Missouri Boy’s Captivity Highlights the Power of Fear

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New tidbits of information paint a frightening picture of what life must have been like for Shawn Hornbeck, 15, during the four and a half years of his captivity under the watch of his kidnapper. But they also highlight how fear, including irrational fear, can manipulate the human psychology and paralyze our ability to act in accord with truth.

It is this unique window into the power of fear that makes this story of even broader interest and importance. Let me explain.

Irrational Fear…

Shawn's alleged kidnapper, Michael Devlin, worked hard to maintain a public profile of normality. He worked two part-time jobs, one as a manager at a pizza parlor and the other as a night receptionist at a funeral home. His co-workers referred to him as "hardworking" and "sometimes very caring." Neighbors noticed nothing out of the ordinary with the "father and son" pair. They said Shawn used to ride his bike in the streets, play with friends, and use a cell phone. Internet reports even show "Shawn Devlin" created his own web pages and roamed the World Wide Web.

Why didn’t Shawn ride his bike to the local police station, whisper his secret to a neighborhood friend, call 911 on his cell phone, or cry out for help on the Internet? He certainly had plenty of time on his hands, as his captor apparently left him home alone when he went off to work.

The touching images of smiling Shawn in his parents’ arms leave no doubt of the boy’s relief to be in his real home again.

I’ve spent the morning on the phone talking to doctors and psychologists whom I trust, and reflecting on similar cases of fear-induced, irrational behavior I have encountered in my ministry. How does fear overtake a person to this extreme degree? What are the steps for this type of mental manipulation?

We don’t need to know what happened to Shawn in detail, what induced such fear. It will be for him and his parents to decide what, if anything, they want to share.

We do know, however, his parents dedicated the length of their nightmare to publicizing the fate of other missing children. They certainly would want us to learn all we can from this case.

Other examples of similar fear …

The great power of fear lies in its capacity to trump reason. I know a woman named Lucelle who was in a car accident three years ago, last June. Her toddler, Jill, was strapped properly in her car seat on the right side of the back seat. Lucelle took the same left turn on green she had taken hundreds of times before at her little town’s main intersection. This time an oncoming Land Cruiser ran a red light and blindsided her Ford Taurus. Lucelle walked away unscathed, or so she thought. Little Jill survived, but is now a paraplegic and has considerable brain damage.

Besides the pain of watching Jill suffer, and thinking what her little girl’s life could have been, Lucelle is dealing with what psychologists call post-traumatic stress syndrome. For her, the primary symptom is fear. After more than three years, she still is unable to drive a car. Every intersection is dangerous. Every stoplight is broken. Every driver is asleep. Her husband and counselor have tried to help her overcome the disproportionate fear. They talk logic. But Jill’s logic is clear: "I don’t trust the law of probability anymore - it only takes one".

In another, different, scenario, Samantha’s case was very different. Her husband came to her one day sobbing. He had been cheating on her with a colleague at work. It was the first time. He was sorry, deeply sorry. Nobody else knew about the affair and he had no reason to turn himself in other than because he loved her and couldn’t stand her being in the dark. The first days were hell, the first weeks too. After six months Dan and Samantha were talking again, and even laughed on occasion. Fresh air. One year to the date, however, things changed. It was the anniversary of the fateful day when Dan told Samantha about Gail. Something clicked. For the next six months, Samantha could barely go out in public. Every woman was a threat, and on top of that, she herself never felt so ugly. When Dan went to work, Samantha stayed home to cry. It was fear.

Irrational Fears are Induced by Lies …

Shawn, Jill, and Samantha’s cases are dramatic, somewhat rare, and we can cross our fingers and probably steer clear of similar trauma.

But, at least in lesser degrees, fear plays a role in each of our lives. Here I am not talking about good fear, or rational fear-the kind that keeps our hands away from the hot stove. I am referring to fear which is induced by lies.

This kind of fear sounds like this: What will people think of me if I don’t go into debt to buy another suit I can’t afford? What will life be like if I don’t have a boyfriend, girlfriend, always, even if he/she is not the right one? How will we pay for our kindergartener’s college education if we don’t both work two jobs?

Whatever the face of these fears, when we give into them, it is usually because we have bought into a lie. We are running away from what we think life might be like, if were to live in truth.

Today’s society offers us plenty of lies to choose from. It tells us happiness is found in power and wealth. It seduces us with instant gratification. It speaks of wisdom, old age, and death only when it’s too late.

Then there are the lies that come like a flash of lightning, and from nowhere in particular; "I’m useless," "Life stinks," "Nobody cares," "I have no friends," "Nothing will change," "It’s all their fault," and "I will never be free".

What to do…

Besides simply rejecting the lies, the best we can, we need to form the habit of soaking ourselves in truth, human truths and spiritual truths.

Do you have any ideas about what this would look like in practice? I have some, and maybe the combination of yours and mine would make good material for another column.

God bless, Father Jonathan

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