Every episode of AIO has an Official Moral. It is stated by Chris, a narrator who opens and closes every episode. Think of Rod Serling’s role in The Twilight Zone, if Rod Serling had no artistic flare and all the subtlety of a sledgehammer. This isn’t just ex-Christian me talking; nobody liked Chris. Her parts are just badly, badly written.
In most episodes, the Official Moral is not the problem. Contrary to what your English class might have left you thinking, stories don’t typically have single themes any more than they have a single character, or a single setting, or a single plot. A few ideas interweave and interact. It’s the ones AIO leave under the surface are most often the ones that create problems. But every now and then, we start off with a serious problem right off the bat.
In this episode, Chris opens by stating we, the young children listening, will learn a secret that will make our fears go away and never come back. So, yeah, definitely off to a bad start here, because that’s not how feelings work.
The protagonist, Shirley, opens our story with a nice scream, because her friend Jake is showing off his pet mouse, Luther. And by showing I mean, “dangling a known phobia of hers right in front of her face.” And by friend I mean “asshole who occasionally associates with her.” While Jake laughs at her distress, 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.”
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 the following signs of a legitimate anxiety disorder.
- 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 more serious could be going on.
- 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.
- 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 is in pain and she needs help.
This is something that happens a lot with mental health in Evangelical circles, it’s considered better to have a character flaw or sin than a disorder. You don’t have ADHD, you’re lazy and stubborn. You don’t have depression, you lack the joy that should spring from proper appreciation of the world God has given to you. You don’t have anxiety, you’re a coward.
Now, some of Shirley’s characterization might be intended as exaggeration for the sake of humor, but that brings up it’s own problem. AIO has some episodes that are light and silly, and others that are downright dark. There’s nothing wrong with that. Brilliant shows from Bonanza to Community have done the same. But it does create problems when exaggeration-for-comedy ends up looking more like a real world Serious Issue.
For example, when I was a kid, struggling with an undiagnosed anxiety disorder, stuff like this made me reluctant to come out and admit, even to myself, that I had a real problem. I’m not going to put sole responsibility on this one AIO episode, but portrayals like this did not help. They confused the issue and made me worry that I was “just attention seeking” when I considered telling people just how bad it was.
Back to the episode. Whit gets Shirley to gently hold Luther, which isn’t a bad idea. Gradual, supportive exposure to triggering stimuli is a good way to deal with fears. However, you have to be careful that you truly have control over the situation. Whit doesn’t know Luther that well, and Luther ends up biting Shirley. She drops the mouse, the mouse runs away, and Jake is furious with her.
Then Whit gets to the really toxic bullshit. He opens with this: “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.”
Again, emotions don’t work that way, whether you’re talking about typical emotions or ones that are a result of a mental health problem. You can’t just will them away. You can choose not to act on them; do things that frighten you because you understand that the fear is irrational. I’d argue that’s a more powerful act of faith than simply acting without fear.
It gets worse. First he says, “The Bible says that perfect love casts out all fear.” In other words, if you experience fear, your love is imperfect. He makes this implicit meaning explicit by comparing 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.
Unlike the VeggieTales episode that talks about God’s love while also affirming that childhood fears are normal and okay, Whit makes fear and God’s love mutually incompatible. I don’t care what the Bible says; feelings don’t come with light switches. They ebb and flow and ignore rationality. It’s one thing to use faith to comfort yourself. It’s another to blame lack of perfect control on a weakness 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.
… again, this isn’t Jr. Asparagus having a normal post-scary-movie nightmare. This is a kid with the actual symptoms of an anxiety disorder.
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 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, just to startle her. 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 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.
Bad feelings happen. Sometimes this is because a genuinely bad thing happens, and our emotions evolved to alert us and help us process those situations. Other times, they are irrational. It’s a buggy system, and our rational selves can help us filter out those bugs. But sometimes our feelings need time to catch up to our logical thoughts. Longer if you have a mental health disorder, but the principle is true for everyone. That’s not sin or a lack of faith or a failing of love. It’s just how humans work. If Whit’s “God” can’t accept that, then that’s what I call imperfect love.