We live in a fearful world. The pandemic rages, civil unrest continues, scientists revise virus theories and possible treatment as more data accumulates when all we want are definite answers now, political leaders base their response on ideology, and don’t even get us started on the problems outside our borders. We hope for some inspiring words, such as those offered by President Franklin Roosevelt in his first inaugural address during the midst of the Great Depression: “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” Soaring rhetoric that encourages and strengthens the spirit, but wasn’t exactly accurate. Our forebears had a whole host of reasons to fear; maybe they could all reside under the umbrella of “fear itself,” but it would have been foolish to ignore the particular causes of the fears of that time. Tellingly, FDR’s New Deal went on to address not “fear itself,” but the actual problems people were experiencing.
Fear can be defined as “a distressing emotion aroused by impending danger, evil, pain, etc., real or imagined.” Still it turns out that distressing emotion has a pretty important survival purpose. People without any fear get hurt a lot. The person who climbs the fence at the edge of the Grand Canyon because he or she “doesn’t know the meaning of the word fear” may have cause to regret their foolhardiness. A little healthy fear would have gone a long way toward preventing any unintended consequences. There are good reasons to be afraid on the edge of a cliff, in 1930s America and in 2020 America.
When one encounters danger, evil or pain, fear triggers several possible reactions. There are the well-known “flight or fight” responses. Either one gets the heck out of the way or turns to meet the threat with the intent of defeating it. Another response is to be caught between the two, becoming paralyzed with fear, unable to wisely run away or bravely combat the danger. Being paralyzed with fear, one is unable to deploy the one thing that has a chance to oppose fear – courage.
My favorite definition of courage comes from my coffee cup. (There is a lot of wisdom printed on coffee cups and t-shirts.) From my cup I learn: “Courage is not the absence of fear, but the presence of faith.” If we are fated to be surrounded by reasons for fear, and if the absence of healthy fear invites foolishness, we can still turn to faith to find hope in the midst of fear. I am encouraged by the words Jesus spoke as he approached the fearful realities of betrayal, denial and death. In order to instill courage in his disciples he said, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.” (John 14:27).
We live in a fearful world. We must not be controlled by our fears nor must we let others manipulate us through our fears. We must consider the causes of our fears as realistically as possible. Perhaps we can withdraw from them for a while, but facing fears with courage is the way of true possibility, the way of hope. We also have another promise from Jesus, “I am with you always, to the end of the age.” We are not alone.