Revisiting these episodes is reminding me of what a pedestal they were on. In my family, Adventures in Odyssey episodes were imbued with a kind of mystical reverence. I believed they held keys to existence and that taking their advice seriously was the secret to good Christian living. Not as much as the Bible, of course, but they were awfully Biblical and, frankly, easier to understand.
I’ve briefly worried that this is biasing my reviews. Am I blaming them too much for screwing with people’s heads, just because the status they held in my family helped them screw with mine? Then I realized that no, it can’t just be me, because they weren’t passively placed up on that pedestal. They actively campaign for the position. I mentioned in my first review that an annoying lady named Chris gives us a preview of the moral, and a summary of it, just in case we haven’t had the point thoroughly hammered into our head yet. She also makes promises that the upcoming episode will answer our questions, interpret the Bible and make our lives generally perfect.
For example, in this episode she says we will learn a way to make our fears go away, and never come back. Those are her exact words, “go away and never come back.”
The protagonist, Shirley , opens our story with a nice scream, because her friend Jake is showing off his pet mouse, Luther. And by friend I mean “asshole who occasionally associates with her.” After deliberately shoving a phobia of hers in her face, he laughs, and Whit comes over to see what the trouble is. He learns that Shirley is scared of mice, as well as heights, fire, crowds, being alone, turtles, the merry-go-round, toy guns, stuffed animals, the street, the woods, bikes, the dark, loud noises… he actually fails to find something she’s unafraid of. He even asks if she’s afraid of him, and she says, “no, except when you wear your big jacket. It’s kind of creepy.”
Whit gets her to gently hold Luther, which seems to be helping her realize there’s no danger, until it bites her. She drops it and the mouse runs off. This isn’t the part I have a problem with. Gradual, controlled exposure to sources of anxiety can help people overcome fears, both ordinarily and ones that are parts of mental illness. I’ve sometimes used a kind of self-guided immersion therapy to deal with my anxiety disorder. It’s just bad luck that Luther the mouse doesn’t cooperate.
Unfortunately, supportive, gradual exposure to triggering stimuli is not the actual theme of this episode. The actual theme is what Whit tells her.
“There are fears we need to overcome, not just because they are harmful to us, but because they show a lack of faith in God. The Bible says that perfect love casts out all fear.”
To make his point extra clear, he compares God’s love to a light switch in a dark room. You don’t have to move the darkness out to make room for the light. One is there, or the other is. The light casts out the darkness instantaneously.
This is incredibly harmful, because it won’t always work, and when it doesn’t, it creates feelings of shame and inadequacy on top of the existing fear. To be clear, I’m not just saying it won’t work because I don’t believe in God. Many people of different and mutually contradictory beliefs find comfort in their beliefs. A religion doesn’t have to be true to be consoling. I even rather liked the Veggie Tales episode on being scared. But Veggie Tales also affirms that fear is normal and okay. Whit makes any lingering nervousness a direct measurement of your lack of faith.
Shirley goes home to get the bite looked at, and has an intense nightmare about a giant mouse eating her alive. She wakes up to her Mom using the vacuum cleaner, which is also a source of anxiety for her. As she sobs in her mother’s arms, she asks why she has to be afraid all the time, and her Mom is unable to calm her down.
So, for the record, the official stance of this episode is that Shirley is a “scaredy-cat.” Chris actually uses the dictionary definition of scaredy-cat to introduce her. Shirley’s also called a coward by Jake. Whit protests that but seems to object more to the name-calling than the accuracy of the statement. The one label he doesn’t want to put on her is “crazy,” which disturbs me. I wouldn’t call Shirley crazy either, but I would say she shows every symptom of having an anxiety disorder like me.
- Time. Shirley talks like a seven-to-ten year old, in terms of both voice and vocabulary. Everyone acts as if she’s been this fearful all her life. It’s normal for children to go through phases where they are a bit shy or anxious, but typically they get over them. Longstanding anxiety like this is a sign that something’s chemically imbalanced.
- Intensity. Look at that list. Look at the severity of her reaction. Look at how pants-wetting panic is her default mode. That’s not normal.
- Lack of a cause. A child who is experiencing stress at home or has been through a traumatic event will probably have some heightened anxiety for a while. Shirley’s home life seems to be happy and stable.
- Irrational fears. A few of the things that scare Shirley are rational, like fire, but most are completely harmless. She can intellectually acknowledge that she’s not in danger, but is still afraid.
- Quality of life. This is the most important one. It’s the ultimate divider between mentally healthy and in need of help. Do the symptoms interfere with your ability to go about your everyday life? Do they take something away from you? Shirley is miserable. She is driven away from places that are supposed to be happy and safe, because she can’t control her fear. She cries over her inability to stop being afraid. She has an anxiety disorder, and she should see a doctor.
For the record, I’m not saying she needs meds. Maybe she does and maybe she doesn’t. I’ve known people who rushed to medicate themselves or their children when some patience and therapy would have done the trick. I’ve known people who put off much-needed medication because of nebulous stigmas, and I include myself in that category. What Shirley needs is between her and her hypothetical doctor, but what she doesn’t need is to be taught that if she can’t control her fear it’s because she’s a bad Christian.
Meanwhile, Jake decides to punish her for losing Luther by luring her into the basement of Whit’s End and exposing her to darkness and generally scary noises. He even rigs boxes to fall over and such, just to maximize the creepiness. Did I mention he’s an asshole? His plan backfires and he falls into his own booby trap. His ankle is twisted and he can’t go get help, so Shirley has to make her way through the dark to find someone. She does this, because
people with anxiety disorders are often quite brave in a crisis, because they’re used to being scared so suddenly being in a scary situation doesn’t faze them she sings Bible songs and is filled with the love of Jesus and is magically fearless.
Afterward, she gets some ice cream at Whit’s End and talks to Whit about how Jake will be okay, although he’s grounded for pretty much eternity. Shirley explains, for the benefit of the audience members who haven’t gotten the point yet, that loving Jesus is magical fear-repellent. She declares that she might never be afraid again. Connie then comes in with a cool bug she found, which causes Shirley to shriek in terror.
Whit and Connie laugh. Because it’s funny that her lifelong battle with irrational terror isn’t over yet. Because it’s funny that either she doesn’t love Jesus enough or vice versa. Because somewhere in the development, they decided to end every goddamn episode with Whit laughing, and who gives a shit whether this undermines the whole point of the story.
I have emphasized the medical because, the way Shirley is written, it’s easy for a person with actual mental health issues to identify with her. I remember I did. And the sad truth is that this kind of message isn’t even uncommon in religious circles. I’ve known many Christians who are supportive and knowledgeable about mental health, but I’ve also known Christian communities that stigmatize it and treat it as pure lack of faith. Because of this, I’ve known people who have suffered silently and attempted suicide, rather than seek treatment. When you heap guilt and threats of divine condemnation on top of a chemically fragile mind, the cost can include a human life.
And what really bothers me is that, with that final scene, there seems to be some inadvertent admission that this magic bullet isn’t quite so flawless as they make it out to be. There’s no other indication that this whole “love Jesus and stop being afraid” thing might not be that simple. Remember how Chris opened the episode? Yet, it makes sense that on some level they know it’s an exaggeration. I mean, they must have felt how their own worship never makes the fear go away completely and permanently. Brains just don’t work like light switches. Despite this, they are comfortable telling impressionable, inexperienced children that if they experience fear, it’s because they lack adequate faith and love in Jesus.
Thankfully, I didn’t actually listen to this episode that often. It scared the crap out of me.