“Do not be afraid.” The scriptures make this announcement over and over again. These are usually the first words out of angel’s mouths. Abraham, Moses, Mary, Joseph, shepherds tending their flocks, Paul sitting in a jail cell, the women looking for Christ’s body at Easter and disciples rowing a boat in the strong wind all hear these words. In all, these words occur almost 100 times in the scriptures. Apparently, humans are very fearful creatures and we are in need of faith to function properly in the world.
A few weeks ago I was walking with a friend on the local golf course at night. It is the perfect place to stargaze since there are no lights. To my disappointment, clouds began to move in and suddenly we noticed lighting getting very close. We somehow took a wrong turn and ended up in a place we didn’t know, just as the lighting began to surge around us. I was disoriented and felt my fear growing, as if the thunder were hammering inside my chest and the lightning was crackling through my head. I had to take a moment to calm myself and think clearly and trace a path through dark and unfamiliar territory. Fortunately, we made it out before the rains fell. But I still remember how the fear came over me and threatened to take control.
This experience reminded me how easy it is for fear to get in my way. It was a big enough fear that I recognized what was happening, but fear passes through me unrecognized several times a day. My inner dialogue is full of fear. As I council my homeless residents at Hillcrest, I fear I will not have good answers for them and I am inadequate to help. As I read the paper in the morning, I fear where the world is going. I fear that my work isn’t making a difference in face of the world’s problems, I fear offending people, I fear people won’t like me if they know who I really am. Most of the time these fears flash through my mind almost unnoticed and influence my decisions great and small throughout the day. They are each like little moments of facing death, the ultimate fear. They are moments when I, like Peter, lose sight of Jesus and begin to sink in the waves and need help. Who am I to think I could walk on water anyway?
Most of the residents at Hillcrest House, where I work, are recovering from drug addictions. When they are fearful about the future, they often do irrational and self-destructive things (like any of the rest of us.) Fear launches a blame game. People start pointing fingers and accusing others and being the source of their predicament. If a resident starts making noise about everyone else is relapsing and using drugs, it is often a sign that they are headed in that direction. We will pull them in, give them a drug test and remind them to keep the focus on what they need to do to live a sober lifestyle. Keep to the 12 steps, get back in touch with your higher power, focus on what you can do to change and let go of what you can’t control. Perhaps we should also say, “Do not be afraid.”
Dealing with fear and anxiety lies at the core of faithful living. Fear is the hidden slave-driver that often controls us and robs us of our God-given freedom. The New York Times recently had an editorial about this glitch in human nature. (See Scarring Us Senseless by Nassim Nicholas Taleb on Sunday, July 24) Taleb says that the great fallacy of Western thought from Aristotle through the Enlightenment is that we are always rational beings. Neurobiologists accurately show that our risk avoidance behavior is governed by our emotional system, not our intellect. Taleb writes, “This emotional system can be an extremely naive statistician, because it was built for a primitive environment with simple dangers. That might work for you the next time you run into a snake or a tiger. But because the emotional system is impressionable and prefers shallow, social and anecdotal information to abstract data, it hinders our ability to cope with the more sophisticated risks that afflict modern life.” This is why we might be more dissuaded from riding a motorcycle by the death of one person we know than by a reasoned article about the dangers of riding a motorcycle. It is also why people will pay more money for “terrorism insurance” before a flight than for regular insurance, which covers the same thing. Fear is a powerful irrational motivator.
This makes a problem like confronting terrorism very difficult for us. I remember getting a phone call from my cousin about a week after the 9/11 attack. Since I live near New York City and he lives in Bedford, Iowa he was concerned about how I was doing and what was happening. Then he told me something quite surprising. He had been to the local Walmart and said that two items were completely sold out, American flags and guns. He said, “I don’t know about you, Todd, but it seems to me that by the time the terrorists make it to Bedford, Iowa the war is pretty much over and we won’t need those guns.”
Our national response to terrorism is like a mass version of this rush to buy guns at Walmart phenomenon. Certainly such evil needed a strong response. But is invading two nations, killing thousands more than were killed in 9/11 and unleashing a terrorist morass in Iraq really a justified and effective response or a fear-based over-reaction? As a New Yorker, I was certainly angry in the aftermath of 9/11. Our mayor’s husband was killed and a dozen members of my congregation worked in Manhattan. I worked nearly a month without a day off in the aftermath trying to help people make sense of their fears and the new realities of the world we live in. I struggled within myself about whether I supported military action in Afghanistan. This was a big step for an ardent believer in non-violence and a card carrying member of the Fellowship of Reconciliation.
I began to feel our collective fear rising and taking on a life of its own. I was at a seminar studying conflict resolution that following summer and a woman from Fiji asked how things might have been different if Gore had been elected. I said that we probably would invaded Afghanistan anyway, because the collective fear and demand for action was so great. The news media had set up war rooms and bombarding us with constant images of destruction before we had a chance to even think things through and get some control of our fears. As Taleb points out in the Times article, we can be moved by powerful events and sensational images and imagine ourselves and heroes leaping into action as calamity unfolds before us. But, “the long, pedestrian slog of prevention (of terrorism, in this case) is thankless. That is because prevention is nameless and abstract, while a hero’s actions are grounded in an easy-to-understand narrative.”
Fear comes in many forms, private and public. It knows no ideological boundaries and none of us are ever completely free of it in making decisions. Letting go of fear and facing ourselves is as frightening as the thought and stepping out of our safe boats and walking across the water as if it were dry land. I’m not sure Jesus really expected Peter to walk on water and I certainly don’t expect to walk on water any time soon. I struggle to have faith and to honestly face my fears. But I’m willing to believe that there is life outside the boat, constantly rowing into the wind. I trust in faith that Jesus point the way to the shore. With Jesus near me, the rising seas of my fears will not have me.