With prayers for the victims of the violence in Boston and of the explosion in West, Texas, and their families this past week; may they feel God’s presence and suffering with them in their grief…
This week’s news has brought us face-to-face with the reality of today’s world and the senseless, sometimes accidental, sometimes deliberate, violence that apparently sits just beneath the surface. Generally, the United States is a stable society with little self-generated violence. Exceptions exist, of course, like the shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, this fall. And we are no longer protected from harm as we were for centuries by the two great oceans that constitute our east and west boundaries.
Even so, fear, I think, is our greater enemy. As FDR said in his first inaugural address during the depths of the depression: “all we have to fear is fear itself.” If we give way to fear after events such as these, or in the midst of the deep recession we are now in, or in the violence we see, we lose. We lost some freedoms as we worked hard to prevent such a thing as 9/11 ever happening again, but a worse toll comes when fear and anxiety sit just below the surface of our lives, ready to pop up again at the least threat. Unconsciously, we are on high alert, at a fight or flight level, even as we go about our normal lives. Fear and anxiety drain our energies, rob us of creativity, imprison us in the “new normal.”
After 9/11 I thought that all the new security measures at airports were a kind of window dressing, of locking the barn door after the horse has escaped, but maybe we have stopped similar outbreaks of violence by having them. However, I do notice over the last decade that we’re testier with each other, more likely to hang on to our fixed ideas, easily seen in our national politics; we keep our children a little closer and try to protect them from life’s traumas instead of preparing them for the harder times; we’re less optimistic about the future, unsure of making plans far in advance. We’re less secure in our homes, with how much money we’ll have for retirement. We are less committed to our families, spouses, responsibilities. And we are all so busy we don’t have the time or energy to process what is happening all around and inside us. All these symptoms arise from a vague dis-ease over our own safety: fear and anxiety drive our decisions rather than a hopeful reaching into the future.
Fear is insidious, hardly felt, until it has us in its clutches and we see everything from its vantage-point. Fear becomes the lens we see life through, albeit unconsciously. As a Six on the Enneagram, a personality-typing system, I have lived in the drama of fear and anxiety and their sister, doubt, for most of my life. As I have gained some perspective on my situation of being immersed in fear, I have noticed that fear has a life of its own. It comes and goes at will, with or without a trigger. I have learned to step a couple of steps back from its sickening influence on me and claim that it is a part of me—“there is fear here”–in the whole system that is me, but that the I of my deepest self is not involved in the fear. Fear is something I learned as a child, held onto, adopted as my way of being in the world, but, interestingly, it never touched the deeper reaches of myself. When I step back from it a bit, I can see that, yes, there was a trigger and that, ordinarily, I would have been convinced by fear’s perspective and tensed and clenched within, but, now with even a little bit of distance from its influence, I can remain untouched by it. I can know there is fear, that somewhere within me, there is fear, but it doesn’t touch who I really am. And the more I step back from it, the less I get involved in the emotional responses to seeing life from a vantage-point of fear. I have a good chance then of adopting a much broader perspective and of moving ahead without fear.
In Matthew’s Gospel alone there are eight references when an angel or Jesus tells various people: “Do not be afraid.” As the angel tells Joseph to take Mary as his wife, 10:1; Jesus sends out the disciples, 10:26, 28, 31; Jesus walks on water, 14:27; Jesus reassures Peter, James, and John at the transfiguration, 17:7; an angel tells Mary Magdalene and the other Mary at the tomb, 28:5; and Jesus meets the two Mary’s on their way to tell the disciples that he is risen, 28:10: “Do not be afraid.”
We, too, are reassured, because the texts are directed at us. If we believe the angels and Jesus, we find a different way to live. Fear is the opposite of openness, of love, of creativity. Fear ties us to an old paradigm, awakens our fight or flight response. Fear drains our positive energy, enervating us. Fear consumes us, convinces us that we are in its clutches. Fear keeps us on the surface of our lives, forever buffeted by outer circumstances. Fear won’t let us go, until we take a step or two back from it, declaring: “there is fear here, but I am not afraid.” Freedom from fear is a beautiful thing!