Fighting Fear: Peace Like A River

by Lisa McKay on December 17, 2012

Last month I wrote about how much I miss the promise and illusion of safety the developed world offers when my baby is sick over here in Laos. I know, however, that the fears that underpin my longings aren’t caused by living in Laos. They are only magnified.

This month I thought I’d take another look at those fears from a different angle, and share a piece that I wrote almost a year ago now, Peace Like A River. In one of life’s painful ironies, this essay was published the day before the accident that broke Dominic’s femur. It is a piece I’ve returned to several times since then, and the triangular relationship between peace, fear and love is one I continue to puzzle over.

 Peace Like A River

Two weeks after Dominic was born, my husband, Mike, announced that he was going out for a bike ride.

“Just a 50km loop,” he said. “I’ll be back within two hours.”

I nodded and told him to have a good ride, but that wasn’t what I wanted to do. I wanted to cry. I wanted to clutch him and beg him not to go. I wanted to demand that he tell me how I would survive if a car hit him – which happens to cyclists all the time, you know – while he was being so irresponsible as to be out riding for fun. Fun. What was he thinking to be indulging in something so very dangerous and call it fun?

I had expected my son’s birth to deliver love into my life. What I had not expected was that right alongside love would come something else, something that would assault me more often and more viciously than I had ever imagined.


In the weeks following the miraculous trauma of Dominic’s arrival, I found myself battling fear at every turn. I would see myself dropping the baby, or accidentally smothering him while I was feeding him in bed. The thought of unintentionally stepping on his tiny hand while he was lying on the floor made me stop breathing. Whenever I left the house I visualized car accidents. I lay awake at night when I should have been getting desperately needed sleep thinking about the plane ticket that had my name on it – the ticket for the flight that would take all three of us back to Laos.

How, I wondered, am I ever going to be able to take this baby to Laos when I don’t even want to take him to the local grocery store? What if he catches dengue fever? What if he picks up a parasite that ravages his tiny insides? What if he gets meningitis and we can’t get him to a doctor in Bangkok fast enough? What if the worst happens?

What if?

One of my favorite hymns was written by a man who was living through one such horrific “what if”. After learning that all four of his children had drowned when the ship they were traveling on collided with another boat and sank, Spafford left immediately to join his grieving wife on the other side of the Atlantic. As his own ship passed near the waters where his daughters had died, he wrote It Is Well With My Soul.

When peace like a river attendeth my way
When sorrows like sea billows roll
Whatever my lot, thou has taught me to say
It is well, it is well with my soul

This hymn is one of my favorites because it puzzles me. I’m awed and confused by Spafford’s ability to write these words in the face of such loss. Because of the story behind it, the song demands my respect.

Plus, I really like that image in the first line of peace like a river.

I think of this line sometimes when I’m out walking around town, for Luang Prabang is nestled between two rivers. The Mekong is a force to be reckoned with – wide, muddy, and determined. Watching the frothy drag on the longboats as they putt between banks gives you some hint of the forces at play underneath the surface. Mike likes the Mekong, but my favorite is the other river, the Khan. The Khan is much smaller, and at this time of year it runs clear and green, skipping over gravelly sand banks and slipping smoothly between the poles of the bamboo bridge that fords it.

I used to think of peace primarily as a stillness – a pause, a silence, a clarity – but that sort of peace is not the peace of rivers. There is a majestic, hushed sort of calm to rivers. But they are not silent and they are certainly not still – even the most placid of rivers is going somewhere. They don’t always run clear, either. But all that silt that muddies the waters of the Mekong? It ends up nourishing vegetables growing on the riverbanks.

Dominic is five months old now and the worst of the post-natal anxiety appears to have subsided. I managed to get myself to board that plane back to Laos and it no longer terrifies me to see Mike head out the door to ride his bike to work (most days, anyway). My fear of what ifs never leaves completely, though – it’s always lurking around waiting to be nurtured by my attention and amplified by my imagination.

I used to feel like a failure that I couldn’t banish that fear altogether – that I never felt “perfectly” peaceful – but I don’t feel that way any more. I’m learning to greet that sort of fear respectfully without bowing before it. I’m learning to use it as a reminder to turn toward gratitude rather than worry. And I’ve stopped expecting peace to look like the pristine silence that follows a midnight snowfall. I’m coming to appreciate a different sort of peace instead – a peace that pushes forward, rich with mud, swelling and splashing and alive with the music of water meeting rock.

Peace like a river.

What does peace mean to you? What does it look like?
If you live overseas, have you learned anything new about peace from your host culture?

Lisa McKayauthor, psychologist, sojourner in Laos

Blog:      Books: Love At The Speed Of Email and My Hands Came Away Red

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About Lisa McKay

Lisa McKay is a psychologist and the award-winning author of the memoir Love At The Speed Of Email, the novel My Hands Came Away Red, and several books on long distance relationships. She lives in Laos with her husband and their two sons.
  • I’m coming to appreciate a different sort of peace instead – a peace that pushes forward, rich with mud, swelling and splashing and alive with the music of water meeting rock.

    Peace like a river.

    — My goodness I loved this so much. I really tasted this myself when I wrote this– about this same idea of peace like a river, instead of peace like a rock.

    For me, my peace came into play with the job my husband was doing going out into really dark places at night. I would worry that we would screw with our minds/hearts so much that it would ruin us and our marriage and our intimacy. I think I got to the place where I started believing that peace moves, like you said. That peace doesn’t mean stability as much as it means trusting the heart of God to lead well.

    • Thanks Laura. Yeah … caution about what working with some of these issues can do to your mind and your relationships is valid, I think. I actually think many people aren’t cautious enough in that area. Glad to know it *hasn’t* ruined you though!

  • Maggie

    Thank you for this. My husband and I are looking to start work overseas sometime in the next few years and I find myself fighting fear frequently.

    • Hi Maggie, you’re welcome. All the best as you prepare for that big life change!

  • Thanks Lisa for sharing more on this topic of fighting fears. I fight PTSD and anxiety after the loss of our son and my battle with fear, rational and irrational, is nearly constant. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve suddenly gotten petrified that the kids who supposed to be playing soccer at the plaza had gone to the river instead and were being carried away or that the low grade fever my little guy was running for a bot fly was really some terminal childhood illness, or that the bridge that crosses the raging river in to the indigenous reserve had collapsed just as my husband drove across it. Over and over I battle it back. I remind myself it is a part of me because of my life experiences, it is not sinful or distrustful as long as I do not let it control, let it start to put boundaries around my “yes” to God. For me, walking in peace is not so much freedom from the fear as knowing that I can experience it without guilt and without letting it rule my life.

    • Oh, I like that. That thought that freedom from fear is experiencing it, using it to remind us to look upwards and reorient, understand why it’s a part of our lives, and accept that we experience it without guilt or shame. Thanks for sharing.

  • First, the satellite dish out by the longboats is priceless. Gave me a little chuckle to see the ancient ways bobbing next to modernity.

    Next, your word weaving skill are simply brilliant!

    Finally, you pose an excellent question: what does peace look like?

    Why do we desire those feelings of tranquility, assurance of mind, and all around inner quiet if it is unattainable? Can we ascend to a point where we turn off the 3D, full color, surround sound imaginations of fatality and disaster? It is very challenging to me to consider peace coinciding with fear. Harnessing the feelings of fear, without denying them, brings with it a fear all its own. Maybe the image I need to start dwelling on is the Lion lying down with the Lamb as my image of peace. Humility engulfed in ferocious goodness. It brings to mind the quote about Aslan, “… he isn’t safe. But he is good.”

    • Do you know I never even noticed the satellite dish until you pointed it out? Yeah, I don’t know if peace *can* coincide with fear or not in the sense of feeling both fully at the same time. I’ll have to think more on that. But I do like the metaphor of the lion lying down with the lamb. Doesn’t usually work out so well for the lamb in this world though, huh. Hmmmm…

    • I loved the satellite dish, too! 🙂

  • When my first was born (november baby), we lived a bit outside of town and had to cross a high bridge with fairly low security railing around it and it would get very icy in the winter. My husband worked second shift and didn’t get home until 2 in the morning so I often hung out with my parents across town of the evenings. They’d watch the little guy while I graded papers. Then came the drive home. I’d obsess the entire drive to that bridge and concoct scenarios in my mind for how I’d get both me and the baby out of the car should we slide and plunge into the river. When baby number 2 entered the scene – well, if anyone knew how often those thoughts kidnapped my mind, they might have had me committed…

    I’m also terrified of flying – like panic attack every time I get on a plane and I wonder if my heart will actually keep beating and I’ll be able to keep telling myself to keep breathing long enough to reach cruising altitude where at least the panic usually becomes manageable…

    I can’t make those fears go away, but how I’ve finally found peace through the fear tied into something I heard at a Beth Moore Bible study what seems like eons ago… and God has brought it up as a recurring theme in my life ever since. Part of the fruit of the Spirit is the quality of gentleness, teachableness and I think that what that looks like is leaning back into the hands of God and trusting Him and His will for this life, whether the ride is soft and gentle or tumultuous and adventurous or if I’m clinging to a branch struggling to stay afloat through a raging torrent. Peace is independent of what the river is like, but reflects what happens in and through me – and is totally dependent on a repeated, sometimes moment by moment, choice to trust God, regardless… that I will welcome, without fighting Him, whatever God introduces or allows (whichever word you prefer) simply because I trust Him. I guess that’s what peace looks like to me

    Craziest thing? It is easier to live and know that peace when in the midst of those challenging times rather than in the anticipation of “What if…” or “What will I do when…”

    Another awesome post, Lisa. Thank you.

    • Lisa McKay

      Yes, I’ve often thought about how most people function so well under pressure, probably better than they would have expected if they’d known before hand what would be coming down the road at them. I think Cassandra’s gift of knowing the future would be a terrible burden to bear.

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