A man in his fifties—I’ll call him “Bob”—called our house a few weeks ago. With shaky voice, and great gulps of air, he asked if my husband and I would meet him at our church. His request was simple—he wanted us to listen to him sing. This was an odd request, since we know that Bob is terrified of singing in public. He wanted, he said, to combat this fear. His goal was modest—he wanted to gather enough courage so maybe, if no one minded, he might sing sometimes for our local nursing home.
We know Bob well, and this is one more fight in a long list of battles. He still has physical scars from his biological father’s abuse. And he spent lonely, desperate years in an orphanage before a local couple adopted and loved him. He married a good wife–his best friend, he says–and adopted her family as his own. I didn’t realize how deep his love for her parents went, until her mother became bed-ridden. Bob, early retired, took over her care, while his wife went to her job. At the time, I wondered how he stood it—a man–turning himself into a nursemaid for his mother-in-law—day after day after day. When I asked, he shrugged and said it was an honor.
Cora’s mental state deteriorated until there came a time when Bob had to reintroduce himself to her every day. To while away the time, he began singing to her. She would clap and tell him what a good voice he had. Bob had not gotten many compliments in his life, and his mother-in-law’s gentle applause fell like rain on parched earth. He grieved hard when she died.
And so, we met Bob at the church building. And he was nearly sick with fear. Then one of my friends, a former opera singer, saw my car and dropped by. The timing couldn’t have been worse—or, as it turned out, better. She asked Bob’s permission to stay, he agreed, and then he trudged up the aisle like a man going to his execution. Without accompaniment, he sang one hymn. His head was down, his voice wavered, and he had to hold tight onto the pulpit to keep from sliding to the floor.
My opera singer friend went up and whispered something in his ear. His head lifted a few inches, and he made it through another hymn—this time a little stronger. Soon, he was singing his heart out, head thrown back, filling the auditorium to the rafters with such a big, rich, voice that I could hardly believe it was coming out of Bob’s throat. His singing made me cry—not only with the unexpected beauty of it, but with the incredible courage I was witnessing.
Later, I asked my friend what it was she had whispered to him. “To stop thinking about himself, and to concentrate on the words,” she said. “I reminded him that he was singing to the Lord, not to us. Keeping God as my focus helps me when I get nervous.”
I’ve been thinking about that morning ever since. Pondering courage—and baby steps—and overcoming the paralysis and defeat that succumbing to fear brings.
The thing is—I know that I also sing better and stronger when I push my fears–and myself–out of the way. I write truer when I ignore the negative, invisible editor who perches on my shoulder. My voice, whether singing or writing, is stronger when I forget myself and focus on God.
Bob achieved his dream of singing for the residents of the nursing home last week. My husband and I were there. Bob made no excuses. He didn’t demure or say how scared he was. He simply opened his mouth—and heart–and sang the Lord’s Prayer with such conviction and power, he gave us chills.
Courage takes many different forms. I’m honored to have witnessed this one.