Fear: Duane W.H. Arnold, PhD
Have you ever been afraid to talk? I don’t mean afraid of what you’re going to say, but afraid to form the words in your mouth and say them. I once knew of a little boy who at the age of five suddenly became afraid to speak. He had no problem at home with his parents and brothers, but when he started school he learned that he didn’t sound like everyone else. He stuttered terribly and could not form his words. The shame of being inarticulate and misunderstood forced the little boy to withdraw into his own inner sanctum and to say very little, for he did not want to hear the laughter of others. Teachers, parents and friends badgered him and tried everything they could to get him to speak, but the overwhelming power of fear kept him from saying the things that were welling up inside him. Finally, one teacher took special notice. She saw the fear that kept the boy within himself. She arranged for tests and speech therapy. Yes, the boy had to endure the taunts of other children, as he left the class for “special education”. He heard the name calling and the whispers of “retard” as he made his way to the classroom door, time after time, over the course of seven years. Midway through the therapy, surgery was required to repair a portion of his mouth and tongue, but the teacher that had taken interest in him was always there… in the speech therapy room, seated next to the hospital bed… always telling the boy not to be afraid. Eventually, he was able to form words and, in time, to control his stutter. The point of the story is that fear can seldom motivate us to do the things that we ought to do or even that which we want to do. It takes another kind of empowerment.
As I look around today, however, it seems to me that fear has increasingly become the currency of the time. We fear the politics of the other side. We fear socialism or fascism. We fear the Proud Boys or Antifa. We fear the vaccine for Covid-19 or we fear the lack of a vaccine. We fear Trump or we fear Biden. Now, we may consider some of these fears to be justified, but I am concerned as to what is happening to us as individuals when our lives are governed and/or motivated by fear. We may believe that painting apocalyptic scenarios somehow advances our point of view, but it also robs us of the grace and love that we owe to one another, especially as believers.
Increasingly I have come to believe that fear has very little power to motivate, especially in the long term. Like those providing prophecy updates over the last 50 years, we have to keep coming up with the new thing to be afraid of this year, whether it’s caravans of migrants or the politics of The Squad. Moreover the effect of fear is largely negative. Fear cannot cause us to love more deeply or to dare more courageously. It may allow us to be self-satisfied in our certain opinions, but at best it produces a kind of sterile contentment that produces little real benefit to the world. It also allows us the self-congratulatory sense that we alone know what should really be feared as we evolve ever yet more convoluted conspiracy theories.
I guess what I really want to ask is, where do love and grace fit into lives that are dominated by fear?
Reading Paul Tillich, I came across this:
“Grace strikes us when we are in great pain and restlessness, it strikes us when we walk through the deep valley of a meaningless and empty life, it strikes us when we feel that our separation is deeper than usual because we have violated another life, a life which we love or from which we were estranged. It strikes us when our disgust for our whole being , our indifference, our weakness, our hostility and our lack of direction and composure have become intolerable to us. It strikes us when, year after year, the longed for perfection of life is not there, when the old compulsions reign within us as they have for decades, when despair destroys all joy and courage. Sometimes at that moment a wave of light breaks into our darkness and it is as though a voice was saying, ‘You are accepted, accepted; accepted by that which is greater than you’.”
Or, perhaps more simply, “Eye has not seen nor ear heard, neither has entered into the heart and mind the things which God is preparing for those that love him”.
This is not an apocalyptic vision based upon fear in which we build higher the walls that separate us from others. This is an all encompassing view of grace and love that motivates, empowers and shapes our lives. It is that perfect love which casts out all fears – those of the moment, those of the future and those which we harbor hidden in our hearts. Fear will cause us to remain as silent to the world at large and as wrapped up within ourselves at that little boy who struggled to get the words out that all the others mocked. Grace and love will cause us to be like that teacher who looked beyond my inability to speak and through the course of years transformed my life.
As a friend of mine likes to say, make your own application…