enclosure to a box below with slits where you can slide your hands in. A sign challenges you to check if any of the creatures have climbed down the tube into these black boxes below.
The skin on my neck is tingling and I involuntarily shiver. My son laughs. We are visiting the Goosebumps exhibit at the Arizona Science Center and he is having fun freaking his mom out.
We’ve already walked past a gallery of phobias, some more plausible than others. Fear of chickens? Likely. Fear of gold? Perhaps, but strange. Fear of knees - genuphobia? Really. Can we say ‘web hoax?’
I know I have my phobias. I don’t like small spaces, and I have no desire to ever scuba dive or jump out of a plane. And I don’t like creeping things.
I survey the situation more closely. If indeed the snake could slither out the tube there is nothing to stop it from slithering out the box below. No institution in its right mind is going to invite its patrons to risk a bite or a sting. Everything tells me there is no chance that I will actually come in contact with a live creature. Rationally, I know that these creepy crawlies are safe in their cage.
But I can’t stick my hand in that black box. My heart is beating a little faster, and my skin is positively crawling all over my back. I have to walk away.
Further in the exhibit we learn all about the body’s response to fear, about different types of fears, about ways to cope with fear. I am fascinated by a presentation on social anxiety disorders. The psychiatrist notes that most people struggling with these disorders (like obsessive-compulsive behaviors or social anxiety or panic attacks) know that their fears are irrational. Just like I know that it is irrational not to put my hand in that box.
I know a lot about irrational fear. Perhaps every mom does. Concern for the safety and well-being of our precious offspring can make us a little kooky.
But there was a time in my life when fear was overwhelming me. Unexplained twinges and pains loomed like dark shadows over me and in the dim hours of early morning I would be convinced that I was dying. Rational? Not at all. And I knew it.
I had to make a choice. These fears were starting to rule me. I knew that I needed to “take my thoughts captive to the obedience of Christ” as Paul tells us in 2 Corinthians 10:5.
Bible study teacher Beth Moore has said this about her own struggle with fear: “Everyday I wake up with these fears. And everyday I choose to live as though they have no power over me.”
It is a daily choice. Sometimes hourly, sometimes minute by minute. In Philippians Paul gives us some practical ways to take our thoughts captive. Instead of marinating in fear, we can choose to replace our thoughts: “Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable — if anything is excellent or praiseworthy — think about such things. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me — put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you” (Philippians 4:8-9).
Whatever is true. So much of what occupies our fearful thoughts is simply not true. Near the back of the Goosebumps exhibit is a display on the odds of dying from some of the most commonly feared things. These statistics show that it is more rational to fear a hamburger than flying in an airplane - we are far likelier to die of heart disease than to fall out of the sky in a flaming jet.
As I have learned to take every thought captive and to think on what is true, I can say I have experienced God’s peace. Irrational fears rarely grip me in the middle of the night anymore. When the fingers of fear do start to close around my mind I know that I can make a choice to think differently with God’s help.
But I still don’t like snakes, spiders and scorpions and I don’t want to put my hand in that black box - to my son’s great delight.
Jennifer Zach lives in Ahwatukee Foothills with her husband and three children. They are members of Bridgeway Community Church. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.