Read an Excerpt
Understand and Conquer
Nothing in life is to be feared.
It is only to be understood.
-- MARIE CURIE
SNAKES AND LADDERS
The sensation I felt was much more than simple fear or fright: It was pure terror! It was a night like any other, nearing time to go to sleep in the bedroom I shared with my two brothers. After dinner and helping with a few household chores, I was getting ready to climb the stairs to our bedroom. It was not a big house. I lived there with my parents, my two brothers, and my twin sisters. Just three bedrooms and one and a half baths. My sisters shared the room next to my parents' on the first floor. On the second floor, there was a big room that we used for playing, reading, and studying. Normally, this was what you would call "the TV room," but there was no television. Crossing over, you arrived at the door to our bedroom, with its half bath and the bunk beds where my brothers and I slept. To reach the second floor, you had to open a door to one side of the kitchen and climb a flight of stairs. These stairs were no more than slabs of concrete held up by iron brackets. Between each step, you could see the darkness beneath the stairs, a space where my mother stored things. We rarely accessed this space and didn't have much desire to enter it.
One night, I confidently opened the door that led to the second floor, noting that the hallway light was off. I thought nothing of it because I knew there was a light switch next to the stairs that I could turn on. What happened next was something that has remained etched in my memory. When I put my foot down on the first step, I felt movement under the stairs. My eyes were drawn to the darkness beneath them. Once I realized something out of the ordinary was happening, my heart started beating fast. Suddenly, I saw a hand reach out from between the steps and grab my ankle. I let out a terrifying scream that could be heard all the way down the block. My two brothers had hidden themselves among the boxes underneath the stairs and waited patiently to play their scary prank.
Thirty-two years have passed since that day (I am forty-three years old as I write this) and I can still feel the anguish of that horrible moment. I collapsed on the floor, my body shaking like a leaf in the wind, my breathing rapid and short, my heart beating a mile a minute. The only sound louder than the beating of my heart was the laughter of my brothers, who found their act very funny. I can assure you that very few times in my life have I felt such absolute panic. After that incident, I mounted those stairs with true anxiety, and I always made sure, before going up, that there was no one hiding beneath them.
We all have our own stories, right? Vivid moments, dark memories, moments of panic and total distress. Life gives us thousands of opportunities to face our fears. There's no way around it. It's part of our daily existence. However, what we do with these opportunities determines whether we will overcome our fear or keep on living within its chains. Many people live completely controlled by their fears, doubts, phobias, anxieties, bad omens, and bouts of nerves. But it doesn't have to be that way. There is good news: We can live in freedom! We can live calmly, safely, and without fear of anyone or anything.
As a child, I remember playing a board game named Snakes and Ladders. The board depicted figures of snakes and ladders superimposed on blocks that contained numbers. The object was to reach the goal by tossing a little die that told us the number of spaces we could advance, or sometimes, depending on where the game piece fell, go back. The neck of a snake could land us on a position much farther along on the board or just as easily return us to the start. A ladder could help us win a higher or lower number, depending on the numbers the die showed and where our game piece landed. I recalled this game when I thought of my experience on the staircase and of my other great fear: snakes.
It's very likely I inherited it from my mom. She was always very afraid of snakes. But when I speak of fear, I am not talking about just any fear, but of something way beyond the norm. My mother could probably handle any event in life except confronting a snake. Just like me! I was so afraid of snakes, that I couldn't even watch them in a movie or look at them in photos, and it didn't matter if they were dead or behind glass. I couldn't stand them any way at all. If I happened to see a snake, emotions ran throughout my entire body: a mixture of desperation, anxiety, fright, revulsion, and pure fear. My reaction was not only one of psychological fear, but a very real physical reaction. I felt something like a shiver running through my whole being. My heart beat faster, my breath was short, and my pupils dilated.
In the same house where I had the experience with the stairs, we had a large backyard. My brothers and I used to spend hours playing in the yard with our dog and our toys. Since the house was in the country, we were surrounded by several acres of uninhabited land. Consequently, we often saw many different repulsive wild animals, especially country rodents, rats and the like. You could see snakes once in a while, too. I will never forget when we helped my mother clear the garden and my sister Jeannie and I were working on one side of the house, pulling out tall, dry grass. Underneath this grass was a small garter snake that bit my three-year-old sister's hand. My sister was annoyed by the prick and ran to tell us that a "mama worm" had bitten her. She didn't know that what bit her was a snake. I reached the scene of the crime to see a green snake slither to its hiding place. It left a terrorized group of humans in its wake, and I almost saw it smile derisively at all of us. My father wasn't home, so I took my sister by bicycle to the doctor's office, a few blocks from our house. Mom caught up to us on foot. Thank God, it was nothing serious and my sister was soon back home.
In this same backyard, my father had asked me to move a stack of bricks that some workers had left there to a less visible spot. I spent more than fifteen minutes moving bricks and was happy to finally be nearing the last ones because, truth be told, I didn't much want to be moving them in the first place. What I wanted to do was to play with my friends. When I reached for the last brick, I suddenly noticed the two disgusting black eyes watching me carefully from the lawn. It was a big fat snake, brown with black stripes and ugly deep-set eyes that looked at me with distrust, almost as if scolding me for interrupting his afternoon nap. It didn't take me even a millisecond to react. I threw the bricks on the ground and began running as fast as I could yelling forcefully: "Dad, Dad . . . a snake . . . big . . . ugly . . . angry . . ." Within seconds everyone came out of the house, my father with an ax, searching for a way to flush out the snake and kill it. To be truthful, I don't remember the end of the story, if they killed it or not; I couldn't stay nearby because of the fear I felt. For as long as we lived in that house, I could not approach that spot again.
The snakes and ladders in my life have marked me forever. And I can assure you that it isn't some game. The only thing that gives me the authority to speak on the subject of fear is that I have fought against it all my life. In one way or another, I have always had to contend with it and come out ahead in spite of the many times it has wanted to immobilize me. Fear is something so real, it has debilitated millions of people, preventing them from reaching their life goals, objectives, and ideals. But not you. You will overcome your fears. You will escape from this jail and turn into a great champion of life.
KNOW AND CONQUER
The great historian Tito Livio said the following: "We fear things in proportion to our ignorance of them." Most people have great fears due to a lack of knowledge. For example, most animals are more afraid of us than we are of them. It took me many years to realize that the snake I came upon under the brick that sunny afternoon in Durango, Mexico, must have been much more afraid of me than I was of it. After all, I was one hundred times its size, and had discovered its hiding place, leaving it vulnerable to attack. When you and I are afraid of something or someone, they seem bigger and more frightening than they really are. That snake, because of how much I feared it, seemed larger and more threatening than she actually was. What was I lacking? More knowledge of snakes. It's that simple. The Great Teacher of all time, Jesus, expressed it even better: "Then you will know the truth and the truth shall set you free" (John 8:32). The more we know the truth, the freer we will be of fear.
My life changed as the result of making a decision. I confess that it wasn't an easy decision, but a worthwhile one. I was enjoying an afternoon with my children, watching a television program called The Crocodile Hunter, starring the late, daring Australian animal expert Steve Irwin. My three sons, like my daughter, Elena, had always been fascinated by nature, especially wildlife. From a very young age, they read books and studied encyclopedias about animals. Steve Irwin's program was one of their favorites. Suddenly, this man's adventures with crocodiles and dangerous lizards no longer satisfied him, so he began to expand his horizons to include reptiles of every kind, including dangerous snakes and serpents. Without my knowing this last bit of information, I was watching the program, when suddenly, an enormous, brightly colored serpent appeared on the screen. It was a long creature, oily-looking and silent, and Irwin was holding it by its tail, lifting it toward the sky, while the snake's head was down near the floor, trying with all its might to escape. Immediately, I began to feel the same sensation I felt my whole life when confronted with the image or presence of a snake: goose bumps, rapid heartbeat, shortness of breath, tingling along my whole spine, etc. My children, who had known of my fear of snakes their whole lives, began teasing me: "Look, Dad -- what a pretty snake! Do you like it? Look how it moves. Would you like it wrapped around your neck?" and so on. They burst out laughing at my terrified reaction. It was something I couldn't help. Something I had lived with my entire life. I was thirty-five years old at that point, and here my kids were, making fun of me!
At that moment, I made a decision and I didn't hesitate a second in deciding it. I forced myself to watch that TV show, despite all the symptoms I felt throughout my body. I couldn't stand having that fear one minute longer and the time had come to do something about it. I decided the only way to get rid of this phobia was to get closer to that which I feared, to understand it better. And that is what I did.
Today I can say that I am totally free from my fear of snakes. I've proven it on the many occasions that we've gone to the zoo as a family, when I do something I'd never done before: enter the reptile building and stay inside to learn about the snakes: where they came from, what they liked to eat, and other interesting facts. When I learned more about the reptile world, I discovered that the vast majority of vipers attack only when threatened. If we leave them alone, they'll leave us alone. I have decided that I can live tranquilly doing this.
The truth is what set me free with regard to snakes. The truth is what will set you free from the fear that oppresses you. The closer we get to understand our fears, the more we realize the lie hidden behind them. Tito Livio said, "Fear always wants to see things as worse than they are." How true are his words.
There is no way to avoid it: We will all be faced with situations that frighten us. The only way to come out ahead is to know the truth that will set us free. It is vital that each one of us makes the decision to say "Enough! I'm tired of feeling afraid. Today I will change my way of thinking and do something about it." The fact is, you may feel fear, but you needn't lie down and give in to it. If we flee, we will never be victorious against anything. In fact, if we look at how soldiers are armed, we see that their principal armor is on the front of their bodies. Why? Because that is the part of them that will be exposed. Conquering warriors always face their enemies. A coward always runs away. You and I have but one option: Face fear once and for all.
I am an avid student of the Bible. I encounter many positive examples among the figures on its pages, along with practical advice that serves me well in my daily life. One of the most well known biblical characters is young David. He became one of the greatest warriors and most respected kings of all time. Even as a young boy his dynamism and charisma set him apart. Since childhood, he confronted challenges that most boys his age never met. Charged with tending his father Jesse's sheep, he often had to free them from the claws of wild animals that tried to invade and eat the small herd. One time he killed a bear and a lion that wanted to kill his sheep. It was a show of force, determination, and singular bravery for a young man of around fifteen. Surely, he must have had moments of panic and despair, but instead of turning his back on these challenges, he faced them. He did not flee. Surely David could never have imagined that these fights with wild animals would be part of his preparation for the biggest test of his life.
His enemy Goliath was a formidable fellow. Measuring nearly ten feet tall, he was the paladin of the Philistines' army. What's more, he was rude, foulmouthed, and defiant. So much so that the entire Israelite army hid in their encampments every time this brash man came out to challenge them, demanding that someone come forth to fight him. Even King Saul, the supposed commander-in-chief of the troops, was unable to deal with this grave situation. Without a plan, and without bravery in their hearts, the army was paralyzed before the mocking Goliath. He appeared daily to laugh in their faces, provoking more panic and terror in the hearts of his opponents. A cowardly king, paralyzed soldiers, a formidable enemy, and a lack of direction made this situation a great impasse in every respect.
One day the young shepherd David arrived. It would not take him long to realize something was terribly wrong in the soldiers' camp. There he found a pair of his brothers, who were the reason for his visit. His father had directed him to bring a meal to them. When his brothers saw him, they were angry at him, for they deemed the situation far too dangerous for a "child" his age. Strange, because there could not be danger in a place where nothing was happening, and in this supposed "field of battle," nothing was happening. Nonetheless, they angrily tried to convince David to go back home.
Just then Goliath appeared on the scene, as he did at that time every day, to begin his daily ritual of mockery and provocation. When David saw him and heard what was going on, he grew indignant at this powerful, filthy man who dared to mock the army of the people of God. His anger was such that he offered to be the warrior who would take him on. Suddenly he found himself before King Saul, explaining why he would make a good candidate to go before this mocker who insulted them to no end. Seeing no alternative, Saul sent him to meet the enemy with little more than a blessing and the hope that Goliath wouldn't annihilate him.
This is the part of the story that grabs my attention because it's the part that will most help you and me overcome our fears. Certainly David understood the gravity of the situation. Surely, he took measure of Goliath's size. He knew that everything rested on his shoulders, that the fate of thousands of soldiers depended on the success or failure of his plan. All his life, David demonstrated prudence and appropriateness in all that he did, and despite his being so young, we can't imagine that he lacked that same good sense on this occasion, too. My feeling is that David walked toward that giant with his knees shaking, with his heart racing a mile a minute, with sweat on his brow, yet confident, because he knew that inside of him was a great force -- the force of the Lord -- that would help him destroy this enormous adversary. David went forth to meet Goliath in spite of what his fears and emotions were telling him. At all times, he knew that a force greater than himself was going to help him out of this jam.
When the giant made fun of David and even got angry at him, having expected a more formidable opponent, David answered his insults with declarations of victory -- not in his own name nor in the name of the people of Israel, but in God's name, in the name of God Almighty, captain of the heavenly hosts. The boy David understood that the only one who can free us from our enemies, our fears, and our afflictions is the Lord, Our Father. He is more than ready to help us out of any situation. Nevertheless, David also understood that he had to do his part. This is what many of us forget. We want God to say some magic words, move His wand toward the sky, and -- poof! -- everything is fixed. Most of the time, it doesn't work that way. We have to do our part, and the Lord does what we are not able to do. It is a collaboration between the two. David understood this. He had already entrusted himself to God and he was ready for whatever came next. As soon as he readied his weapon (his small slingshot), his munitions (five little round stones lifted from a nearby streambed), he armed himself with bravery and went forth to meet his enemy.
"David hurried and ran to the battle line" (1 Samuel 17:48). I want to focus on this sentence because it says a lot about why David faced and conquered his fears, something from which we can all learn a lesson. In this sentence we see David's attitude in the face of challenge. It is a proactive attitude, of intervening in the matter right now and not letting another second go by without solving the problem: "He ran." David had determined that this problem had gone on for too long and he wasn't going to let things remain as they were for one second more. So he began to run to the battlefront instead of going on with his life, denying the existence of the problem, and hiding within the safety of an encampment, like the rest of his compatriots did.
Most of us who have battled all our lives with some kind of fear have not faced it with the speed necessary to cut down the problem in its earliest stage. Many times, because of our indecision, the problem grows out of proportion, bringing us to a crisis that destroys our emotions, our families, our friends, and our worlds. We have to be like David: Once we recognize a problem, we must run to the front lines, face the great giant in our lives, and immediately right the situation so we can go on living in peace. Like David, we will find that our action, and our trust in the Lord, will have great results in our personal, professional, and emotional lives. We will see our own huge Goliaths fall, just as David saw his. And we will taste the sweet food of triumph.
Hurry! Run to the front lines of battle! The fact that you hold this book in your hands shows me that you are a person who will overcome your fears and know how to deal wisely with every giant that shows up in your life.
IT'S A MATTER OF DECIDING
The reason the Israelites were freed from Goliath was that among them was a person so fed up that he did something about it. What will make you and me victorious is a permanent, immovable decision to battle every giant we encounter. Some of these giants will greatly intimidate us. Some of them will truly make us feel incapable of functioning. Others will make fun of us and say all manner of insults to us. But we have to decide, this very day, to run quickly to the battlefront and face each one with determination and character, knowing that the Force of the All-Powerful resides within each of us and will help us win. If we trust in Him, we will drink of His strengths and be able to triumphantly face any challenge. It's all a matter of deciding.
Some of us have grown so accustomed to fear that it has become part of our daily lives. Our vocabulary incorporates fear. For example, I often hear people say, "I'm afraid my children won't turn out well," or "I'm afraid my husband is cheating on me," or "I'm worried I'll never get ahead at work," or "I fear I'll never pay off this debt," or "I'm worried I'll never overcome this bad habit that I've had for so long," or "I'm afraid our family will never rise out of poverty." I'm afraid, I'm afraid, I'm afraid . . . To overcome our fears, we will have to change our vocabulary. Our words are powerful: They can build or destroy. Every time we say "I'm afraid that . . ." we are driving the stake of fear deeper into our hearts. Every time we articulate the fear in our lives, we are affirming it and making room for it, instead of destroying it and getting it out of our hearts forever.
We all know the story of Job. From one day to the next, he lost everything: his house, his family, his possessions, his money, property, riches -- everything. It is interesting to note that during the first few days that he faced this big test, we hear him say the following: "What I feared has come upon me; what I dreaded has happened to me" (Job 3:25). Fear was in his daily vocabulary, so when it arrived, he wasn't surprised because he'd been fearing it his whole life. What a great example of why we should watch what we say! By changing the way we speak we begin the journey of overcoming our fears. Make an honest appraisal. Is fear in your vocabulary? Do you use declarations of fear in your daily conversation? Do you use words of anxiety and oppression? Change your vocabulary today.
Changing our vocabulary will change our mind-set. We have to change our way of thinking. If we keep thinking that our fears will destroy and overcome us, that is what will happen. If we think we'll be just fine and that there are better days ahead, that is what will happen. The old proverb says: "However a man thinks in his heart, thus he is" (Proverbs 23:7). If we think we can overcome our fears, we will do so. If we think tomorrow will be a better day, it will be. If we can think we are victorious warriors, we will be. First, we have to conquer our own minds before we can overcome anything else. Many times, we are our own worst enemies.
In 1963, Jim Whittaker became the first North American to reach the summit of Mount Everest. Few have had the good fortune to make it there. Whittaker wrote, "One never conquers a mountain. Mountains cannot be conquered. One conquers oneself, one's expectations and fears." The result of overcoming oneself is that we can scale the highest peaks life gives us. We can enjoy life's pleasures. God designed it this way. He gave us all of creation to enjoy. Unfortunately, many of us haven't overcome our own doubts and fears to enjoy the abundance that God has given each of us. Decide today that you won't be one of those people. "Better a patient man than a warrior, one who controls his temper than one who takes a city" (Proverbs 16:32). Decide today that you will conquer your thoughts and become a great warrior, enjoying the life that God Our Father has given us in His kindness and compassion.
Changing our habits and our vocabulary will help us change our perceptions. For example, I can now watch television shows about snakes without feeling anything at all. What a switch from a few years ago. I decided, I got close to my fear (I ran to the front line of battle), I changed my vocabulary (I stopped saying that snakes frighten me), I changed my mentality (I started telling myself I could overcome this fear), and I changed my habits (I can now see photos, television programs, and live snakes with no reaction). Having said all this, I assure you I haven't reached the level of wanting to live with them. I respect them, and I am not afraid of them, but I'm happy they have their place and that in most cases, our worlds don't collide.
In conclusion, if you get closer to your fears and come to understand them, you'll be able to overcome them. To do this you must understand the truth about who you are and about the marvelous power that the Lord has put in your life. Keep trying to know the truth; it will set you free. The pastor and writer Robert Schuller once said, "If you listen to your fears, you will die without ever knowing how great you could have been." You are a great person, and I am sure you are beginning one of the best journeys of your life.
1. Do I have a fearful vocabulary?
2. What can I do to change my way of speaking?
3. What can I do to get closer to my fears and know them better, so that I can overcome them?
4. Which habits, attitudes, and thoughts of mine could I change to overcome my fears?
5. What can I do to "race to the battlefront" to conquer my fears?
God and Heavenly Father: Help me leave my fears behind. I beg You not to let me fear the journey itself. I beg You to give me the strength and determination to change my way of speaking, thinking, and acting as it relates to fear. I want to have the necessary resolve to race to the battlefront to conquer the fears in my life. I trust in You and in Your power to carry me forward. Thank You for Your strength.
Copyright © 2007 by Marcos Witt