Saturday, 17 June 2017

Facing Fear

Some days ago I followed my motorcycling tutor, Steve Ringeisen, 60km down the Kullu-Manali Valley towards Delhi, to a place called Bhuntur. Steve had several pieces of business he hoped to transact that day. (None of which he was successful with, as it turned out. That is not unusual in India. I have discovered that the way to live here is the way the Australian cricket team learnt to play their cricket here in the recent series. Stop behaving like a westerner! Be patient. Eventually the results will come! But that’s a story for another day.)

After lunch Steve asked me if I’d like to ride up into the hills that form the valley. “Well, I’m here to train for riding in mountains,” I thought. “I’ll give some hills a go.” Pretty soon, however, I was wondering whether I’d been mad to accept Steve’s suggestion. The accompanying glorious (I think) panoramic picture in no wise does justice to how steep that mountainside was. The road was at least surfaced, but it was barely 1 lane wide, and we had to negotiate really steep, repeated, narrow hairpin bends. I discovered that I’m much more comfortable making right hand turns than left hand ones. This ride also drilled into me that the relationship between clutch and accelerator is of the essence in biking. Nervous and tentative as I was, I had no real idea how to “feather” the clutch. Kangaroo-hopping while learning to drive in my parents’ 1969 Triumph down a broad street in East Killara was one thing. Trying not to do the same thing on a motorbike while going around hairpin bends that cling to a precipitous mountainside was, with all due respect to my 18 year old self, a different proposition. Then it started raining.

All of a sudden things resolved, as they do in India. Our asphalted goat-track joined a larger way. The rain ceased. We met some fellow adventurers eating lunch by the roadside, and upon hearing that the new road led down to a bridge over the Beas River that was well-known to us we decided that we’d had enough excitement for one day. The trip down that road was lovely, passing through village after little village, each with a spreading banyan tree at its heart. That, too, is a story for another day.

At least as much as learning how to feather the clutch, this ride was about facing fear. This whole expedition is. “How is it,” I ask myself, “that aged 61 I’m preparing to ride a motorbike in the high Himalayas?” A MOTORBIKE? The number of times I came off my old Honda 175 as a young man when I last rode bikes a lot! On the other hand, pain is a good teacher, at least for foolhardies like me, and preparing well is a good learning. I am learning that one calculates the risks, prepares as best one can for them, and does not go beyond what one has prepared for. As scary as that mountainside and its hairpin bends were, I was never in any real danger. My fear was both my ally and my opponent. It kept me cautious and alert to danger. But if it had paralysed me I would have been in real danger.

I’ve been learning to face fear ever since I became a follower of Jesus nearly 50 years ago. My experience of this has been that even when I was not well-prepared, could not have been well-prepared, God has many times seen me through difficult situations. I think the situation in which I was most fearful was when I somehow became involved with a neighbour in our Swedish country town in building a double garage with central wall across our boundary line. For this I was woefully unprepared. A new migrant, I had to learn a whole building vocabulary. Though strong enough to have become an experienced builder’s labourer, as a builder…let’s say my bent is more to the theological than to the practical! I felt hopelessly inadequate for the task. Each day I awoke with worry (fear’s close relative) gnawing at the pit of my stomach. I certainly made my fair share of mistakes, yet the project  succeeded. The critical point was when we had concrete poured into the building’s foundations and floor. There is a real art and science to spreading concrete which I had never learnt. The cement truck came, poured its load and left, giving us a few hours to complete the task of spreading, ‘floating’ and surfacing the concrete before it set too hard to work. While I was shovelling concrete and my congregational chairperson, a farmer with a farmer’s ability to turn his hand to everything, was floating it things went well. When he had to leave I continued doing what I’d been told to, but it became clear that there was a large area at the front of my side of the garage that needed more concrete moved there.

By now it was late afternoon, the concrete was setting and I was  desperate. Suddenly things resolved, as they can do, even in well-planned Sweden! A neighbour from across the road offered his services. Unbeknown to me, he was a concreter who had retired early with a bad back. Expertly, he caressed the concrete into place, giving this story its happy ending! That day I learnt that God seems to enjoy helping us when we have to go beyond what we are capable of, and we are impelled to cry out for help. “Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labour in vain.”

Fear is a good servant but a bad master. That’s why, I think, the Bible’s most frequently uttered command is “Don’t be afraid!” This journey is teaching me more, or perhaps embedding in my consciousness the counter-intuitive truth that faith helps us to face fear. For example, I don’t even know whether I’ll make it to Leh, the journey’s goal. I’ve discovered that the Leh motorbike hirers’ Union is not allowing bikes registered out-of-state into Ladakh. The bike I’ve hired is registered in Manali, in the neighbouring state of Himachal Pradesh, and apparently it was the Manali motorbike hirers’ Union which precipitated the dispute! I don’t know what I or the whole expedition will do, and I need to decide this week. While not fear-inducing this situation is worrisome. That cry for help is a natural and right response to a tricky situation, even as I employ the best information-gathering, assessing, discussing and decision-making I can bring to bear.

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