How-to: Thinking About and Acting on Fear
The only thing to fear really is fear itself.
How we think about the things that fear us determines how we deal with it in action.
It’s 17 July, 2016. I dragged the misses to mass, this time in a 19th-century parish situated beside a coastal wharf in the north of the Netherlands. I didn’t just bring her, I brought the trauma of seminary to that mass. I brought what I thought was a peculiar fear: fear of being preached to, of being hypocritized, of being manipulated by spiritual leaders. I dreaded hearing the homilies most, where the priest gives an excursus on the Bible readings of the day.
That trauma was coupled by another: shock at yet another terrorist attack in Europe that occurred in Nice just a few days before. It brought up memories of living near Brussels when the metro and airport were bombed.
The deacon — not priest, I discover — takes his stand with the incipit,
When we make our world while we’re scared, we make the world we’re scared of.
His cautionary message went on to criticize the urge to retaliate harshly, to protect oneself from further harm.
But the message lingered beyond my views on foreign defense. It seemed to continue to apply to more personal traumas as time went on, even as I listened to the fears and worries of those dear to me.
He was right.
It is not so much that what is scary ought not to be seen as scary. That would be careless toward the victims of reasonably-atrocious events. Rather, the message is essentially that present fears, defined by avoidance of repetition of the past, will cripple our futures. The future made in a state of fear or self-preservation will, in effect, turn out to be exactly what we tried to avoid.
More often than not, it is not necessarily that the object of fear, like manipulators or terrorists, will surely be reborn. Rather, we become bitter, and we make monsters of the innocent.
The underlying premise is a contentious one, especially to those who have been hurt without consent, which is: we have (some) control over future outcomes. After all, what control did anyone on the Brussels metro, or on the streets of Nice, or in a New York tower, (and so on) actually have?
Our impulse to explain the unexpected events is rooted in a desire to tweak our expectations and future action so as to avoid it. What this deacon realized was that more often than not, our explaining minds make us habitual avoiders.
That should horrify you. Avoiding vulnerable situations means avoiding love, avoiding intimacy, avoiding generosity, avoiding care, avoiding tenderness, avoiding mercy — all things we precisely want when we are vulnerable, things that give a fundamental need for connection and care.
For me, it was just what I needed. I’m still not really a practicing Catholic, but I have removed myself from the situation of manipulating others. Where I used to act like a homophobic clergyman-in-training, I have come out myself and helped others. I hosted a trans man at my house some months ago, and I had a lovely evening. While I used to be constantly on guard for the nastiness and backstabbing of others, I simply gave that impulse a dishonorable discharge. In short:
I became more caring and felt the love of others when I stopped trying to avoid being hurt.
And that is a paradox that most religions and a great deal of atheist thinkers come to see. At the end of the day, living in fear ensures that we become fearful people, and fearful people see the whispers of dangers everywhere. Seeing this fear as neither reasonable nor unreasonable but counterproductive helped me find the exit door from the hellish, no-exit torture chamber I was trapped in.
Let me know what you think. Reach out to those you love.
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