I carried a lot of fear into a recently completed five-day canoe trip in the Florida Everglades. Particularly of alligators and pythons, which reportedly lurked throughout the endless mangrove wilderness. Thankfully, they never showed up.
The anticipatory fear dissipated almost as soon as we hit the water. The reality of the situation, and direct engagement with the environment, dissolved my overblown projections.
Our group of five did see a skittering crocodile, some shark fins, surfacing dolphins, a leaping manta ray, a few sea turtles, and countless birds. What we couldn’t see were the no see-ums, nearly invisible insects which swarmed and feasted over any exposed body part. Their intrusion was mitigated by the mosquito net suits we all wore, and the insect repellent we applied. But their persistence and perniciousness still nearly drove us all to distraction.
There were several moments of concern and caution during the Everglades sojourn, which arose when the combination of wind, waves and tide made paddling nearly impossible. But that which generated fear was right there in front of me. I could see it, and confront it; and its measure was much more manageable than the fear I brought on the trip with me.
I am writing this post three days after the midterm elections. The balance of power between Republican and Democrats in Congress has yet to be officially determined. But the fear that most of us carried into the election has not been borne out in the election results. A Red tsunami did not materialize. The fear that Republicans carried into November 8 was anchored in a worry that Democratic dominance would bring about more government intrusion into privacy, abandon morality, and usher in socialism. Democrats were fearful, should Republicans gain a dominant posture, of an escalation of autocracy, a refutation of truth and the proliferation of lies. Both sides were worried about the future of democracy.
There is indeed a need for concern and caution as we proceed as a Republic. Our democracy still feels fragile. But as I learned on my sojourn in the Everglades, anticipatory fear can generate projections that are out of whack with reality. In our polarized political environment, there are forces and voices that get a lot of air (and stream) time that ramp up anticipatory fear — to the degree that we can easily dismiss one another. Fear does create energy, which is what those forces and voices are eager to generate, but it is ultimately disempowering.
The winds and waves of distrust are real. We can see that. Most of us can feel that. Keeping our distance from one another just makes it worse.
“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself”, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt spoke to the country in his 1933 Inaugural Address, at the peak of the Great Depression. His was not just a sound byte. Fear is stronger when it is anticipatory and undifferentiated. Fear eases when we confront that which we fear. When we face it straight on. “Fear not”, Jesus is recorded to have said — more than once.
Our postelection journey gives us the opportunity to move beyond our anticipatory fear — and build some relationships across difference; to listen with a more open mind — and to engage the heart in new ways.
The prevailing political culture says this is all a fool’s errand and a profound waste of time. In my experience, such an attitude is a very short step toward demonization.
Yes, it is important to be cautious. Yes, we need to be concerned. And most importantly, we need to dissect our webs of fear. The alligators that we are afraid might swallow us, and the pythons that we are afraid might squeeze life out of us, may not be lurking out there after all.