Spooked: on being a “weaker vessel”

I gave myself the heebie-jeebies the other night.

My husband and I like to take walks, for exercise and relaxation. We live on a hilly ring road that’s about two miles around, and that’s our (and the rest of the neighbourhood’s) standard route. And since we’re too cheap to spring for a babysitter just to take a two-mile walk together, we tend to go out on alternate nights: one of us will stay in with the sleeping kids, and the other will go out walking. Generally speaking, it works pretty well.

The other night, though, the children just took a little longer than usual to get settled, and coupled with my own distraction, that meant that I left about half an hour later than I usually would. It wasn’t particularly late — just after eight o’clock — but summer is waning and I am still not used to how quickly darkness is starting to fall, even compared to just a few weeks ago. Instead of leaving the apartment during sunset or the very early twilight and getting back at dusk, I left at dusk and wouldn’t get back until it was night.

The other thing about where we live — besides this lovely walkable ring road — is that it’s in the suburbs. It’s quiet. It’s nice. It’s low crime: I joined nextdoor.com to subscribe to neighbourhood crime and safety alerts, and they mostly are things like “don’t forget to lock your car doors at night” and “I think I saw a coyote.” It’s well-manicured. It also, at times, creeps me the heck out, because I am a born-and-raised city girl. And even though I’ve lived in some really not nice parts of various cities, I’ve never felt afraid when out in them by myself. Not even once. The thing about cities is that there are always people around, and there are always shops to pop into, and they actually invest in these newfangled devices called “streetlights.” I love walking out in the city at night.

This, though, was different. It got pretty dark, pretty fast. I had my keys, but not my phone. Because it was nightfall, most of the dog walkers were already in for the night. And because our road is quite hilly, there’s a long stretch where the nearest houses are down a ways into various ravines and valleys, with sidewalk on one side of the road and brush on the other. It can get a little creepy. I was suddenly quite conscious of the fact that I am a small, slight woman. Suppose someone nasty was hiding out here in the dark. What would I do? I can run, of course — but can I run fast enough? Would I have to hurl myself down the ravine to get to the nearest houses? If I yelled, would anyone hear me? Once my thoughts started down this path it was exceedingly hard to wrench them back, and it gave me quite the creepy-crawly feeling.

One of the more notorious phrases of the New Testament comes from 1 Peter, which says this:

Likewise, husbands, live with your wives in an understanding way, showing honor to the woman as the weaker vessel, since they are heirs with you of the grace of life, so that your prayers may not be hindered. (3:7, ESV)

“Woman as the weaker vessel.” That phrase has, I think, been used as justification for much mischief towards women over the years, especially when taken to mean that women are weaker than men in mind or in spirit. And doesn’t it just set your teeth on edge, even though Peter is using it to encourage men to treat their wives with dignity and respect? But what came home to me when I was walking is that, taken as a reference to our physical, embodied reality, it is exactly true. I am shorter and lighter than virtually every man I know. I have a shorter arm-span. Proportionally, I have much less upper-body strength. My body — my vessel — is smaller and weaker. To be honest, coming as it did during a dark and lonely walk, that realisation spooked me.

I did have one encounter that night. I was on that lonesome stretch when I was passed by a man out walking his dog, going in the opposite direction to me. “There’s a deer,” he said, “right there.” Sure enough, ten or fifteen feet later I looked over to my right, and there was a deer not eight feet from the sidewalk, calmly eating leaves off a bush. Now, this was a suburban deer: they’re so used to people that they’re practically domestic animals. But it was still the closest I’ve ever been to one outside of a zoo. It gave me a level look, and then calmly went back to eating, completely unperturbed by my closeness. I briefly wondered, if I climbed over the little divider between the sidewalk and the ravine, how close it would let me come. Five feet? Three? Would it let me touch it?

I didn’t harass the deer. I watched it for a little while, and then walked on. But the image of the deer’s calmness encouraged me. Here was a gentle herbivore who, if attacked, wouldn’t be able to do much besides run — surely deer are one of the weaker vessels of the animal kingdom. But it was not afraid. It’s wise to be cautious and to practice safety; but one can be cautious without being fearful. I got home safely in the dark, thankful for the lesson of the deer.