I don’t feel like I remember as much as I should about my childhood. But what I do seem to remember are the moments where I felt like a failure, or experienced shame and regret. This is one of those stories.
I was about to turn three. My parents, excited as new parents can be to show their child everything, drove me to Florida to see Disney World. I remember only flashes of that trip. A strange man with a dragon puppet that I did not – and still don’t – recall ever seeing in any Disney media. Something coming out of the top of a tea pot in the tea cup ride. A bewildered moment as the stuffed animal head on the wall of the Country Bear Jamboree, not dissimilar from the deer head named Ralphie that hung on our wall back home, spoke to me. An image of Michael Jackson’s 3D “Thriller” experience of a ghostly lady reaching out to me. My mom said I kept swatting at a fly that was part of the show. I remember these flashes, but I don’t remember having fun. I know I DID have fun. But that’s not what stuck with me the clearest. What stuck with me most is where we visited next.
In the 1980’s the internet didn’t exist. Any trainer that was harmed by the blubber covered performers of the Shamu show went un-viraled. We were also not aware of any ethical questions that may have existed over the treatment of these creatures. We were simply, innocently, in awe. God’s creation subdued and dancing to pop music with fresh happy faced trainers in wetsuits who couldn’t be happier than to dive with these (seemingly misnamed) killer whales, then erupt up out of the water perched on their giant noses (seemingly unconcerned that their toes were inches from a row of sharp teeth).
As strange as all of this may sound to those of us on this side of that time, the following, especially given what was to come in Shamu history, is even stranger. The trainer would command Shamu to beach itself onto a platform in front of the crowd. Then they would invite a child from that crowd (not a planted child prodigy with an uncanny ability to bond with these seal chewers), and they would take that child… and sit the child atop a several thousand pound black and white sea monster.
Keep in mind, this no longer happens because… reasons.
How do I know the kid invited to sit on the whale was not a plant? Because I was the child that was invited to sit on Shamu for that show. Me. And let me assure you, my science grades would make it clear that I was no marine biology-adept child, employed by Sea World to pull the wool (or whale) over anybody’s eyes.
Every visible authority told me this was OK. The whole park was decorated with cartoonish Shamus everywhere, bright eyed and smiling and letting you know you were safe. The trainers, Shamu’s buddies, are all smiling invitingly, showing how much fun (and safe) it was to be friends with a Killer Whale. My parents, who are really good parents, assessed the situation and thought that everyone on the inviting end of this offer knew what they were doing. So they turned to their little boy and encouraged him to go for it! This little dirty-blond haired kid from Colorado was being invited into the dream of every child who watches a movie about dancing friendly animals and wishes they could dance with them too. These whales danced! So, I leapt up, gave a thumbs up to the crowd, ran down the steps, and sprang onto Shamu’s back. We took some photos from our adoring fans, then the trainer said, “OK Shamu! Take him to Wonderland!” and off we flew across space and time, having wonderful adventures and solving crimes along the way!
Don’t buy it? You shouldn’t. The reality isn’t quite so magical. A fear gripped my little boy heart. Was it a fear of the whale? Or the fear of the attention I was getting from strangers? Was it stage fright or was it a primal feeling of danger like what a baby seal probably feels when it sees one of these things out in the open ocean? Whatever my reasons, my head began to shake and I backed up into my mother’s arms. No encouragement could change my mind. Nothing until… I saw another boy do it. Then I wanted to. I wanted to badly. But it was too late. I had missed my chance. I feel like I can still see the big, big smile on that boy’s face, the boy who got the adventure I refused (and then was safely returned to his parents). I’m sure my parents were affirming and cared for that little boy’s heart, trying to balance a life lesson about courage with genteel declarations of affection. But despite their best efforts, fear turned into regret, regret turned into shame, and a sensitive, cautious 3-year-old boy from Colorado got what may have been his first taste of feeling like a failure. It wouldn’t be his last.
The story is like an inverted Jonah. For me, the call to adventure WAS the whale. Jonah volunteered to be thrown in. I resisted. Once inside the whale, Jonah wanted to get out. I was safely away and now all I wanted to do was get on.
In the three decades I’ve lived since the whale refusal, I’ve experienced more whale-sittin’-invitations. More moments when I’ve been invited “further up and further in” (ooh… that doesn’t sound positive when using a whale metaphor.) Times when the path seemed clear, the invitation was given, and the only thing left was for me to take that first step. And many times… I didn’t. And sometimes even when I did, it hurt. Not always, but sometimes the first step was rewarded with a rug pulled out, or a door closed in my face. Sometimes the step was met with rejection and an affirmation that these adventures are not for me. That little boy grew up into a man who still hasn’t perfectly figured out how to ride whales yet.
What would have made the difference for that little boy? Everything was set up for his success except one thing: He didn’t believe everything would be alright. No matter who told him it would be, he didn’t buy it. And it turned a wonderful adventure into a lifelong pang. I don’t want to shame that little boy. I don’t want to berate him and tell him how our life would have been different if he would have just gotten on that whale. As Andrew Peterson sings, “How does it end when the war that you’re in is just you against you against you.” That little boy isn’t my enemy. And even if I feel shame that would inspire adversarial thoughts, “you gotta learn to love, learn to love, learn to love your enemies too.” In fact, what has lasted all these years wasn’t that I failed to seize an opportunity. It was that I felt a lasting shame about it. It’s not the kind of regret where I learn, get better, and move on. It’s shame that labels me ‘coward’ and then offers every fearful decision or lack of decision as evidence of that. It’s the first fear that entered the world that first time that told the first Adam “You’re naked, you’re shameful, and you should hide.” I think this was probably a struggle I was going to deal with regardless of this episode, but it’s been a whale of a moment for the accuser to point back to with each failure this Adam has made ever since. With a sneer, he whispers, “See? You’re still that scared little boy, and you’re not fooling anyone.”
“These things I have spoken to you, that in Me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.” John 16:33 NKJ
We live in a world full of whales. And we live in a world that gives us good reason to doubt that everything is going to be alright. We have learned that these whales can indeed harm. That things don’t always end in a cute photo and a fond memory. The world is drenched with beauty and abundance, yes, but it also drips with grief and loneliness and rejection and hunger and scarcity and disease and death and death and death. How do we find the courage to keep stepping forward? To keep climbing on those whales and to keep saying “yes” to the invitation of God that calls us “further up and further in”? There is always a place for discernment and wisdom. I mean, where did we get the idea that just because something is hard or risky or fraught with teeth it automatically means the Lord has called us to it!? Danger for danger’s sake isn’t necessarily devotion. Courage is not absent-mindedly charging in, heedless of danger, naive of peril, and sticking your head directly into the gaping whale’s mouth. But sometimes God does call us to be brave, even as we’ve assessed the potential risks, even as part of us may be shaking and wanting to step back. To accept the call of God to courage.
To risk. To try. To do. To trust. To become.
These are the whales worth riding. Trusting our Maker, especially in a world that will not always validate it, is an act of deep courage. And even after we have trusted, it may not end as we would want. There may be scars, there may be rejections, there may even come a day when we find ourselves in the whale’s belly itself. But as with Jonah, even if that’s the end of our story, that’s not the end of our story. What I missed then was the sense that everything would be alright. What I need now, more than ever, is the firm belief that, though fear shakes me, though my bones break, though I be chewed up and swallowed down to the deep… everything is going to be alright. When we believe that, we can truly “do all things through Christ who gives me strength”.
So rest your hearts on this, dear ones. Courage is not the absence of fear. Courage is accepting the call of your Heavenly Father even when there is much to fear. You serve the High King, the majestic Lord of Heaven who, at this moment, is preparing a place for you. A place where moth and rust cannot destroy, where thieves cannot break in and steal. Where whales, if they exist in this paradise, are indeed the type you can dance with and play with and ride across space, having adventures (but probably not needing to solve any crimes). The ache that boy felt was one of vision. He was nearsighted. He just couldn’t see past the fear to what was beyond. It’s no shame for a 3 year old boy to be scared of a Killer. Whale. And in light of us living for an eternity, what 3 is to 36 is nothing compared to what 36 is to infinity. I think I can show myself a little grace for my stumbles in courage along the way. But, I can also call to myself, along with that Great Cloud of Witnesses, trusting, believing, seeing and speaking to my own heart that everything, somehow, some day is going to be alright. Even if I end up joining Jonah in that belly. Even if it does end in failure. My God’s love sustains, redeems, and restores. He makes all things new. Even when everything doesn’t end alright, it’s going to be alright forever and ever. Amen.
(Disclaimer: The editors of Cultivating would like to express to our readers that this essay should not be interpreted as an invitation to place children in vulnerable situations with wild animals. Any implications of this sort are due to Adam working through his own issues and should not be given as endorsements of such activities beyond the realm of the metaphor. We also think a child and whale crime fighting team sounds like a really great idea and Adam should totally write that sometime, the same way he’s writing this disclaimer now.)
The featured image is courtesy of Adam R. Nettesheim and is used with his permission for Cultivating and The Cultivating Project.
Adam is a vagabond of the arts. He is an animator by training, a media specialist by vocation and a writer by hobby. Though he “still hasn’t found what he’s looking for”, in his wandering through the arts he has found the firm conviction that God has been writing His story through our stories since the beginning, and He’s not done yet. Adam and his wife Sarah have 3 children and live in Northern Colorado. His artistic interests range from G.K. Chesterton to Looney Tunes.