When I was a little boy, probably 5, 6, 7 or maybe 8 years old, my chore every night was to go out to the barn to turn off the diesel power plant that cooled the milk that had been gathered that day from my Dad's herd of Jersey cows. We were Amish, so we had no electricity, no yard lights or other illumination in the yard between the house and barn, a distance of several hundred feet. We lived in the country, so there were no street lights, no cars, no sirens. In other words, it was dark, pitch black to a little boy whose only way of seeing was any light from the moon and stars, if there was no cloud cover.The low rumbling of the diesel engine was the only sound.
I did not like the job of going out to the barn to turn off the diesel engine. But there really was no option of not doing it. Part of the Amish culture is that everyone works, even the very young. It would be disgraceful to have your children grow up "spoiled" because they were not taught to work.
Just before bed time, I would be reminded that it was time to go turn off the diesel. Very reluctantly and slowly, I would make my way out to the milk house, carrying a small flashlight. When I got there, I reached into the engine room, flicked off the fuel switch and then turned and ran as fast as I could for the house. The faster I ran, the more afraid I became, convinced that there was someone or something right on my heels that was going to harm me. By the time I got to the house, breathless, but not hysterical, because Amish kids are not allowed to become hysterical, I was in a full blown panic.
I have often in my life, particularly in my younger years, been afraid of death. I was surprised several years ago, when I had a tumor in the high sinus area of my forehead to realize that I was not scared. Receiving the news several weeks ago that I have a brain tumor of the kind that killed my mother and kills 90 percent of the people who have it, did not and still does not scare me. I don't think I'm an unusually strong person. I have often said I would not have been a successful martyr. Many of my spiritual ancestors, Mennonites in Switzerland and Germany in the 16th century, were killed by being burned at the stake, boiled in hot oil and tied into gunny sacks and drowned.
Unlike my forbears, if I had been seized by the magistrate and told I was going to die unless I recanted my faith, I would have said, "Where do I sign?" before the first torch was lit. I do not understand dying for an abstract principle. It makes no sense to me. If the choice is to either renounce my beliefs or be killed, I would choose to renounce my beliefs.
So, it is not courage that has gotten me to the point where I am not afraid. As best as I understand myself now, I am not afraid for the same reason that, as a boy, if I had stopped running in the dark, turned around and seen, with my own eyes that there was nothing chasing me, my panic would have left me. But there is something chasing me, you might argue -- my tumor. No, it's not. Not if I don't run. I will die, but that is something that was going to happen anyway, whether I got cancer or not. It's nothing new or unique to me. It is an inevitable part of nature.
I don't know that I have this completely figured out. But this is what makes sense to me and gives me peace now.