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Tilting At Windmills

I’ve spent my life guarding against imaginary dangers.

WHEN I FIRST visited my wife’s family 40 years ago, a nearby road sign warned drivers to proceed carefully because a deaf child lived in the area. About two years later, the child and his parents moved to California. But the sign alerting motorists of his presence remained, and has since been replaced two times, cautioning drivers of a nonexistent peril. It reminds me of a certain political party restricting voting access under the guise of preventing voter fraud, yet another danger that doesn’t exist, at least to the degree they imagine.

I would be more upset with these politicians if I hadn’t spent half my life tilting at imaginary windmills of my own. When I was an evangelical Christian in my early 20s, I frequently warned people about the perils of hell. In fact, I was so determined to vanquish this threat that I went to college and graduate school to become a pastor and devote my life to saving others from damnation. Except in the second year of college, I stopped believing in hell, a development I hadn’t anticipated. By then, I had already quit my day job and told everyone I was going to be a pastor, so I had to come up with another reason to be one, the new reason being that I’d rather deliver a boring sermon than listen to one. Problem solved.

I’ve battled other menaces that never were. Having spent most of my life worrying I would run out of money before I ran out of life, I have seldom gone anywhere. On the few occasions I have traveled, I have stayed in the cheapest hotels I could find, proud of myself for being a simple Quaker with modest needs. Except now two-thirds of my life is over and I’ve never been to New Zealand or seen the redwoods or watched the sun rise on the eastern shores of Maine. What I have done is saved enough money to retire, and could right now, but I still can’t bring myself to relax and enjoy life for fear of getting cancer and needing my money for chemotherapy. Yes, you read that right: I’ve been saving for an illness I’ll probably never have, since no one in my family has ever died of cancer. We die suddenly, from big, fat heart attacks in our mid-80s, with money in the bank and unused passports. How crazy is that?

Don’t get me started on house fires. I have smoke alarms in every room of our house, hard-wired and battery-powered in the event of a power outage. Our house also has folding ladders under every bed that we can hook on a windowsill and scamper down at the slightest whiff of smoke. Speaking of smoke, my fear of fire is so great, my paranoia so heightened, I can sense immediately when my neighbor has lit a candle. Whenever that happens, I stand outside my home, garden hose in hand, to beat back the inferno destined to envelop us. I feel the same way about tornadoes, and I hustle my family to the basement every time the leaves stir. When a tornado actually struck our town, I slept right through it and was unable to save my family. As it turns out, they didn’t need saving anyway, which was rather inconsiderate of them, given how hard I’d worked to keep them safe.

Several years ago, I was diagnosed with diabetes and have worried ever since that I’ll have a leg amputated someday. I regulate my diet, take my medicine every morning, and end each day with vigorous exercise. Both my legs are strong and healthy, but I still can’t bring myself to buy a new pair of shoes for fear one of my legs will be lopped off and a perfectly good shoe will go to waste. So now I’ve been looking for a one-legged man with whom I could share shoes in the event I lose a lower limb, but that isn’t as easy as it sounds. Amputees with a fondness for expensive shoes are nearly as rare as examples of voter fraud.

Speaking of election malfeasance, I can’t help but admire those folks so fiercely protective of our ballot boxes that they’re weeding out every possibility of chicanery and fraud. If they keep at it, eventually none of us will be able to vote, and we can go to bed each night confident our democracy is once again safe and sound. 

Philip Gulley is a Quaker pastor, author, and humorist. "Back Home Again" chronicles his views on life in Indiana.
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