by Dale Ryan
We seem to always have something to be afraid of. Remember Y2K? It was going to be the end of the world as we knew it. Massive disasters of all kinds were predicted. Today it may be SARS. Or al Qaeda. Or . . . take your pick.
Your local newspaper or TV news broadcast is almost always a handy source for a long list of potentially fear-inducing realities. The media understands that fear sells. The same fear that can be an immobilizing and demoralizing factor in our lives can also be a form of entertainment. The adrenaline-rush kind of fear associated with roller coasters, bungee jumping or extreme adventure sports can in fact be addictive. Television shows like “Fear Factor” suggest that we have a bizarre fascination with the experience of fear; they provide an emotional experience similar to that found in horror movies, but in a package that is more acceptable to the social mainstream. There is clearly a market for fear, and we are the consumers.
Fear is a powerful experience for a good reason: We need it. Fear is designed to be part of our defensive response against real danger. It helps us acquire the adrenaline and attentiveness we need for responding to dangerous things. For that kind of fear—the fear that helps us respond in appropriate ways to real danger—we can be grateful.
Most of us know all too well, however, that our fears are not always connected to real danger. Nor do our fears tend to be well contained and proportionate to the dangers we actually face. Our experiences of fear often connect us to a part of our lives that is full of the irrational. Our fear of crime can increase at the same time that the actual incidence of crime is decreasing. Our fear of very rare and low-risk dangers can overshadow fears of common and relatively high-risk dangers. Sometimes things that really are dangerous don’t make us afraid at all. And sometimes we experience fear about things that would really be good for us. We are just not very good at being reasonable and proportionate when our fears take charge.
This problem has many causes. All of us have experienced the accumulation of fears within us. Fearful experiences are difficult to process in real time and, left unprocessed, they can store up within us a reservoir of fear ready to be released in response to a different, unrelated threat. A further complication is that some of us were taught early in life that being afraid is a good thing. Most parents don’t intentionally set out to grow fear-based children. They may think they are teaching important beliefs or helping their children learn good values. But fear of punishment is still probably the most common strategy used by parents to get their children to behave. It is a small step from that parenting strategy to the use of threats. And another small step to a life with roots so deeply set in the soil of fear that we can’t seem to experience the joys and freedom that God intended to be part of our lives.
The toll that fear can take in our lives increases dramatically if we have been taught not just that fear is a good thing but that fear is a Godly thing. If you tell a child, “You’d better clean up your room or you’ll be punished,” then you may get a compliant child who does what you want, to avoid punishment. But what happens if you tell the child, “You’d better clean up your room or God will not be happy and will punish you”? What if God is the one to be afraid of? Well, then you may get a child who is afraid of God. Or you may get a child who expects God to spend all day, every day, watching his or her every thought and behavior and writing down every punishable offense. What a tragedy that early in life so many of us learned such horrible things about the God who is Love and who “keeps no record of wrongs.”
Thankfully, there are many practical things we can do to minimize or manage our fears. Anything that increases our serenity helps to decrease our fears. So, for example, we can inventory our fears. This is a common element of Step 4 work in Twelve Step programs. It can be enormously helpful to take an honest look at exactly what makes us afraid. This inventory process helps us distinguish between fear about things we can control and fear about things we cannot control.
There are other practical steps we can take. We can limit our exposure to fear-inducing material. We do not need to watch any more horror movies. We do not need to read any more Left Behind books. We can limit the number and kinds of new fear-producing experiences to which we expose ourselves. We can also process old fears with the help of friends, a sponsor or a therapist. We can grow in our conscious contact with God. We can “practice the presence” of God in various ways so we are not so alone in our fears. Fears are not immovable objects, even though they may feel that way. Changing our immobilizing fears into mere challenges is not easy work. But in many cases it can be done—and it is well worth the effort.
My own experience has been that after we have done everything in our power to process our fears, manage our fears, surrender our fears, and cope with our fears, sometimes those fears remain. Some fears don’t go away even after we’ve done all we know how to do. When that happens we may feel like spiritual failures; we tell ourselves that if only we had more faith we wouldn’t be so afraid. But it is in exactly such circumstances, and only in such circumstances, that we can have any hope of becoming courageous people.
Courage is not, of course, the absence of fear. It is not about being fearless. Courage is possible only when fear is still present. While we almost always prefer to respond to our fear by growing in our capacity for serenity, sometimes the only possible way to respond to our fear is by growing in our capacity for courage. And there is no faithlessness in being a person of courage.
May God grant you the serenity—and the courage—you need this day.