I had something happen to me recently that gave me an initially chilling but ultimately humorous lesson in discerning the fine line between taking reasonable precautions to protect ourselves in this world and succumbing to the debilitating poison of fear.
First, a little background: I’m sure many of you are aware of the violence in Mexico engendered by the drug cartels and those fighting against them. Unfortunately, the place Patricia and I live, the city of Xalapa in the state of Veracruz, has been impacted by this violence. There have been kidnappings and murders right here in Xalapa and in the surrounding areas. We haven’t seen anything like that with our own eyes, thank God, but we have friends who have been affected. On top of this, Patricia works with migrants and those who are giving aid to them, and since migrants are often targets of the cartels, this could conceivably put Patricia and those close to her (including me) at risk. So, both of us have learned to take reasonable precautions to protect ourselves against potential trouble—like not getting into a stranger’s car.
This leads to my story. I was running on the sidewalk along a busy street near our home. It was broad daylight and there were plenty of people around, so I wasn’t too concerned about anything. Then, all of a sudden, I saw a car stopped on the side of the road by my sidewalk, and a man standing outside the car calling out to me. I stopped to see what he wanted. I didn’t know exactly what he was saying at first, because I had been so focused on my run, and it takes me time to flip my mind into Spanish mode. But I noticed immediately that he had the back door of the car open, and was pointing into the car, as if motioning me to get into the back seat.
I started getting nervous, for all the reasons described above. Hard as this is to confess as a Course teacher trying to teach only love, my first thought was “Is this guy trying to kidnap me?” He looked like a nice guy, but how could I be sure? Remembering my and Patricia’s concerns about security, I wanted to err on the side of caution. I made sure that I stayed far away from the door so I wouldn’t get pushed in, and initially decided that it might be best to just wave, smile, and move on. I was just about to continue my run.
But then my eye caught sight of the people inside the car, and I decided not to continue just yet. I saw that it was an ordinary family: a woman, children, and an old man in the back seat—how dangerous could they be? Okay, cartel sicarios have families too, but they probably don’t bring them along on kidnappings. So I decided I might as well at least take the risk of talking to the guy. I did remember the Course at this point, and I realized that I wanted to be loving in this situation.
Then the Spanish circuits of my brain started to come on line, and I started to understand what the man was saying. His name was Sergio, and the old man in the back seat was his father, also named Sergio. They live in Las Fuentes, the same neighborhood I live in. I run virtually every day, and I basically stand out like a sore thumb in Mexico. As a result, I have become a bit of a celebrity in the neighborhood: that tall, gawky, blue-eyed gringo loco who lopes by the casa all the time.
That’s why Sergio the son pulled over to talk to me: Sergio the father, who is also a runner, wanted to meet “el corredor de Las Fuentes” (the runner of Las Fuentes). Sergio the son was pointing to the back seat because that’s where his father was. So, the father stepped out of the car, I shook hands with both father and son, and said “Mucho gusto” (Glad to meet you) to both of them. Sergio the son, who knew some English, asked me where I was from (somehow he figured out that I wasn’t from Mexico) and expressed his gratitude for my stopping to greet them. We all smiled, said our goodbyes, and that was that. The car drove away, and I ran on.
I’ve been thinking about this incident ever since, and several thoughts have come to mind. First, is taking precautions against danger inherently anti-Course? I don’t think so. Though it’s sad that we have to do such things, I think the Holy Spirit does at times guide us to be careful when the circumstances warrant it. However illusory danger may ultimately be, He knows what is in the best interests of everyone here and now, and He knows how to keep us out of trouble. He may tell us to look both ways before crossing the street, He may also tell us not to get into a particular car. It can be a big mistake not to heed this guidance; indeed, Patricia knows defenders of migrant rights who, in her opinion, out of a misguided quest for martyrdom are doing things that unnecessarily put people at risk.
Second, and this is a caveat to the first thought: I think we all need to be as sure as we can that the precautions we take are based on His guidance rather than our fear. There’s a huge difference. I think there is a big temptation to do things out of fear and then tell ourselves that we’re doing them because of His guidance. This is an unfortunate deception, because living in fear is no way to live. If I make my decisions based on fear, what will I do when the Holy Spirit guides me to get into a particular car? Patricia and I are determined not to let fear govern our lives, no matter how awful things can look at times. There may well be things to avoid, but as the Course so bluntly tells us, “There is nothing to fear” (W-48.Heading).
Finally, this incident is encouraging to me, because it shows me that even if we do succumb to fear at times, it’s not too late: the Holy Spirit can still bail us out of it. I said above that I was initially “nervous” and wondered if the guy was going to kidnap me—let’s face it, I was afraid. And I was almost ready to let that fear rob all of us of a holy encounter. Fortunately, I think the Holy Spirit got through my thick head just in time: I saw the family inside the car, my mind started shifting, and I remembered I was there to love. I suppose it’s no coincidence that at that point I finally started understanding what the man was saying. He too was there to love, not to kidnap me. Now that I could see this, we did have a holy encounter, one for which I am very grateful. With the Holy Spirit’s help, I finally realized that “All fear is past, and only love is here” (W-293.Heading).