A crying yell jolts me awake. I blink my eyes a few times to make sure I wasn’t just dreaming it, but her voice pierces through the darkness again. My feet hit the cold floor as I slide out of bed and make my way downstairs.
I find my five-year-old, Lily, sitting up in her bed. I start to ask her what’s wrong, but she doesn’t give me the chance.
“I had a bad dream,” she says.
“You did? I’m so sorry,” I say as I push a blond curl away from her face. “Let me cover you up, so you can go back to sleep. Everything will be okay. Mom and dad are right upstairs.” She settles back into her pillow, and I pull her comforter up to her chin. Her breathing has slowed, and her eyes are already closed when I kiss her forehead and quietly leave her room. I make my way through our house, quiet once more. Back in my own bed, I’m reminded of myself at age five, of the many times fear woke me from my own sleep and my parents had to assure me everything would be ok. Has she inherited my propensity for fear?
What’s more, am I teaching her how to face it?
I was afraid of almost everything as a child.
When I was five, I slept with a baby monitor next to my bed, so I could whisper to my mom in the middle of the night if I was scared. My parents’ bedroom was on the other side of the house, and, of all the possible options, I constantly worried that a mean version of Santa was going to sneak through the door between our rooms and cause some kind of trouble.
By the time I was six, pirates had replaced my fear of mean Santa. I would lay in my bed, shrouded in darkness, and peek through my blinds to make sure there were no ships, planks, or skull flags in view. Never mind the fact that we lived on a cement road 1,500 miles away from the ocean.
Each year brought a new scenario to add to my list. After meeting a family friend whose daughter had a serious illness, I would fall asleep convinced the inside of my body was incurably diseased. My parents had to pick me up early from a weekend trip with my grandparents once because I had a feeling our house was going to burn down in my absence. I even made my mom hang my lost teeth on the door of my bedroom because I wasn’t interested in a strange fairy coming anywhere near my pillow.
Each of these fears had one thing in common: the night. The setting sun had a way of illuminating the fears that plagued me, and as I would lay still in my bed each evening, my mind would race, spinning circles around itself.
I wish I could say I outgrew my fearful tendencies, but I’m still a natural worrier and master crafter of worst-case scenarios. Fear still catches in my throat at times and burrows into my pounding chest all while I’m trying to fall asleep at night. It’s relentless.
I have tried, again and again, to talk myself out of feeling afraid. I tell myself there is nothing to worry about—that my fears are irrational. I think, “Everything is going to be okay,” but then I quickly remember that I don’t have the power to predict the future. Even if it is unlikely that something will happen to me while I’m away from my kids (a small adjustment to one of my predominant childhood fears) or that I am harboring some kind of incurable disease, there is still a chance.
“Everything will be okay” is moot. There’s no way to know.
Except God knows. And this is the beginning of my hope.
So much of fear is rooted in the uncertain, the unknown. So, its counterpunch is what I can know.
And what I know is that God promises to always be with me. That He promises to fill me with peace. That my life is secure in Him forever.
When I stand firm in what I know, I have words to speak to the fear.
The next night, I stand beside Lily’s bed, my fingers stroking those same blond curls, thinking about the previous night’s conversation—unsettled by how I addressed it. My assurance that “mom and dad are right upstairs” isn’t the hope she needs when fear strikes in the middle of the night. She needs the answer which will actually help her face her fear.
“Mom?” She interrupts my thoughts, her blue eyes looking into mine. “I don’t want to have any more bad dreams.”
“I know you don’t. I don’t want you to either.” I kneel down next to her bed. We talk about how God is always with us and how He promises to give us peace when we feel afraid. I ask her if she wants me to pray for God to help her not be afraid while she sleeps.
“Okay,” she says slowly, “but, can you also pray that I won’t have any more bad dreams?”
This is the crux.
God doesn’t promise a life without bad dreams, so I can’t either.
Instead, I offer her what I know.
“You might have more bad dreams, Lily,” I say while my fingers comb through her hair. “Even I still have bad dreams sometimes. But God loves you so much. And when you’re afraid, He’s always with you. No matter what happens, if you love Him, you’ll never be away from Him.”
She turns over on her side, satisfied for the moment. We pray together, and I kiss her forehead before I leave her bedroom. As I pull the door closed behind me, I realize this won’t be the last time we have this conversation. Like all of us, she will have to learn to navigate the things that scare her throughout her life, and she will have to let what she knows be bigger than what she feels.
I say a quick prayer that this is the beginning of her hope.
Guest post written by Molly Flinkman. A lover of gray t-shirts, hand-written correspondence, and good books, Molly spends her days with four small kids and a husband who works unpredictable hospital hours. In her margins of free time, she is either watching Netflix with her husband or writing about how her faith intersects everything else in her life. You can find Molly on her website or Instagram.
Molly is a member of our Exhale community, and this essay is a product of our creative workshops. Learn more at www.exhalecreativity.com.
Photo by N’tima Preusser.