“Security is mostly a superstition. It does not exist in nature, nor do the children of men as a whole experience it. Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. Life is either a daring adventure, or nothing.” ~ Helen Keller
Fear is the ability to recognize danger leading to an urge to confront it or flee from it, but in extreme cases of fear a freeze or paralysis response is possible. Fear should be distinguished from the related emotional state of anxiety, which typically occurs without any certain or immediate external threat. Additionally, fear is frequently related to the specific behaviors of escape and avoidance, whereas anxiety is the result of threats which are perceived to be uncontrollable or unavoidable. Worth noting is that fear almost always relates to future events, such as worsening of a situation, or continuation of a situation that is unacceptable. Fear can also be an instant reaction to something presently happening.
In an innovative test of what people fear the most, Bill Tancer, General Manager of Global Research at Hitwise, analyzed the most frequent online search queries that involved the phrase, “fear of….” He was working off the assumption that people tend to seek information on the issues that concern them the most. His top ten list of fears consisted of flying, heights, clowns, intimacy, death, rejection, people, snakes, success, and driving. In a 2005 Gallup poll, a national sample of adolescents between the ages of 13 and 15 were asked what they feared the most. The question was open-ended and participants were able to say whatever they wanted. The most frequently cited fear, mentioned by 8% of the teens, was terrorism. The top ten fears were, in order: terrorist attacks, spiders, death, being a failure, war, heights, criminal or gang violence, being alone, the future, and nuclear war. Fear is real, it is universal, we all deal with it, and it is often shaped by the times in which we live.
To risk is to fear. To fear is to risk. You take that first step, risking in something that you believe in or want to believe in, only to become fearful when you realize what taking the risk might actually mean. The winds of resistance become strong. You panic. You begin to sink—to sink into anxiety, worry, mistrust. It happens to all of us. But what I realized is that the important thing in our lives is not so much to lack fear, but to have the ability to overcome it so that we may live full and meaningful lives.
Fear, the compulsive kind that causes us to make poor choices out of our anxiety and worry, has controlled the consciousness of our nation for the last ten years. What does such fear do to us? As a nation, it has caused us to isolate, to shrink, to live small, to be suspicious of others, to act out of a place of scarcity rather than abundance, to maintain the status quo rather than risk something new. It has made us a less compassionate people. It has further divided us as a people along old lines of racism and classism. It has made us a less welcoming country where a growing intolerance for the “other” has diminished us all. Sadly, this is the reality of what fear does to us.
I was struck by the Twitter blasts, Facebook posts, news casts, the GOP response, and the like to Obama’s State of The Union (SOTU) address. It is plain to see the divisive nature of our nation during this time in our country when we most need to be unified. There is anger, mistrust, hatred, discrimination, depression – but most of all, there is fear. Fear that our nation is going to crumble before our very eyes into a heap of dusty rubble. There is fear that the mighty dollar will be worth nothing. That the meager amounts we hoard in the bank will become worth less than the dirt under our feet. It’s fear of a country without jobs, without income, without power, with mounting staggering amounts of debt, and more. The politicians attack each other with vitriol diatribe without addressing the needs of this country. Our country. We lay at night, trembling under our covers, dreading the morning and what it may bring. Will I still have a job? Can I pay the bills? Can I feed my family?
On my way to work this morning, I passed a very young German Shepherd running loose along the sidewalks. No tags, no collar, but seemed well cared for. He was scavenging in the morning garbage cans put out for the trash collectors who hadn’t come yet. My heart ached for the poor dog and I curse my selfishness for not stopping to help him. I rationalized that there were always a ton of people that walked that street every day who I’m sure would help him. Then I saw two young girls, no more than six or seven, crossing the street ahead of me. My first thought was fear that the dog would harm them, not knowing if the dog was friendly or not. Yet, I continued on my way to work. Fear of not being on time, getting written up, causing trouble with my boss, kept me from helping a dog in need. How often does this attitude translate to people?
There is fear in starting my cheese shop. Am I doing the right thing? Can I get the financing? Am I going to run into problems? Do I know enough? Ultimately, will it succeed? It’s a huge risk that I’m taking in pursuing my dream.
The good news is that fear does not have to have to last word. There is always the possibility to look fear in the face and take that first step, risking that we might become frightened or fearful, but also trusting that if that happens there is a Presence—something larger than ourselves—that will reach out and catch us.
Yes, it seems to me there are two options for how we can choose to live—as individuals, collectively as a nation, and as people of faith. We can choose to be a people of fear or we can choose to be a people who risk trusting in a Presence that is stronger than our fears.
I am reminded of an old Native American wisdom story. A Native American grandfather was talking to his grandson about how he felt. He said, “I feel as if I have two wolves fighting in my heart. One wolf is the vengeful, jealous, angry, violent one. The other wolf is the loving, compassionate one.” The grandson asked his grandfather, “Which wolf will win the fight in your heart?” The grandfather answered, “The one I feed.”
We, too, have a choice of what we feed. We can feed our fear or we can feed a spirit of trust within our hearts. We can choose to live small, suspicious of others, protecting only our interests, or we can risk taking that first step toward doing what is right, trusting that we will be held by something larger than us when we do become fearful or doubtful. In these times when our culture bombards us with messages that feed those fearful places within us, it is important to reflect on what fear does to us—how it controls us and diminishes us. But maybe, more significantly, it is important to acknowledge that we have a choice; that the important thing in our lives is not so much to lack fear, but to choose to trust anyway; to feed the loving, compassionate one within us; to grow the ability to overcome fear so that we may live a full and meaningful life.
Based in the sermon given by Nancy Petty. 8/7/2011, Pullen Memorial Baptist Church.