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Fear not: The death of fear

January 26, 2019

Many people have fears. Some are afraid of heights. Others are afraid of closed-in spaces. Some are afraid of spiders or mice. Many are afraid of the dark. Whatever our fears may be, they have a cause.

I had a friend whose wife kept waking him in the middle of the night, day after day, saying, “My dear, someone is walking on the roof.” “Go back to sleep,” he would say, “No one is walking on the roof.” She was afraid. After so many days of this, she could take no more.

“Honey,” she said one night at 2 a.m., “Get up and see what’s going on.” So he got up, went to the window and lifted the blind. Standing in front of the window was a police officer with a flashlight in hand. The husband raised the window. The police officer said, “Sir, I’m sorry for waking you at this hour in the morning, but we were dispatched because of a call from a neighbor who saw someone walking on the roofs of the condominium. We’re just checking things out.”

We very often minimize others’ fears while justifying our own. We are quick to tell others that they shouldn’t be afraid of certain people, things or situations, while, at the same time, we harbor our own fears. Why do we do this? Mainly because we have no subjective experience of others’ fears but only of our own. While one will fear losing his or her job because of a misunderstanding, another will have no worry at all, realizing that misunderstandings are common in the workplace and easily overcome with dialogue and comprehension. One person may feel intimidated at speaking in front of a group while someone else will rise to the occasion and be able to stand up and ad-lib with comfort and ease.

Fears are subjective reactions of our psyche which produces an aversion in response to the sensation of a perceived danger, threat or the presence of a lurking unknown. We naturally become fearful in the presence of these things. There is always an objective and a subjective element in fear. Fears are never “unfounded.” Fears always result from a reaction to a perception. That could be in response to something external or something internal. Someone may be afraid of their shadow. Another may be afraid of certain distressful emotions.

Independently on whether or not our fears are based on external or internal factors, or they are more objectively or subjectively oriented, they can be either paralyzing or transformative. In fears, we can find either defeat or great opportunities.

Fear could stop us in our tracks. Fear could also put us on a wrong track. Bertrand Russell, an English philosopher, said, “Fear is the main source of superstition, and one of the main sources of cruelty. To conquer fear is the beginning of wisdom.” Rudyard Kipling said that, “Of all the liars in the world, sometimes the worst are our own fears.” If we let our fears get a grip on us, they can lead us down a path that we should not go.

On the other hand, if we conquer our fears and tame them, they can be a source of great energy in our life. James Byrnes once said, “Too many people are thinking of security instead of opportunity. They seem to be more afraid of life than death.” Why fear what lies ahead, what lies beyond?

The ultimate fear that should certainly determine our way of living is our death. The fear of death, which we all experience in some way, will either be a transformative strength that will give us a profound respect for life and open the door to personal and communal growth or a paralyzing force that will lead us to a skepticism of anything beyond the here and now and close the window of opportunity to a better future.

To paraphrase the words of William Allen White, we should not be afraid of tomorrow, for we have seen yesterday and we love today. (“I am not afraid of tomorrow, for I have seen yesterday and I love today.”) On the contrary, we must use or fears as a trampoline to launch ourselves into tomorrow to create a better self, a better community and a better world. “Do the thing you fear and the death of fear is certain,” says Ralph Waldo Emerson.

The Rev. Arthur Mollenhauer is the pastor of St. James Church in Stratford and judicial vicar for the Diocese of Bridgeport.

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