I’ve only been hunting once. It was, on the whole, a memorable experience for all of the right reasons: a handful of days in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula with a few cherished family members, chief among them my grandfather, who was nearing the end of his hunting days; eating lots of junk food; sharing stories in the evenings; ripping through forest paths on my uncle’s four-wheel ATVs (“quads”); being “forced” to wear bunny ears at the restaurant for opening day’s dinner since I was the newbie (the waitress was kind enough to procure a full carrot for me to munch in the photograph to complete the initiation rite); and extended solitude in the woods, feeling the forest breathe, remembering to breathe myself, and reflecting on the nature of beauty, the power of silence, and love of family. It was quite a weekend.
However, the trip was most memorable for another reason. The memory with the strongest gravitational force took place before dawn on opening day as we rode to our hunting spots and I almost let my brother-in-law’s quad explode.
My grandpa was a lifelong hunter, taught by his father, he in turn taught his son and grandson (my cousin) to love the woods, the silence of the morning, the beauty of patience, and the thrill of the sighting. I was a fidgety child, and my grandpa couldn’t trust me to honor the deep silence of the woods (an essential prerequisite for seeing deer!), and so I never received the invite to join the Smith family tradition. As my grandpa approached 90, however, his hunting days were drawing to a close. This was all I needed to convince me to tag along for what was sure to be one of his last mid-November trips up north. My brother and brother-in-law had been a few times before, and were returning again this year. It was going to be a great weekend.
All of my gear was borrowed. Gun, boots, pants, gloves. Only my underwear and socks were my own. And even though I am generally at ease in the presence of my extended family, I was acutely aware that I was out of my element on this trip—a mostly pacifist professor who loved hiking and travel and good food, who had two master’s degrees and was in the middle of a Ph.D., found himself one morning looking through the scope of his borrowed rifle at a button-point buck fifty yards away eating the cache of bait-corn. I had to decide whether to pull the trigger (I didn’t).
But I don’t want to talk about hunting. I want to talk about shame—and its occasional antidote, courage. My memories of our pre-dawn ride on my uncle’s quads out to our hunting spots is filled with shame. And I’m trying to make sense of it and find in it a doorway to courage.
As we sped along the empty highway, single file, it was easy to feel fully present in the moment. The wind whipped through my borrowed clothes. My hand gripped the throttle and that feeling of power at my fingertips flowed through me. The thin trunks of the white pines I could just make out along the edge of the dark road stood as sentinels of the coming dawn. I breathed deeply the cold, fresh air and was filled with gratitude and an awareness of the exquisite sense of being alive. And then I looked down.
My serenity was interrupted as I watched live flames coil and recoil under my brother-in-law’s seat, ten or fifteen yards ahead of me. I froze. Not from the cold but from the shiver of fear and uncertainty that shot up my spine.
I had no idea what I was supposed to do. So, I shouted his name. Loudly. As loud as I could. Several times. He didn’t hear me, of course. I knew he wouldn’t. I almost swallowed the words as I shouted them. I could almost feel them blow back over me as I shot down the open road.
What I did not do was approach him. I have thought long and hard about why this is so. My brain does not process crisis situations with speed or decisiveness. I tend to waffle. To cope with my indecision, my brain creates cognitive dissonance by disbelieving my senses and telling them they are misinterpreting the situation. “Perhaps,” I thought, “quads do this sometimes if you hit the ‘turbo’ button, like in the cartoons.” Yet, a deeper truth was also at play: I was afraid. Afraid that if I got up close to get him to stop, and his quad exploded, we’d both be goners.
Instead, I slowed down. I retreated back to my uncle and cousin who were bringing up the rear. They were the “experts,” the owners of the quads. They would know what to do. Meanwhile, Ben zoomed blissfully on, his chariot aflame, totally unaware that he was sitting on a time bomb.
As soon as I slowed down, my uncle and cousin stopped. They had heard my garbled but frantic screams and were anxious to hear if I was okay. Then I heard myself say: “Is Ben’s quad supposed to be on fire?!” Before the words had fully left my mouth, they both took off to catch Ben. A look of terror passed briefly over my uncle’s face like a wind-swept cloud before a full moon. An even briefer look of bafflement shot across his eyes at my choice to stop and ask them what we all knew was a stupid question. In the instant between their departure and my own, the dangerous folly of my question hung painfully in the air. I brushed it aside and fell in softly behind them.
By the time I caught up everyone had stopped along the side of the road and had gathered around Ben’s smoking quad. He had seen the flames leaping around his boots and immediately pulled off the road to put them out. I hung back, relieved that all was well, but knowing deep down that not all was well.
I have often thought back to this moment in the intervening years. What would I have done if Ben’s rig had actually exploded? How could I have faced my sister or their children again? How could I have lived with myself knowing I had seen the flames first, and, rather than running toward danger to save a life, shrank from it instead?
We all have an image of who we will be and how we will respond when a crisis comes. But none of us knows how we will respond until we actually do, when the crisis reveals itself, without warning and without time to prepare an inspired response. I had always imagined I would be calm under pressure and that my love for my neighbor—whoever that was—would compel me to face both fear and injury to protect life.
But to imagine this was to ignore the little ways I often shrank from conflict or potential harm. Like the time I instinctively used my brother as a human shield when an alligator suddenly lunged from the path beside us in South Carolina a few years ago. Or that day a mouse leapt from the top shelf of my kitchen cupboard in college, directly above my head, and I screamed at the top of my lungs. Three times.
Or the time a Black friend of mine was the only person of color in the room, and the only person willing to name what had just been said as inappropriate. And when she received pushback from the speaker and the room’s temperature rose, I listened on in silence, tongue-tied, afraid to speak, brain-numbed, afraid of getting a few words out and then jumbling everything up and making it worse. So, I did what everyone else did, and stared at my hands.
Or the time in high school when my best friend got in a serious car accident as he followed me out of the driveway at school. I heard the crash and saw his car smoking and spinning in my rearview mirror but couldn’t (wouldn’t?) believe my eyes or ears. I kept driving for several seconds, mouth agape, before finally coming to my senses a quarter of a mile down the road and turning around. I don’t know if this is possible—it could be my “shamemory” playing a trick on me—but I recall the ambulance getting there before I did.
Or the time when a man, clearly wasted and not in his right mind, approached my girlfriend and I as we were out walking late one evening. Thinking myself a gentleman, I was walking on the street side, which put her on his side of the sidewalk. He was mumbling loudly and gesticulating even louder as he ambled toward us, weaving his way through the fog of his stupor. He began to speak directly to her in incoherent sentence fragments. Her tightening grip on my hand clearly said “I am deeply uncomfortable. I feel unsafe. It is your responsibility to protect me. If you want to be a gentleman, stand between me and him.” But I didn’t want to offend him or draw his attention to her discomfort. So, I kept our line, and he passed within inches of her. As he passed, he leaned toward her and hurled more jumbled words. My hand went numb from her terrified and furious squeeze, even as the chill of shame and guilt crept up my spine.
What is courage? What pulls it out of someone? What plugs it up in someone else? I want to be the kind of person who rises to meet the moment, whatever it requires—action, reflection, silence, speech, certainty, doubt, listening, compassion, and also courage. But how does one become more like the self they long to be?
Stories help. Stories like what I’ve shared here, in which a failure to rise up and meet the moment is named, honestly and vulnerably—for we have all been there. This kind of sharing is one doorway into the kind of courage I long for because it acknowledges and thus disempowers the shame. Stories like this point to how courage is cultivated over a lifetime and cannot be conjured at will in the moment if one has procrastinated in the daily work of showing up for their life. Stories of failure can also help others reflect on their failures—when they were less than who they want to be—so that all of us might let go of our small selves and become more of our true selves.
Thankfully, no one was permanently injured or orphaned in the stories I shared. Even so, they do illustrate how quickly our lives can shift. Life is so fragile. We live on the edge of a knife. One misstep and we could lose a toe, or worse.
Other kinds of stories also help. Stories in which someone doesn’t flinch but instinctively drives headlong toward the flames, who calls out racism—or at least names how they feel in the moment and what unmet needs they have. Stories that narrate moments in which people move toward danger, toward their neighbor—moved by love or compassion or courage to act selflessly on behalf of another—can inspire similar actions in others.
The Old Testament is full of stories—stories of courage and of shame. In fact, one of the real tragedies of the contemporary church’s ignorance of the Old Testament is the loss of a storied imagination. Letters and lists lend themselves to literalism and the creation of a reality too tightly defined and often disconnected from the real complexities of life. Stories engage us at a deeply human level, which is to say emotionally. They resist reduction to a “moral” or a “lesson.” They are theology in motion rather than theology in propositions. They show rather than tell us how to live and love in a world filled with God’s glory and mystery. They invite us to come up to the window and peer through, to see what the characters saw, feel what they felt, and be changed alongside them as they encounter God in the thick of daily life—whether in the halls of the king or the kitchen of a widow, whether in the terror of battle or the thrill of offering rock-water to your thirsty child in the desert.
One character that inspires me is Naomi. Though she tends to play second fiddle to the eponymous character of the book of Ruth, Naomi’s courage is remarkable to behold. She experienced unimaginable loss—loss of home, husband, children, security. She could have allowed her bitterness to swallow her whole. Instead, she refused to be one-dimensional. She embraced her sadness and bitterness while still acting on behalf of hope, believing steadfastly in Ruth and risking it all to pull what levers she could reach to participate with God in transforming her hopeless situation into a story fit for the coming Messiah.
Another character I love is Abigail (1 Samuel 25). She was the unfortunate wife of a literal fool (Nabal in Hebrew means “foolish”). And foolish is as foolish does. He was rich and conceited and refused to offer hospitality to David and his men—a shameful act in the culture of the Middle East. Having been so dishonored, David and his men decide to destroy Nabal and every male in his house. Abigail heard of the coming danger, and, unlike her husband, cared for more than herself. Abigail was resourceful and competent—she was nobody’s fool. She rose to meet the fire of David’s anger even as it rushed toward her house. She met him—and four hundred of his men—along the path to her house, and with a combination of shrewdness, courage, humility, and wit, she convinced David to stay the attack, saving her family, her household, and her honor in the process.
I heard recently that the phrase “Do not be afraid” appears 366 times in the Bible—once for every day of the year, “and once for no reason at all.” It is the most common phrase in the Bible. This suggests to me that every day we have reason to fear, and every day God’s grace is sufficient. This has to mean that fear is not the opposite of faith, or even necessarily an obstacle to it. What distinguishes stories of courage from stories of shame is not that some experience fear while others are immune, but that some allow fear to define them, and others accept it as a threshold to wholeheartedness.
Not unlike me as I stared into the flames under Ben’s quad, Nabal’s fear defined his limits and so confined him to folly. But Naomi and Abigail embraced their fear and trusted in a goodness larger than themselves to hold them up. And it did. And it will continue to as you and I learn to risk embracing our fears and showing up to do what is needful in the deeper moments of our lives.
Thankfully, though, Scripture does not advocate a one-size-fits-all approach. Abigail acted swiftly to defuse a hostile situation. Naomi struggled, and pondered the situation in her heart before acting—like the mother of one of Naomi’s descendants would do many generations later.
What helps you process the shame of not showing up courageously to your own life? What stories have helped you move beyond your fear and into faithful action? What helps you cultivate courage so that the next time the quad in front of you bursts into flame you’ll move toward it instead of shouting and shrinking back? One wise thing you can do is open up the Old Testament and immerse yourself in a story. It might just save your life—or help you save someone else’s.
 John O’Donohue, Walking in Wonder: Eternal Wisdom for a Modern World (Newark: Audible, 2018).