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…”
“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.