My Grandparents were morticians. As a child I often had nightmares about the funeral home. Some nights, a corpse would hide under my bed. Occasionally, a second corpse made noises from my closet. When I tried to crawl into bed with my parents, my father took the scientific approach. He opened the closet door or lifted up the bedspread and pointed under the bed. “See? There’s nothing there.”
Dad did not seem to realize that monsters can always anticipate where adults are going to look and change hiding places. I pretended to be convinced by his demonstration until he fell asleep and then crawled back into my parent’s bed on my mother’s side. Mom would hold me a bit and then tell me a story; sometimes from old southern folk tales, and, often times, from the Bible.
It did little good for my dad to tell me there weren’t corpses under my bed – I was certain I had heard them. But stories about a clever rabbit tricking a fox or a little kid defeating a giant with a slingshot convinced me that I could face whatever was under my bed. At some level, I knew that there probably weren’t really monsters under the bed, but I was genuinely afraid and needed to be reassured. The stories lifted me to my own courage.
Some people say that religion is a trick to frighten people, but my mother never told me religious stories to frighten me into being good. I was already afraid when she began the story. If I questioned the details of the story, mom just shrugged. Although she wouldn’t say it, I could tell my questions were missing the point. At some level I knew she was sharing a different kind of truth than history or science. It was like a special code that unlocked the secrets I needed to be wise and brave. The religion I learned from those stories was a call to courage, but it was spoken in stories that a frightened child could hear. After listening to the story, I would go back to my bed unafraid. Eventually I could even look under the bed to see that there really was only dust.
I am so glad my father taught me to be scientific and to test every belief for superstition. But I am also grateful to my mother for the stories that speak to my deeper emotional being as well. Today I hear the biblical stories as calls to wisdom and courage perhaps because I first heard them while wrapped in a blanket and spoken in the raspy voice of a weary parent half asleep.