by Dale Wolery
After more than half a century of life, most of it lived as a Christian minister, I recently found myself on the end of our couch sobbing like a child. I was afraid. I was certain I was facing a diagnosis of multiple sclerosis from my neurologist the next morning. Rapidly advancing pain, numbness and paralysis in my extremities were pushing me through the typical medical maze toward diagnosis. The fear of disablement, loss of mobility, increased pain and paralysis and deepening dependency had completely drained my inner resources.
As I cried, only two things finally assuaged my fear about facing the next morning. One was my wife Sara’s arm around my shaking shoulders, and the other was the faint hope that I ultimately would be resurrected with a new and better body.
I am aware that men are not supposed to cry, especially just because they are afraid. I am aware that ministers of the Gospel are supposed to have a powerful kind of faith that conquers fear no matter what they confront. And I am also aware that I probably shouldn’t admit, especially in writing, to succumbing so completely to fear. But I did. Fear’s gnarly fingers choked the breath from my soul.
You probably understand such fear. Maybe you feel keen empathy for someone who is frightened about confronting a life-altering illness. When life’s grizzly bears step onto our paths, we understand even Christian ministers wanting to run. We comprehend such fear. We get it. We extend ourselves to help people through these fearful, threatening times.
What I have too often failed to recognize, however, is the life-consuming tyranny of everyday fears. These garden-variety fears hurt us, our relationships and our recovery more than the grizzlies. These fears seem to inject themselves into every crevice of our daily lives. They damage us the most because we address them the least.
My daily fear of failure, mostly unknown and unacknowledged for years, drove me like a merciless Pharaoh to do more and more with less and less. The fear of failing in my ministries pushed me to run hard at work and left me drained at home. The punishing pace that fear created on the job stripped me of the emotional reserve to participate appropriately in creating intimacy at home. This ordinary fear impacted my life in a disturbingly extraordinary way.
Many other common fears shape our lives, our souls and our relationships—for example, the fear of rejection; the fear of being hurt again by the same person in the same way; the fear of not ever really mattering to a special person in our lives, the fear of being seen as different, the fear of getting “too” close, the fear of abandonment, the fear of waning health, the fear of being ignored, the fear of disappointing the important people in our lives, the fear of our imperfections becoming visible, the fear of secrets being exposed, the fear of always being on the outside, the fear of never “getting it right,” the fear of never feeling safe again, the fear of losing what matters most, and the fear of not getting what one needs. Although these relentless, life-twisting fears can be addressed in helpful ways, we seldom even acknowledge them. Instead we absorb them into our lives and see them as normal.
How can we address these ordinary fears? For me it required lots of help. It took long-term counseling for me to even acknowledge that I was afraid of failing, and more time and therapy were required before I discovered my fear of intimacy. Acknowledging the fears we unknowingly hide is not easy. It requires the work of our Higher Power and often the skills of knowledgeable confidants. We must also examine ourselves tenaciously. All this work is to just name and acknowledge what we fear. It takes a lifetime of practice to address these fears effectively. The tentacles of life’s common fears reach deeply.
If we are to overcome our fears, we must drag them into the light of conscious reality. We must disclose them. Even if we are men or ministers or both, we must acknowledge each fear, feel it deeply it as we experience it, and face it squarely, with the help of God and others. We do this instead of unintentionally creating addictions or escapes (like working harder) to mask our fears. As we confront each fear in this way we gradually recover from it.
Unfortunately, fear is not a debt that can be paid, never to be faced again. Common as well as uncommon fears find their way back to our paths. However, they don’t have to distort and destroy our lives as they have before, and if we’re wise, we learn to recognize the subtle forms they take.
When I got off the couch I was still afraid. Afraid but moving ever so slightly toward reality and growth. Sara’s arms around me supported me powerfully. Easter’s message whispered the Father’s ultimate resurrection hope, though faintly. And I wanted my favorite cowboy cousin, Sterling, to stand with me against the grizzly. He and his wife Betty drove Sara and me to the neurologist’s office the next morning.
The diagnosis? I still don’t know. So the grizzly isn’t gone, and the medical uncertainty and the mounting symptoms continue. Am I afraid? Yes. But a God who loves us, who places helpful people in our lives and who knows the future, holds me, as frightened as I am, in his hands.
While I face a grizzly, all the ordinary fears that continue to challenge me, my faith and my relationships remain too. I need to trust God to help me with these fears just as much as I need to trust him to help me with the grizzly in my life. May God grant each of us the wisdom to openly and effectively respond to our everyday fears. Even if we are men. Even if we are ministers.
Dale Wolery is the executive director of the Clergy Recovery Network (www.clergyrecovery.com).