The other day I sat down with Susan Schorn's forthcoming memoir, Smile at Strangers, the story of a woman who responds to a lifetime of paralyzing fear by taking up karate. This woman had never been personally attacked or molested, but chronic anxiety had put the squeeze on her like a Victorian corset. As I read Schorn's story, I wasn't thinking, How odd to be so afraid all the time! I was thinking, I hear you, sister.
The U.S. ranks 89 of 158 on the Global Peace Index, so anxiety may come with the territory. Last year, the "level of perceived criminality in society" rose sharply. Close behind is "likelihood of violent demonstrations." Massacres at Virginia Tech, the Aurora theater, Sandy Hook, not to mention the spate of shootings since Sandy Hook, share a common denominator. Namely, we're no longer surprised. We may not like it, but we've connected the dots. This could happen to our loved ones. Fear has become a rational response.
Most Christians believe in an external evil entity whose purpose is to steal, kill, and destroy. When I was young, I imagined this entity as a creepy stalker lurking near Christian fences. Fear comes and goes. Oh, we know we can put on the armor of God. We can declaim 2 Timothy 1:7. But it's not as if fear, once ousted, will stay away. It retreats, but it bounces back—Satan in the wilderness, waiting for a more opportune time.
Whether we live in the most or the least peaceful country in the world, we all experience fear. However, it's important to make two qualitative points here. One is that the threat of real violence is worse in the United States than in, say, Canada (No. 4 on the Global Peace Index). The other is that although American men are statistically more likely to be the victims of violent assault, it is women who seem more afraid. Well, of course, we say defensively. It is women who are much more likely to be the victims of rape.
What gender etiology inheres in the experience of fear? The author I was reading recounted an anecdote from a self-defense class. The students paired up. One student would harass her partner with a one-minute stream of yes or no questions. Do you have the time? Do you want a ride? Can I buy you a drink? And so on. The other student, maintaining steady eye contact, would answer every question with the single word "No." This exercise spoke to the state of female anxiety in general, not just to unwelcome overtures. A good solid no makes women profoundly uncomfortable. We tend to offer up a flood of explanatory excuses, a long, nicey-nice backstory about why we cannot accommodate whoever wants a favor, and have we mentioned we're really, really sorry?
After reading about the self-defense exercise, I jumped up to go find my husband. He was upstairs in a steamy bathroom, shaving his head. "Hit on me for a full minute with yes or no questions," I commanded.
He dipped the razor in the sink. "Will you help me shave my head?"
"Maybe later. But first you have to hit on me for a whole minute."
"That was my first question."
I objected. "What kind of nutter would ask a strange woman to help shave his head?"
My husband grinned. There was a blob of shaving cream on his eyebrow. "Hey, lady, whaddaya say we get busy with some minty eucalyptus foam? It could happen."
I gave him my best Terminator stare. "I'm setting my watch. Start over."
"You want some popcorn?"
"Can I buy you a towel?"
No, no, no, no—I said it over and over, with gathering emphasis, with rising rhetorical thunder, like Daniel Webster. So vociferously did I decline that I was sure no foamy masher would ever mess with me. When the minute was up, my husband congratulated me on my firm boundaries. Then I went downstairs, because by then I really wanted some popcorn.
God has a nice sense of timing. If you start working on a weakness, you can pretty much count on an immediate opportunity to practice what you're working on. The very next day I found myself in crisis mode. Mind you, my crisis did not involve carjackers or assault rifles. But it tore me up inside. Saying no would inflict hurt. It did. But that's not the point. The point is that I finally said no after five hours of worry and fear.
As I tried to screw my courage to the sticking point, I kept replaying a moment from the church nursery the previous Sunday. My husband was reposing in a glider rocking chair, a chunky baby in each arm. The director popped in and asked if we would work the following evening, for a function we both wanted to attend. My husband didn't miss a beat. "No." He didn't convey regrets. He didn't look apologetic. He didn't say another word, unless you count, "Dude, did you just spit up on me?"
Such a small moment. What feminist wouldn't note it? I knew all along what I would have to say. Yet thinking about gender constructs didn't help me much. In the end what helped was this. We all have a divine assignment—a skillset, a calling, a pearl of great price. Unless we learn to say no, we wobble off course, too busy or distracted to complete God's assignment on our lives.
Speaking as one who wasted 20 adult years diddling around in anxiety and fear, I'd love to say that these days my refusal lands confident as a cat. However, I am not a third-degree blackbelt like the author of Smile at Strangers. She likes to throw a brisk punch to the head; I waffle about hurting someone's feelings. How I would love to issue the necessary syllable from the rocking-chair of calm! But until I can, I'll say it vexed. I'll say it afraid. I'll say it to the guy with the gun, the line, the beer. I'll say it to the well-meaning friend. My no is my yes to God.
Rhoda Janzen is the New York Times No. 1 bestselling author of Mennonite in a Little Black Dress (Henry Holt, 2009). Mennonite was a finalist for the 2010 James Thurber Award for Humor, and in 2012 a finalist for the Lily Fellows Arlin G. Meyer Prize for Imaginative Writing. Janzen's new memoir, Does This Church Make Me Look Fat? (Grand Central, 2012) is a finalist for the 2013 Books for a Better Life Award in the category of Spiritual Writing. Janzen teaches English and creative writing at Hope College in Holland, Michigan. To learn more about Rhoda Janzen, please visit rhodajanzen.com.