In Like a Lion, Out With a Laugh

As we drove back to the camp, I thought how easy it is to get lost in our own private storms, forgetting about the part of us that can come out and play when the rain stops.
03/01/2013 05:03 pm ET Updated May 01, 2013

You know the old adage: March comes in like a lion, goes out like a lamb. True to nature, the forecast in my area suggests a stormy kickoff to March. As an adult, I still shudder a bit when I think about what storms meant to me as a child. Thunder would send me scurrying to the closet -- I thought it could harm me. My mother would let me sit for a minute or two, then join me in the closet, putting her arm around my shoulder. She'd explain that the rain from the thunderstorm might cause a leak in the roof. Maybe. That the wind might knock over a chair on the porch. Possibly. That lightning might strike a tree in the backyard. Unlikely. Most assuring though, she'd tell me that the thunder itself can't hurt you. Ever.

After the storm moved on and all became quiet, Mom and I would emerge from the closet. But I'd still be in a funk. My grandmother, who would come to visit with us, if she was there, would then swing into action, asking, "Where's the happy, brave part of Bobby?" I'd cross my arms and frown. She'd repeat in a wonderful singsong voice, "Now where's that happy, brave part of Bobby?"

The cycle would go on two or three more times until she'd walk behind me and tickle my ribs until I'd burst out laughing. Grandma would then exclaim, "Aha -- there he is!" She'd go on to reward the happy part of me with a treat. (At 4, I was a total sucker for a good chocolate chip cookie, and hers were fantastic.) Well, I'd go out to play and the thunder would be behind me, at least until the next storm.

I eventually outgrew the fear and stopped taking to the closet during a thunderstorm. But while you can control deep-seated phobias, sometimes they can sneak back to harass you. This was driven home to me 20 years ago when my wife and I were visiting the Serengeti National Park. There, we witnessed a storm that made any weather event from my childhood look like, well, child's play.

When we arrived in Tanzania, the Serengeti Plains, along with much of the surrounding area, was reeling from an extended draught. Everything was dry, as if the earth had gotten a little too close to the sun. You didn't need a degree in animal behavior to see that the whole ecosystem was off kilter. There was an uneasy tenseness in the air. The animals seemed skittish. The lions in particular were in a foul mood. I don't believe that lions kill for sport, but these guys would take down anything they could find and then leave it for the vultures and hyenas.

On the fifth day, it seemed like nature was about to ease up and provide some relief. First, the background chatter became almost inaudible; the animals knew what was coming. Then the sky darkened on the horizon, almost as if the clouds were in slow-motion cinematic mode. Suddenly, the movie camera went into hyper speed and the massive black storm clouds rolled into the foreground, accompanied by torrential rain. The earth shook with each peal of thunder. On one hand, I was delighted -- finally some relief for these poor animals. On the other, I felt a sense of panic, even though our guide assured us that it would pass quickly and there was nothing to worry about.

Suddenly I felt like I did when I was back in the closet of my mother's house. I heard the guide's words, just like I heard my mother's, assuring me that there was nothing to worry about. But I also realized that I was caught in an old pattern of fearful thinking like the one I experienced as a child. Now, 50 years later, I did have the wherewithal to know that the sudden storm required rational thinking, but my distress was optional. I also knew that the best way to snap out of a fearful reaction is to interrupt the pattern of thinking in any way you can. So I began tickling my ribs! Just like my grandmother did years ago. Kat looked at me like I'd gone over the cliff.

"What are you doing? Are you crazy?"

"I'm finding the happy, brave part of Bobby."

"You're what??" she said, even more worried.

"Never mind," I answered as I stood tall and smiled, "I'm fine."

We were both then consumed by an amazing sight: The blazing sun once again drenched the earth with its warm rays. The scorched ground soaked up the water that minutes ago ran like a wild river everywhere. The animals resumed their activities -- birds flew proudly, monkeys howled aggressively, lions walked about in their usual regal manner. This was a poignant reminder to me of how strong I can be if I rise above my habitual thinking.

As we drove back to the camp, I thought how easy it is to get lost in our own private storms, forgetting about the part of us that can come out and play when the rain stops. So next time the thunder starts rolling around in your head, maybe take a breath and think of something that tickles your fancy by interrupting old patterns. You'll find that you will weather the storm just fine.

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