I quaked. Whenever I neared her classroom, fear and trepidation besieged me. My reaction was autonomic, full of emotions I could not control. Whenever she called on another student, I breathed a deep sigh of relief. For the moment, hallelujah, I was not the one who was put on the hot seat. Have you ever been there? Whenever I handed in an essay, I tossed and turned in unabated restlessness. Red markings blanketing my paper were sure to follow. Ouch! No professor since, not even one of those renowned psychologists on my dissertation committee, provoked in me such angst.
It was freshman year at Taylor University, and she was the notorious Professor Hilda Studebaker. English Composition was her playing field, and fierce hard ball was her game. To many of us, she felt like a student’s worst nightmare, or a better metaphor, a terrifying earthquake reverberating aftershocks and tremors across the Upland campus.
Take her grading policy. She docked you one letter grade for every error on a paper. If you split an infinitive, the best you could get was a B. On the same paper, if a subject and verb did not agree, the best you now could get was a C. Many of my essays, incidentally, had three or more errors. Coming from West Philadelphia to rural Indiana was enough of a shock. Encountering Professor Studebaker was flat-out traumatic. I can envision her stern look and hear her say. “Write in the active voice, not passive voice.” “Begin each paragraph with a topic sentence.” “Vary the lengths of your sentences to maintain interesting prose.” “Use proper syntax.” “Write with precision.” “Use forceful verbs.”
Professor Studebaker etched an indelible mark on my psyche. But here is an irony. Although I never remember her smiling, behind the persona was a caring person. In spite of my bumbling, she saw my potential and then transformed me into a writer. More than anyone other professor, she gave me an incredible tool and honed my academic abilities. The experience propelled me forward. For you see, good writing is not simply about syntax and sentence structure. It is about critical thinking, clarity of thought, focusing on what is important, connecting with people, enriching the human experience, and ministering. Yes, good writing is ministry. Remember the works of Solomon, Apostle Paul, St. Augustine, C. S. Lewis, and Jonathan Edwards? You should. I place writing near the top of my ministry tool box.
Inadvertently, Professor Studebaker also taught me a life lesson: the one about conquering debilitating fear. I learned that the only real solution to fear is to confront the object of fear. My astute professor would not allow me to avoid the task at hand, despite my deepest angst. Therefore, I respectfully suggest that FDR was slightly off point when he said: “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” In my opinion, a more accurate mantra is this: “The only thing we have to fear is the avoidance of the things we fear.” We psychologists call the professor’s method flooding, which is prolonged and intense exposure to the noxious stimulus. This should be of interest. By the end of that freshman year, my fear had subsided. I amazingly looked forward to going to class. Do you know what is more amazing? Writing became a passion.
Along life’s journey, it became clearer to me that the antidote to fear is the opposite of how we often behave—avoidance. For real success, we must face the things we fear–not in lieu of our fears but despite them. When we obey God and step into the uncharted waters of life, God works in wondrous ways, and then our fears begin to subside. The scientific principle of extinction, which underlies flooding, accords with the biblical command of living by faith: “Walk by faith, not by sight” (II Corinthians 5:7); “Faith without works is dead” (James 2:17); “Obedience is better than sacrifice” (I Samuel 15: 22); “The just shall live by faith” (Habakkuk 2:4); “Trust and obey, for there is no other way” (John H. Simmis).
Faithlessness, not fear, is the antithesis of faith. Fear–the expectation of impending harm–reflects our humanness; disobedience and irresponsible avoidance, our faithlessness. Fear may underlie our decision to disobey and irresponsibly avoid. But faithlessness lies in the choices we make—choosing this day, this hour, this moment who we serve, what we serve, and how we serve. To complete the narrative, fear does have a contingent relationship with faith. Walking by faith precedes the dissipating of our fear, while the dissipating of our fear (the effect) hinges on walking by faith (the cause). Like faithlessness, faithfulness is a choice. Unlike faithlessness, this choice leads us into obedience and responsible action.
As it turned out, Professor Studebaker was my biggest fear inducer yet my biggest fear conqueror. To be honest, I still get threatened. I still bumble. Lord strengthen my faith so that I might confront the fearful challenges I need to face, flee the threats that bring me needless harm, and grant me the conviction to choose rightly between these opposing choices.