Monday, April 4, 2016


Yesterday in church the worship team was singing the song that goes like this:

      You make me brave
      You make me brave
      You call me out beyond the shore into the waves
      You make me brave
      You make me brave
      No fear can hinder now the promises you've made

Now what is a person who suffers with anxiety supposed to do with lines like that?

So many times I've mentally beaten myself up because I don't feel brave at ALL. The last line of this stanza is based on 1 John 4:18, which reads, "But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love" (NIV).

This verse made me feel awful whenever I was having an episode,* because I felt frozen with fear. It may sound absurd, but every weekend, I dreaded making a grocery list and going to the store...I think because it involved so many minor decisions that I felt overwhelmed. So when I was afraid to buy food for my family, I knew I wasn't "made perfect in love." I DEFINITELY wasn't brave. If He was "calling me out beyond the shore into the waves," I hadn't made it off the beach.

And surely that was my fault.

Setting aside the theological angle, here is what I realized in a flash yesterday while the song was being sung (and I believe it applies to everyone, regardless of whether you are a person who participates in a religious faith or not).

First, many thinkers have clarified that courage is not absence of fear. If it were, there wouldn't be anything particularly admirable about actions we define as courageous.

Think about it. If one cannot experience fear--and a few rare souls have this condition--then they are not knowingly choosing to be brave. They're just naively trusting as they go along. For me, courage is choosing to act according to one's values without regard to the danger to oneself. When I Googled "definition of courage," an even more succinct phrase came up: "the ability to do something that frightens one."

This is why my counselor gently asked me while I was struggling with the grocery store thing, "If a person has something that she's really afraid of (like going to the grocery store), and she does it anyway, does that make her a weak person or a strong person?"

Another mistake we make: we equate bravery only with physical courage. No one would deny that a firefighter who goes into a burning building to save someone is courageous. Since the will to survive is hardwired into human nature, that kind of bravery goes against all our instincts. It takes enormous willpower and a lot of adrenaline (I'm guessing) to overcome that kind of pre-programming.

Corrie ten Boom, author of The Hiding Place
I would never want to diminish the incredible difficulty of this kind of unselfish courage. In fact, I'll come back to it in a minute. But now I'd like to point out another kind of courage, a quieter kind. I've heard it described as moral courage. It can involve taking a stand against evil publicly or behind the scenes. Sometimes it too involves risking one's life; an example is the people who hid Jews during the Holocaust. In that case, secretly defying the Nazis' evil was more valuable than open defiance, since if you are alive you can save more people than if you're dead. Still, no one would disagree that Corrie ten Boom and Oskar Schindler were every bit as brave as the firefighters on 9/11...and many of those who hid Jewish people paid for their disobedience with their lives, showing that it's possible to exhibit both kinds of courage at the same time.

I'm coming to understand that a person can be brave even when lives aren't literally at stake. It seems absolutely absurd to think of myself as "bravely going to the grocery store" when people all over the world are facing unimaginable horrors.

Yet I think the message I got yesterday was that bravery isn't defined by the immediacy of the risk; what makes someone brave is that they acted according to their values despite their feelings of fear

I know many heroic single parents. Most of them probably have felt fear and even despair when faced with the task of raising children on their own. Yet they get up every morning and do the right thing all over again. That's courage.

If you think about it, the soldier who saves his fellow soldier in the middle of a firefight or the person who wakes up every day and refuses to let mental illness win are similar. Both of them choose to disbelieve the overwhelming information their brain is screaming at them and the huge chemical dump that makes their bodies shake, their hearts race, their throats close and their chests tighten. Both of them choose to act according to their belief about what is right. The soldier thinks, "It wouldn't be right to leave my buddy to be blown up." The person in the grip of clinical depression thinks, "It wouldn't be right to leave my family grieving for me."

I could go on to explain how the brain of an anxious person is giving the same signals as a person in physical danger--aka the fight or flight syndrome. But my posts tend to be too long already, so I won't. Another time.

Friend, if you find yourself stuck between the rock of your principles and the hard place life has driven you into, may I encourage you to cling to the rock? Choose to act according to your beliefs, even if it seems impossibly painful to do so. When I was in the middle of my most recent episode, I couldn't imagine living the next forty years in that kind of mental anguish...and I felt certain that I would always feel that awful. Yet I knew that love was my greatest value; therefore, love for my family--and God--made me choose, over and over again, not to give up. And now I have a new doctor, a new treatment plan, and new hope. I'm SO glad I was brave enough to keep going.

And that, I realized yesterday, is how perfect love drives out fear. Like so many things on my journey to healing, I'm learning that healing is a process. Perfect love WILL drive out all fear...if I give it time. It may take longer than I always thought that meant...but then eternal time is not the same as human time.

After all, the verse never said I am supposed to make myself perfect in love, only that "the one who fears is not made perfect in love." My job is to let myself surrender to the "love that made a way," as the song says.  All those who make the choice to "show strength in the face of pain or grief"** are courageous in my book.


*I choose to call my recurrences of my depression and anxiety "episodes" instead of relapses or anything that implies going backward or getting worse.  In a TV series, each episode has its own plot that is solved by the end but it also fits into a larger dramatic arc of the season and the series as a whole. Finally--and most important to me--episodes are temporary. Once you finish an episode, there is another, different one to experience.

**Google's #2 definition of courage.


  1. I wish I had something witty to say ('cause that's what I do you know) but I don't, & this post doesn't deserve my snarky, jaded, but mostly hilarious usual response. Well said, keep being brave!

    1. Somehow my Google is "unknown" but I'm sure you can spot a Pfaff message a mile away.

    2. I might have known it was you, but I'm glad you commented and identified yourself! Give my love to C.

  2. I agree, except for the implication that the person who succumbs to suicidal depression isn't brave because they left their family grieving for them - but that's a quibble and a whole other post. I hear you about the grocery story anxiety too - I had the most ridiculous debate with myself over whether I was morally wrong to go to the smaller, closer grocery store last week, because I am not right in the head at the moment. But it's a semi-colon, not a period, right?

    1. I'm so glad you identified that unintentional implication. The LAST thing I would want to do is cast aspersions on anyone who succumbs to suicidal depression. In fact, one of my life goals is to combat that kind of stigma...yet here I am propagating the same assumptions. It just goes to show how pervasive that kind of thinking is. I don't consider the person who dies by suicide to be a coward--just someone who couldn't deal with the pain anymore. I completely understand how they could become so hopeless that suicide would seem like the only option for relief. Now I'm wondering how to revise the post to remove that implication (but in the past I would have castigated myself for being insensitive, whereas now I'm just thinking, "I still have so much to learn.")

      And I do love the idea of the semicolon to remind us that it's not the end of our story.

  3. Thank you Ali for helping me understand your depression, which I have suffered for years as well. You are Brave and will always live in my memories of your special communication skills.

  4. Alison I'm so sorry that the pain was too much for you. I hope that you're no longer tormented. Rip