The lighter side of a serious subject: FEAR

Do you remember being scared when you were a child – really frightened? Were you afraid of the dark, or of monsters under the bed? As horrible as your childhood fears might have been, I guarantee you that mine were worse. In fact, I was an adult before I really got free from the chokehold of fright. But before I get to that, let me tell you where all my fears came from.

It was my Dad’s fault. No – he wasn’t a scary man. Quite the opposite. My father was Mr. Safety. He could see all the accidents, tragedies and disasters that might happen at any moment. And his warnings were, shall we say… graphic.

I’d be going to mow the lawn and he’d comment: “I’ll tell you one thing, mister…. You pull that back too far and it’ll chew your foot right off….”

Or I’d be in the kitchen, cutting up an apple – “I’ll tell you one thing…. That knife slips and it’ll slice you wide open.”

To my dad, every situation was just another way to die a grisly death.

I’d be putting ice in my lemonade – “I’m tellin’ you… You wanna be awful careful with that ice – you swallow one of those ice cubes you’ll choke to death.”

Or I’d be getting on my bike – “I’m tellin’ you one thing, mister…. You wipe out going down that hill, you’ll be smeared across 20 feet of pavement.”

For years, I lived in mortal fear of everything.

Sure, I overcame some of these fears, given time – and appropriate safety equipment. By high school, I mowed the lawn without fear – just wore a t-shirt, shorts, and heavy-duty work boots with reinforced steel-toes. I even drank beverages with ice in them – through a straw… ice can’t get through a straw….

But even after making all that progress, I still suffered from three fears that haunted me into adulthood – three fears that had attached themselves to my psyche through seriously scary experiences.

I was eight years old and we were playing outside when we heard a rumble of thunder. Right away, Dad was at the door: “I’ll tell you one thing, you get hit by lightning, it’ll burn you to a crisp!” Thinking of bacon, we ran inside, just as the world lit up and the air vibrated with a tremendous, pounding crash. Yes, you guessed it: fear of lightning….

That same summer, I wanted to go horseback riding. Dad’s advice: “Tell you one thing, mister. You don’t wanna get too close to that horse’s teeth – he’ll bite your ear right off.” Well, then. About that ride – no thanks! Fear of horses….

On July 4th that year, I wanted to light firecrackers. Dad’s response? “I’ll tell you one thing, mister – one a them firecrackers goes off too soon, it’ll blow your fingers right off….” Fear of small explosive devices….

These fears stuck with me, even into marriage. Lucky for me, I married a math teacher. Math, I discovered – and probability in particular – was the cure for my fright. Here’s how it happened. It was a cloudy day on our honeymoon, and my wife had made plans for the evening. “We’ll eat dinner out on the patio, then go horseback-riding, and later we can go watch fireworks….”

I sat up in my chair. “NO WE CANNOT!” I said.  “We can’t eat outside – we’ll get hit by lightning! And horses… horses are very dangerous! They have been known to bite your ears off! Yes! And let me tell you one thing. Fireworks kill people. They explode and fly into crowds….”

And that’s when I learned about probability. “Honey, Honey, Honey,” she said with a tone of pity. “Chances are that we won’t get hit by lightning tonight. The odds are 1 in a million. And have you ever seen an earless horseman? The odds of a horse biting you are very, very small. Oh and fireworks? Millions of people watch fireworks every year and survive. Chances are, you won’t even get maimed!

Well, that sounded logical, sort of. Eventually… the math sank in, we went, and it was fine. When we got home, I did some research – just to be sure. Sure enough, according to the Journal of Unfortunate Events, the chances of getting “burned to a crisp” by lightning are indeed small – about one in a million. And guess what! There was only one report of an ear-ectomy performed on a human by a horse in the past fifty years! As to the chance of a firecracker blowing your fingers off – that one is a little higher, about one in 2,500. Even so, I figure I can light a couple thousand, though, before I lose any part of my body. My plan is to stop at 1,000, just to be sure.

Thanks to probability, I am free from these fears forever. It really works. Here’s how I know. In June, I had hernia surgery. My father went with me to the hospital. After the surgery, they had to make be sure I could use the bathroom or else they’d have to catheterize me to empty my bladder. So, as I lay there, willing my body to recover, my dad began to speak.

“Tell you one thing, mister. You don’t wanna get a catheter…”

No – no, I don’t…

“Them things are awful…”

Yeah – yeah, I know.

“They burn goin’ in and burn comin’ out…”

 Oh gosh….

“Just like the head of a match…”

Oh no, no, no! Nurse!

 I called the nurse. Frantic, I asked her how many hernia patients have to get catheterized.

“Oh, about 10%…”

“Hey!” I exclaimed. “That’s a one in ten chance! This is only my first hernia surgery – So I’m safe!”

And you know, I did not get a catheter that day. Probability saved me. And it can save you. Whenever you face something frightful, just think about probability and the odds that disaster will strike. They’re almost always very, very small.

I’ll tell you one thing, mister. Chances are, you’ll be just fine.


The account above was the text of an award-winning humorous speech that I delivered in 2008. As I read back over it now, it’s still fun and funny to me. But there’s quite a bit of truth in there, too. The most important one is the fact that my worst-case scenarios almost never play out. Disaster rarely strikes. In fact, most of the time the results in my life are quite positive. In part, this is a reflection of good planning and care taken along the way. But I believe it is mostly because my life is in good hands. The Gospel of Matthew quotes Jesus as saying “I tell you not to worry about everyday life…” (Mt. 6:25, NLT). The basis for his advice is that we’re valuable to God, and He takes care of those He values. That’s good news. For me, that puts many a fear to rest.


Running for your life

“All human beings should try to learn before they die what they are running from, and to, and why.”
– James Thurber, author of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

In high school gym class, which kind of kid were you? The competitive athlete everyone wanted on their team? The average kid with average abilities? Or were you like me – the last one picked for any team, in any sport?

I’ve never been an athlete, never competed in any sport except when forced to. Because of this, I’ve been surprised to find that I really enjoy running. It’s been a way to get outdoors regularly and an opportunity to get healthy. As I mentioned in a post last month, running has also been a life-changing proving ground for my goal-setting discipline. I’ve learned something about motivation and a little about perseverance. It’s taught me the value of reflecting on the past and the excitement of planning for the future. And even though I’m the slowest of slow runners, it’s been fun to just laugh at myself and enjoy the run.

Heart disease runs in my family. Several of my uncles succumbed to heart attacks or strokes, and a few years ago, my mother underwent coronary bypass surgery. After that happened, I had a vivid revelation. I really wanted to live! That sparked the desire to exercise. In the beginning, I was simply running to ward off an early death.

Even with the extraordinarily powerful motivation of avoiding death, I was so out of shape that at first, running was a bit discouraging. Okay, to be honest, it felt like it was going to put me in my grave. When I wrote about my experience with my first 5K run/walk, I don’t think I mentioned that I did my first runs at night so nobody would hear or see me gasping and stumbling along. It was pretty bad.

Running miles and miles every week really gives you time to savor the past and remember where you’ve come from. I’ve run the trail of childhood memories about our family’s move from New England to Horsepasture, Virginia. I wasn’t thrilled with the location or its hillbilly name, but I enjoyed the warm welcome from our new neighbors – the soft sounds of southern accents, the kindness, and the amazing food. I’ve also jogged along the last couple decades of life with my spouse – the ups and downs of marriage, the wild ride of parenting a son and a daughter, trying to be a great husband and dad. The years have flown by like the miles I’ve run – some are really tough… but some feel great.

Goal-setting and Planning
It’s on my long runs that I’ve had time to make some big, life-changing plans for my life. Like the decision to join Toastmasters and embrace my speaking gifts… and the goal to hike all 71 steep and rugged miles of the Massanutten Trail, one section at a time… and of course the leap of faith to start Hidden Springs Coaching.

When I’m running, I’m often experiencing some level of pain. To get me through the arduous, desperate parts of a run, I’ve taken to imagining wacky alternate realities, just for fun. During one 5K race, I found myself alone on the road – everyone else was out of sight. In my head, I began to hear the voices of sports commentators, as if my run were being televised:

“You know, Pat, it’s gotta be discouraging for Ken Gonyer, being so far behind the pack.”

“Well, Jim, we spoke with Ken before the race, and he’s not in this to compete against the other runners. This is a contest between him and him.”

“And he’s still in it, Pat. You’ve gotta give him credit for hanging in there.”

“That’s right, Jim, it’s about perseverance.”

And then I imagined the scene changing to pictures of me from last year, laying on the couch with a bag of Doritos on my belly, and I heard the voice-over:

“From couch to 5K… no matter how he finishes this race, Ken Gonyer wins….”

Here in my early 40s, that’s how I feel – like a winner. I know where I’ve come from and I know where I’m going. I’m facing fears I’ve run away from for too long. I’ve decided what I want to change and I’m committed to do whatever it takes. Here in 2010, I’m running for life, and I intend to finish well.

Have you figured out what you’re running toward – or away from – and why? Maybe today would be a nice day to take a walk (maybe even a little jog!) and think it through or pray about it. Click “Leave a Comment” to share your thoughts.