What Are You Afraid Of?

May 13, 2004 |J. Budziszewski

Our thoughts can be scary, especially if we find they’re always about the wrong things.

I was walking across the Main Quad, dodging Frisbees and picking my way among bodies of students sprawled helter-skelter on the grass. The voice of the boom box was heard in the land. Make that a dozen boom boxes. To my right, vibrating under the combined sonic assault, were the two oldest buildings on campus, Sturm and Drang. To my left were the two newest, Somnium and Oscitant. At my back was the great iron gate of the Dis Memorial Library, each side of its rusty arch declaring half of the school's Latin motto — on this side, for those going in, Non Cognoscetis Veritatem, and on the other, for those coming out, Et Dubitum Liberabit Vos. Towering ahead of me was the fifteen-story combination carillon, wastewater treatment plant, and parking garage that students called the Temple. My car was on level seven, and I was going home.

It was hot. The sun was in my eyes. As I glanced up, a flock of birds dropped from the roof of the Temple and flew downward. I had a moment's flickering vision of virgins being thrown off the roof in offering to the wastewater gods.

"Whatcha looking at, Prof?" It was Peter. Tilting his head back and squinting, he fell into step beside me.

"Nothing now," I smiled. "Just thinking about the gods of the university."

He grinned. "Hey, Blue told me he talked with you. He says you talked him into coming back to school. Nice going."

"Thank you."

"I was worried about him."

"Were you?"

"Yeah. I never bought that line of his about being too busy with Christian stuff to stay in school. That's the wrong kind of busy. I thought, 'You were going to be a minister. How are you going to be a minister without a degree, man?'"

I nodded. "There are still things to learn here, even if they aren't the ones the university wants to teach you."

"Which reminds me. I need to make an appointment to talk with you."

"What about?"

"Books to read, courses to take. That kind of stuff. You're my faculty advisor, remember?"

"I do. But we didn't meet last semester, did we?"

"Well, no, we didn't. I was real busy."

"Then we have to meet now. University rule. You'll be barred from registration if we don't."

"Yeah, I know. I got a notice from the Dean about it. So when can we schedule an appointment?"

"Right now," I said. Feeling very up to date, I stopped walking, pulled my new organizer from my pocket, and tapped the power button. I was just learning how to use it.

"What's that?" Peter asked.

"A personal digital organizer. You've never seen one of these?"

"Not since I was a kid. My Dad used to have one, but it was smaller. I didn't know they still made them. It's cool, though. Retro."

"That's it. Retro."

He whipped out a cellphone. "I organize with this. See?"

I wasn't sure I did see, but I nodded.

"So when can I come in to see you?"

I tapped buttons. "Tomorrow morning. Office hours."

"Can't do it," he said. "I have an exam."

"Afternoon, then."

"That's no good either. Class presentation."

Tappity-tap on my organizer. "Next day. Ten-thirty, one o'clock, or two, your pick."

Tappity-tap on his cellphone. "None of those work."

"Friday, then. Nine-thirty."

"I can't be here on Friday. I've promised some friends to go rock-climbing, and I'm the driver."

"How about next Monday? It's No Class Day. I'll be in my office all morning and all afternoon."

"That won't work either," he lamented. "Do you have any other times?"

"We're getting nowhere this way. Tell you what. You look at your little box of microchips there and tell me a time you can meet during the next two weeks. I'll try to make the time work."

"Great!" Peter said. He communed with his cellphone for a few moments, then looked up, stricken. "There's no time in the next two weeks I can meet, Professor Theophilus."

"How can that be?"

"I don't know, but somehow I've committed myself for every time slot on every single day."

"I see what's wrong here," I said. "I thought I was speaking with Peter, but really I'm speaking with Blue all over again."

"Aw, Professor Theophilus, that hurts," Peter said. "Blue's kind of busy kept him out of school. Except for the rock-climbing, and one or two other little things, my kind of busy is because I'm in school."

"So daytimes don't work for you at all."

"Not until — let's see." He consulted his magic box again. "'Till after June 11th."

"Peter, the semester will be over by that time."

"I know, I know."

"Have you checked evenings?"

"You'd meet with me in the evening?"

"Not in person, by telephone. It's not very good, but it's better than not meeting at all."

"Well, sure, if you don't mind."

"How about tonight, then?"

Tappity-tap. "Can't. Student Christian fellowship meeting. I'd cut, but I'm supposed to introduce the speaker."

"Can't you get someone else to do it?"

"Not this close to meeting time."

"Tomorrow night, then."

"Same problem. Weekly officers' meeting. I'm the program chair."

"Any night."

Peter pecked at keys and muttered to himself. "Let's see. Friday night is out. Saturday night is out. Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, all out." His face brightened. "How about next Thursday?"

"When?"

"Is half past 11:00 too late?"

I winced. "I'll be up then. You can have 30 minutes. It's not enough time, but it will have to do. Lock it in." He tapped at his cellphone. I poked at my organizer. Done.

"Thanks for being so flexible," Peter said. "I really appreciate it. Um —" He glanced at his watch. "Like you said, 30 minutes isn't much time. Do you want to start now? I only have five minutes before I have to go, but —"

I laughed. "No, Peter, we don't have to start your advising session now. But may I ask you a personal question or two? Not as your advisor, not as your professor, just man to man."

"Oh, sure. Anything."

"Do you eat?"

"On the run."

"Do you sleep?"

"Enough."

"Do you ever take a break?"

"Sure. I'm going rock-climbing on Friday, remember?"

"That's not exactly what I meant. It's almost just another kind of busy."

"Well, yeah, it's going to be a full day."

"Do you pray?"

This time he hesitated. "Ye-e-es. But I do that mostly on the run, too."

"How can you pray on the run?"

"You can. I read a book once by a really spiritual guy who called it 'flash praying.' You know. Just because you're busy with something else, you don't have to put God out of your mind. You can flash 'God, please help me with this.' 'God, I'm sorry I was crabby just now.' 'God, please show me what to do.' Like that."

"That's great, Peter, but you can't sustain a relationship with God just with flash prayers."

"Why not?"

"It's like trying to sustain your body with potato chips."

"Actually, I eat a lot of potato chips. They fit real well in a backpack. I feel okay."

I tried another tack. "Do you think a husband and wife could sustain their marriage with flash conversations?"

"I don't know, Prof. I get along fine with girls, but I'm not married."

Nobody can be that dense unless he's trying to be. Shifting again, I said "One of your flash prayers was 'God, please show me what to do.'"

"Sure. I pray that one all the time."

"How would you ever hear His answer?"

"Huh? Oh. Well, it's like you wrote in that article in Groundless."

"Nounless."

"Right, Nounless. About finding God's will. I read it. You explained that it probably won't be a voice in your ears. I figured, that's cool. I'm never where it would be quiet enough to hear a voice in my ears anyway."

"Yes, but how did I say that you do find God's will?"

"Did you ever say?"

I sighed. I was almost ready to give up on the conversation when I sent up a 'flash prayer' of my own. One more question came to me — the most important one. I realized that I should have asked it first. If I was going to ask it, I'd better ask now, because those five minutes were almost up and Peter was glancing at his watch again.

"Peter."

He looked at me quizzically. "Still here, Prof."

"What are you afraid of?"

There was a long pause. "What?"

"I asked, 'What are you afraid of?'"

There was an even longer pause, long enough for a couple of the birds to fly back up to the roof.

"I'm not afraid of anything."

"It took you a long time just now to say that."

"I'm not afraid of anything," he repeated.

"You seem to be."

"You think I can't stand to be alone," he said.

So he wasn't so dense after all.

"Not exactly," I replied. "I think you can't stand to be alone with your thoughts."

"Why should I be afraid of my thoughts?"

"I don't know. A lot of people are. I think you're afraid of what you would find in them."

"I wouldn't find anything."

"Then maybe you're afraid of what you wouldn't find in them."

He stared at me. The moments passed. I wondered if I had got in over my head. Wryly, I offered up a second flash prayer. God, I think I've started something that I don't know how to finish.

As I was praying, a Frisbee slammed into my head, knocking off my glasses.

"Prof! Are you all right?"

"I'm fine. Don't move — you'll step on my glasses. Can you see them?"

"Sure. Here," said Peter, stooping to pick them up. We laughed. The Frisbee thrower sheepishly retrieved his disk and apologized. Peter glanced a third time at his watch. "I really gotta go. Can we pick this up again next Thursday?"

"Okay. But schedule some quiet in your life."

"All right," said Peter, looking at his cellphone. "I'll try for June 12th."

Copyright 2004 J. Budziszewski. All rights reserved.

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