How do we live life to the fullest knowing that the tentacles of fear might reach out and sting us at any time? Here are five ways to do just that.
The premise of my journal entry, The Fear That Divides Us, was that many Americans today seem to be overwhelmed by fear of those who are strangers or in some way not-like-us. Of course, this is nothing unique to our time or generation. Fear of 'the other' has been around as long as there have been human beings. Historically, it seems difficult to love and accept those who we cannot relate to or understand. We are naturally suspicious.
"I think what we're seeing today is just because the spiritual waters have receded and so all the filth that lies at the bottom of human nature, so to speak, is being revealed. Hatred has always been around. Obviously, it's human frailty that causes that, and tribalism, and then fear of the stranger." ~ Rabbi Moshe Scheiner Beyond Fear and Anger
Categorizing, diagnosing, and labeling people allow us to disguise our fears by compartmentalizing them. It allows us the smug comfort of stereotyping groups of individuals so that we are never required to know them on a personal level. Perhaps this is at the root of our crisis of fear in America. We have insulated ourselves so tightly that it is impossible to know one another. Our perception of spiritual, philosophical, physical, emotional, and moral otherness has reached explosive proportions.
The apostle Paul broke down walls of spiritual division and exclusivity by bringing his message to the gentiles more than two thousand years ago. He understood that the gospel of love was meant for everyone and found getting to know people eliminated fear and created bonds of oneness. Paul discovered the face of God in everyone everywhere. We are seeing through the glass darkly because we cannot bear to look at the stranger face to face. (See 1 Corinthians 13:12). Our fears will not be dispelled until we are fully known to one another.
I recently wrote about how love trumps fear. Truly, love is the only game in town as far as trumping goes. We are programmed by our culture to dismiss fear and equate it with cowardice. When I was a boy, the one who showed fear was called 'yellow' and teased about being a baby. An image of General George S. Patton slapping a young WWII soldier who was overcome by fear is an iconic example of our disdain for succumbing to it. Love is not always easy to find when fear shows up.
But love is always present and always ready to be discovered. Overlooking it is the problem. We tend to try finding relief from fear by being brave, and by ascending above the troublesome circumstances we face. Though there might be some validity to rising above fear, the solution is only temporary. By shoving fear aside, planting it deep inside, and never dealing with it, we are setting up lifelong chronic survival responses. We are trying to grab control and hang on for dear life. I'm not saying we shouldn't be brave. I'm saying that there is a time in which we must descend into the fear in order to find our true identity. Love can only be found when our tough exterior is cracked open.
"Up is nowhere special at all, but hidden inside of down. Up is dangerous for the soul, while down is communal and comforting." ~ Richard Rohr
The descent into fear is well chronicled in religion, mythology, and tales handed down to us over the millennia. The Bible story of Jonah being swallowed by a whale, Luke Skywalker and friends caught in the bowels of a garbage compactor, Jesus' forty-day desert experience, and Muhammad's revelation in the cave Hira, all reveal the necessity of facing our greatest fears by entering into the depths of innermost being. The result is a mystic transformation. This is what Joseph Campbell called the Hero's Journey. So, being bold enough to descend into fear leads us to the tunnel of liberation. This is authentic courage. It is not made up of violence and retaliation. It is an embrace of our true selves and hence, a full embrace of infinite love. In what seems to be brokenness we experience wholeness...and we find God.
This is the first of four follow-up articles on the many facets of fear including a four-part Interview/Special Report with Rabbi Moshe Scheiner of Palm Beach Synagogue.
After I wrote about the paralysis of fear, its' numbing effects, and resultant feelings of powerlessness, it was pointed out to me that there was another, more intentional, response to fear beyond freeze, fight, and flight. That response is loving persistence or courageous non-violence. It is evidenced in the Sermon on the Mount, as Jesus called for his followers when confronted by fear and violence to turn the other cheek. This was not an instruction of pacifism. Turning the other cheek was about demanding equality from a person of authority. This is the most measured and effective action that can be taken when fear, anger, and aggression show up.
Courageous non-violent cheek turners were named by Columbia University's School of Journalism as 2019 Pulitzer Prize winners on Monday, April 15th. One award went to the South Florida Sun-Sentinel for exposing failings by officials before and after the deadly shooting rampage at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. Another went to Staff of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette for immersive, compassionate coverage of the massacre at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue that captured the anguish and resilience of a community thrust into grief. These journalists stood strong for their communities and for us all in the face of fear and anger. They exposed the truth and rejected the lure of moving on to other stories. They refused to numb out. The parent of a Parkland victim wrote South Florida Sun-Sentinel after Pulitzers were announced encouraging the paper to continue its' work saying there was still much to be done. He can rest assured that they will carry on.
It takes a lot of guts to persist, to remain steadfast, and to overcome. A courageous cheek turner must have the resolve of Gandhi, who when confronted by his jailers with threats intended to invoke fear replied; "They may torture my body, break my bones, even kill me. Then they will have my dead body, but not my obedience.” But this is exactly the kind of response which will defeat fear in its' tracks. We shall overcome. It is the essence of love. And love refuses to capitulate. It will not retaliate-in-kind. It will not run away. it will not numb out. Love is an action-choice made by the brave soul who finally rejects all notions of self in deference to the greater good.
The universal message of all the major religions and traditions tell us to “Be Not Afraid” as we struggle to overcome and transcend this new reality.
Fight and flight responses are generally recognized and accepted as the norm when it comes to fear. We are all familiar with them. Just like the boys in the 1983 classic movie “A Christmas Story” so comically portrays, a bully pops up and we run as fast as possible to get away. But at some point, perhaps when enough is enough, just like Ralphie, our rage becomes a fight for our lives.
But fight and flight are not the only behaviors that follow fear. A kind of numbing paralysis known as freeze is more common than we recognize. Often mistaken as cowardice, apathy, laziness or even collusion, this third survival response has gripped so many people in our times of increasing fear.
When we cannot seem to defeat or outrun the predator a ‘deer in the headlights’ freeze response can be life-saving. Helpless to do anything about a horribly dangerous situation, we dissociate from what is going on. Over the years in my work as a clinical counselor, kids and adults showed up completely numbed out in my offices. They had been diagnosed with a variety of anxiety disorders when more often than not were actually showing symptoms of the freeze response.
It manifests in those who are sexually abused, those suffering from substance use disorders, PTSD, and in battered spouse syndrome to name a few. Chronic dread, panic, and terror rob them of the ability to stay in the present. Available resources become impossible to access. Being paralyzed allows them to not feel the horror of what is (or seems to be) happening. This can go on for years, long after the menacing situation has disappeared.
“They're used to self-medicating. They're used to escape. They want to find that place where they can't see their pain from.” ~
Fr. Gregory Boyle of Homeboy Industries
In ever more anxious times, the tendency to numb out is also increasing. It seems quite likely that our over-reliance upon screens, drugs, alcohol and other ‘addictions’ are freeze responses to chronic fear exposure. Mass shootings, threats of terrorism and a cacophony of negative talk coming from everywhere including the pulpit have created a sense of helplessness and a need to disconnect.
We must begin to understand this if we are to empower ourselves to change what is happening. Our power has not been taken away even though it may appear to have been. This is a time to encourage action in those who are isolating. Together we can overcome the powerlessness caused by fear and fear mongers. The solution is not complicated. Here is the message; Bring an abundance of love to the table. Fear cannot coexist with love. Do something to help and do it now.
Ask for Help
NOTE: It cannot be emphasized too strongly that those who are suffering from trauma and clinical dissociation caused by fear must seek the assistance of professional helpers to get relief and to return from being missing in action. They cannot pull themselves up by the bootstraps nor can they just get over it. Trauma resolution is possible using such therapies as Trauma Informed Care among others.
The presence of fear is chronicled every time we connect with our various forms of media. As we absorb these many reports it would appear that there is an endless abundance of fear and anger as well as the hateful, immature responses to those emotions. These are not the simple fears we are so attached to which involve our social skills, intimacy, performance or likeableness. Those anxieties seem to come with the human package. The fear that is consuming us is fear of ‘the other’.
When we fear the other our first act is to provide a label to distinguish ‘them’ from ‘us’. No matter how seemingly innocent, when we label someone, there is a degradation which occurs. It can infer superiority or inferiority, but always implies that the one being labeled is different. The 1968 Musical, ‘Hair’, had a song entitled “Colored Spade” which listed twenty-one different labels used in American slang to identify black people.
It was hard to hear despite the ending in which the singer declares that he is now the President of The United State of Love. There is an indictment of labeling which stings the soul in that song.
"We create labels because in defining the world around us, we somehow feel more secure. Yet labels also affect the way we see ourselves and others. Beyond security and certainty, they bring division and divisiveness.” ~ Colleen Gibson
The labels themselves become touchstones of fear used by politicians and others to manipulate us. Even in this time of great prosperity, we are anxious about our security. We start to become more and more watchful of one another. Soon, the watchfulness becomes hyper-vigilance and finally becomes paranoia. The gang member is going to assault me. The immigrant is going to take away my job. The addict may break into my home and take my valuables. The black man walking in my neighborhood may steal my car. That strangely dressed woman with a baby might be a terrorist with a bomb. We settle for fear, act out with angry aggression, or create laws to exclude such people.
We cannot find safety and security in dividing ourselves into categories. We cannot find peace by separating from those who are not like us. We cannot truly love our neighbor if we hate their beliefs or customs. God supplies us with one label and dreams that we will someday apply it to all of his children. God calls us ‘the beloved’ and creates us as brothers and sisters. God puts us on even ground. placing nobody ahead and nobody behind. God loves us all in ways which we will never fully understand. With that truth as a light to follow, we can easily let go of our need to fear, label, and divide. In the final analysis, it is blasphemous. We have an opportunity today to celebrate our rich diversity and our common humanity. We can join together to become one family, under one sky, beloved from all eternity.
Learn More About Fear and Labeling
Fear and anger physiologically are very similar, with virtually the same effects on the autonomic nervous system with respect to cardiovascular and respiratory measures (Kreibig, 2010). Similar physiology that is part of the development of one emotion can lead naturally to the other. Adam Alter of Psychology Today writes a good piece on labeling which I invite you to read and share. It is entitled “Why It’s Dangerous to Label People” and can be found by following this link.
5 Dangers of Labels and Stereotypes:
Dr. Nathaniel Lambert published a book about the five dangers of labels called “Standing up for Standing Out: Making the most of Being Different” which can be found both in Kindle or hard copy. It is well worth the read.
In this final part of our talk with Rabbi Scheiner he explores the image of God in all of us, counting our blessings, insecurity of fear and building bridges.
In this third part of our conversation, Rabbi Scheiner reflects on raising children in a time of fearful expressions of anti-Semitism, armed security at places of worship, joy and the image of God
In 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt offered us his four basic freedoms. The fourth being freedom from fear. It is fear which keeps us from experiencing life to the fullest. We withdraw into the places of safety that shut out the rest of the world.
We retreat from the things that threaten us. The intensity of fear, as it increases, draws us back further and further until we are known only to ourselves. Finally, we are not engaged at all. We are only surviving.
“All hopes for a better world rest in the fearlessness and openhearted vision of people who embrace life." ~ John Lennon
Fear can be overcome in the presence of a passionate mission. With such a mission we reject the notion of survival and thrive despite fear. Passion is fueled by love which is the antithesis of fear. And passion is at the very heart of excitement. We can be so excited about the present moment with all of its possibilities that fear is pushed aside. We move through it and beyond it because our mission is more important than anything else.
Lou Gehrig and Jim Valvano are wonderful models of what it means to face certain death and ruthless pain with fearlessness. One had ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis) and the other had cancer. Both continued to thrive and overcome every day to the very end. Gehrig’s ‘Luckiest Man’ speech at Yankee Stadium, and his baseball clinics for kids being treated at Mayo in Rochester, Minnesota shine for us decades after his death. Jim Valvano’s ESPY speech inspires young and old alike. It serves to fund cancer research efforts through the V Foundation. He simply tells us; “Don’t give up. Don’t ever give up.” These are words to guide us. They are examples of great passion. They direct us to live it well and to live it without succumbing to fear.