The storm came fast. Hard rain, whipping wind, water dancing on the pavement. The thunder woke us up. Or maybe it was our daughter Frances, who is two. Frances’ bed is beneath a window. The lightning must have lit up her room. Then a crack like sky splitting.
Frances cried out. Kate and I walked to her room. It was very late, very loud with rain. I remembered last summer’s thunderstorms, when Frances was just putting sentences together. “I no like-a da thunder,” she’d said then. But thunder didn’t awaken her. She still slept like an infant.
Frances is old enough for nightmares now. One night awhile back she awoke in terror. When I went in to lay her down she was bolt upright, sobbing, jabbing a finger at the dark space beneath her bed. “The bug! The bug!” was all she said. For the briefest instant I remembered—and it was my whole body remembering—that sensation of childhood terror. The world closes over you. You have no chance. Already the immense evil is at your side, biting.
This year, Frances heard the thunder like that. Her eyes were wide when we got to her bed. Her face was frozen in that rigid puzzlement of a child whose interpretive abilities have been overcome. She didn’t even register relief to see us. Another weird flash of light. Another crack.
Kate sat on her bed. I knelt beside her. We held her, said soft things, held a little harder when the thunder came. Frances didn’t move. She gripped her scrap of a security blanket and seemed to press into the bed, as if trying to become invisible. The thunder reached its peak, nipping at the lightning’s heels, reaching down with a black, smashing hand.
Preacher/Writer/Moviemaker Rob Bell tells a story about taking his infant son on a hike in a baby backpack during a sudden thunderstorm. The sort-of obvious point of the story, which becomes apparent as Rob rushes his son home through the woods, cradling him in his arms, is that we are like that baby, not only held by God but utterly uncomprehending of what’s really happening to us. To a baby a storm is fear and chaos incarnate, an uninterpretable wall of world-ending noise. Parents/God know better, and so they can offer comfort.
Nice, but I think there’s more to it. More to Rob Bell’s story, more to Frances’ fear of thunder. We parents are not like God. We don’t know better. We are, in fact, children ourselves. Yes, we are children with a little more knowledge, or at least knowingness. But sometimes that knowledge works against us. We should actually, I think, be more like Frances.
When I had that flash of remembering childhood terror, I suddenly realized how stale my normal engagement with the world has become. I’ve absorbed facts and I use them to construct explanations that help me feel in control. I know what thunder is and so I don’t fear it. But I wonder. Is that a gain? Or a loss?
In Frances’ fear lies a profound truth about the vulnerability of human life and the tremendous aliveness of the world around us. Our explanations are not definitive. Our understanding does not exhaust the world’s meaning. That is something to fear, yes, since it means we have less mastery than we so desperately desire. But it is also something to celebrate. Imagine the extinction of the last unknown in your life, the last element of unpredictability. What would you have left? The prison of your all-knowing self.
The storm gradually subsided. The thunder receded. I pictured it rolling like an erratic ball along the length of Long Island and into the ocean. Frances relaxed. We kissed her and tucked her blanket in and went back to bed. The next day, when we woke up, the streets outside were almost dry. “Will there be more thunder today?” Frances asked suspiciously. I looked at her, then out the window. “Maybe,” I said. “I hope not. But maybe.”
Jim Hinch is a senior editor at GUIDEPOSTS. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.