Dealing With Fear

Tornados of fear are swirling around the world, many of them invading our psyches.  Wars in Ukraine and Gaza, not to mention Sudan and Myanmar; escalating climate change; unrelenting gun violence; immigration crises.  To my mind, the storms of fear are particularly focused on the November election.  Nearly half the country has a deep fear of what might happen if Donald Trump is returned to the Presidency.  The other half has a deep fear of what might happen if Joe Biden is re-elected for another Presidential term.  I both hear and read of this fear – from colleagues, friends, family members, media mavens – who come from both sides of the political spectrum.

This fear is disabling to everyone involved.  The fear generates mistrust, invites disdain, if not hate of the other side – and in some cases can provoke, or at least justify, violence.  Fear can become a contagious virus.  There are endless stables of fear mongers – many of whom are minions of the Presidential candidates (and in some cases the candidates themselves) who spread the fear virus by shamefully marketing it and selling it at such a discount that people buy fear as if they were at a going-out-of-business sale.

Fear can indeed put us out of business – the business of building community, fostering relationships, and engendering trust.  Fear can render us isolated from one another.  Fear can produce a level of self-righteousness that convinces the fearful that they are always right.

There are two distinct dangers when it comes to fear.  One is to declare, with ego-inflated certainty, that one is not afraid.  That I/we are braver and stronger than fear, and thus not really touched by it.   This is an act of denial that often results in dire consequences, because the fear usually gets acted out in oppressive and exploitative ways.   Bullying then becomes inevitable.

The other danger is to become so overwhelmed with fear that one becomes paralyzed.  Unable to feel beyond fear; unable to imagine that actions have any impact or meaning.

In his first inaugural address in 1933, President Franklin Roosevelt famously said, “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”  His words were drawn from English writer Francis Bacon, who in 1623 wrote, “nothing is terrible except fear” ; and from Henry David Thoreau, who in his1851 journal said, “nothing is so much to be feared as fear.”

What is important, and incredibly hard to do, is to examine the roots of one’s fear.  Where does it come from?  How does it operate?  How do we both avoid it and be consumed by it?  Fear is real and powerful.  But in exploring fear, in all its dimensions – in ourselves and in others, we can go a long way in taming it.

What is also important, and also incredibly hard to do, is to put limits on feeling and/or exploring fear. Create some boundaries.  Give it space, yes, but then agree to harness fear’s constant demand for attention – with the understanding that one can open up the space later on.  One can even create a schedule for dealing with fear.  As a bishop I met weekly with two senior members of my team.  Much of our time was taken up with problems: financial challenges in various congregations, parishes in conflict, how to appropriately respond to inappropriate behavior in various churches.  The problems went on and on.  We found that we could wrestle with them for the whole time we had available, which meant that nothing was left for all of our hopes and dreams of what could be. We also discovered that these conversations were largely about fear being acted out in various ways – and ultimately triggering fears in each of us.  We agreed to limit our talks about these intractable problems, and the fear which accompanied them.  We literally put a lid on the conversation after an agreed upon time.  We also acknowledged to one another that putting a lid on the jar of problems was a proactive way to honor fear but not become victims of its reach.

And it worked.  We were able to move on to other matters which engaged our vision, kindled hope, and enabled us to do our other important work. 

To move on from fear is not to deny it or harbor the illusion that we have conquered it. Rather, what is required is to develop a discipline of moving through fear – which also requires a level of faith.  For my team, our faith was in a God who offers hope.  One does not need to be a religious believer – be it Christian, Jewish, Muslim, or any other religious tradition, to invest in hope; but in my experience it certainly helps.

“Be strong; do not fear”, the prophet Isaiah writes (Isaiah 35:4).  In John’s Gospel, Jesus says, “do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.” (John 14:27)  “Fear not; I am with you both”  (Qu’ran 20:46), referring to Moses and Aaron.

None of these and other scriptural witnesses suggest that we are freed from fear, but they indicate that we need not be held hostage by it. Hope – and faith in hope, is an effective prescription for the tornados of fear.  As more and more people invest in that hope, it will make a difference – for ourselves, and in the various ecosystems in which we live, move and have our being.





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