Joseph Conrad has written: “A man may destroy everything within himself—love, hate, belief, and even doubt. But as long as he clings to life, he cannot destroy fear.”
Using the analogy of human fevers, occasionally we experience “high-grade” fear which can be (or feel) life threatening. Sitting on a vinyl chair in a hospital waiting room, waiting for a doctor’s verdict about a loved one. Walking out of a supervisor’s office after learning you are out of a job. Watching TV during the Cuban missile crisis in the early 60’s and wondering if a nuclear war was imminent. Such fears spike so high we easily become immobilized; they take a heavy toll and we cannot handle them for long before seeking relief.
Far more common is “low-grade” fear—not high enough to keep us from functioning, but leaving us listless and depleted. Repressed low-grade fear often turns into anxiety or anger, which are both certainly on the rise across America. We fear terrorist attack, economic decline, senseless random violence; we fear living in a world that feels far more complex than it used to; we fear that the verities that used to define us are slipping away; we fear change; we fear people different from us.
This presidential primary season has fanned the flames of all these fears, with candidates channeling the attendant anxiety and anger into simplistic solutions: Bomb them all! Keep out all immigrants! Beware of all Muslims! Down with capitalism! Such bombast seems to attract large audiences. Is there a Messiah out there who can swoop in and erase all our fears? Apparently many think so.
But here’s the paradox. Some fear is healthy! Dr. Paul Tournier, an astute Christian author, was once asked how he helped his patients get rid of their fears. “Oh, I don’t,” he replied, “that which does not frighten does not have meaning. All the best things in life have an element of fear in them…No endeavor is fruitful without fear.” Isn’t this also our common experience? All good actors get stage fright; all excellent athletes get butterflies; all lovers fear disappointing those they love. Does not some fear keep us focused and motivated to offer our best?
Might you agree that fear is not as simplistic as many believe? Yes, low-grade fear is debilitating; candidates who manipulate voters through exaggerating such fears do us all an injustice. But Tournier is also right: no endeavor is fruitful without fear.
Here’s a simple example: candidates play on fears by whipping audiences into angry frenzies because someone else is taking their jobs. Fear also motivates a husband to work all day at an unskilled job and then go to community college every evening to gain the skills he needs to better care for his family in the future. It all comes down to asking discerning questions—when is fear healthy and even necessary for success? When does it become harmful to our well being?
The Bible speaks with different voices about fear. Repeatedly we hear Scripture say, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” Repeatedly we hear God himself say, “Fear not for I am with you! Be not afraid!” Perhaps getting to know God better will help us learn how fear can be life-sustaining rather than life destroying.
Question: Have you ever felt this paradoxical nature of fear? How did you seek a balance between “too little” fear and “too much” fear? Please share your thoughts.