EDITOR’S NOTE: Stephen Lynch looks at the many types of fear – of survival, of power of control, and self-fears – that cause us to lose sight of what God wants us to do – to live in love and trust him. He submitted this as an Easter season reflection.
Franklin D. Roosevelt, in his first inaugural address in 1933 at the height of the Depression, reminded the nation, “The only thing we have to fear Is fear itself.” Fear is nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror that paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.
Fear is a reality that takes basically two forms: healthy fear and unhealthy fear. The fear that causes you to recognize danger and take action is healthy and good fear. Unhealthy fear paralyzes a person into inaction. This negative fear is bad because it stands as an extension of the presence of evil in the world.
The addictive force of sheer negative fear gradually takes the place of feelings of empathy, unity, and compassion. Fear can fuel desperate actions and depression. It plays upon natural feelings of vulnerability. Children dominated by fear can become reclusive and anti-social.Violence and terrorism have aroused feelings of fear and anxiety all over the world. Day by day, the media’s seeming obsession with terrorism feeds the seeds of worry, anxiety, and dread inside us. News stories about real and rumored terrorist threats encourages paranoia in terms of personal and national security.
Fear for Survival
Survival fears are real for life on planet earth. The shrinking world food supply combined with a weakening of our military readiness by five years of disastrous combat in a lost cause in Iraq and Afghanistan. Economic anxiety is fueled mainly by a collapse in economic confidence due to the implosion of the housing market and the freezing of the credit markets. As more things fall apart, both at home and abroad, survival fear becomes more intense. Added to this is the shrinking national money supply due to $10 billion a month wasted because of our questionable presence in the Middle East. The current administration’s economic ideology, with its fixation on privatization and deregulation, has helped to create a financial quagmire which is threatening to turn into a full-blown recession.
New scientific insights into the causes of the collapse of the great Mayan civilization warn that drought and climate change may have caused its destruction. In our 21st century, weather, overpopulation, disease, warfare, dwindling world water and food supply, along with uncontrolled immigration, are creating a genuine cause for survival fear around the world.
Respecting life at its beginnings is an authentic moral challenge, but what about the quality of life that goes on in the dash separating birth and death? Why are moral people so silent about the use of torture, or indifferent to the slide into a moral quagmire because of the ethical shift to an end justifies the means philosophy? Fear causes indifference and promotes silence when words are needed. One must have the courage of conviction and passion for truth to truly overcome fear. There are genuine fears among truly moral people that our religious leaders are turning a deaf ear regarding America’s slide into moral chaos.
Power and Control
The tentacles of fear intertwine with the obsession for power and control in novels such as Orwell’s prophetic and disturbing 1984. Orwell focuses on Big Brother’s amoral pursuit of power through the indiscriminate use of fear and violence. In the long run, an Orwellian hierarchical society was only possible on the basis of poverty, ignorance, coercion and fear. War was created by the Orwellian oligarchy, not to win territory, but rather to control the citizens of Oceania. As long as a country is at war, its citizens will put up with personal deprivation. But, the citizens must think that it is a just war, that the enemies are devils whom they are morally obliged to exterminate. The psychology behind Oceania’s Hate Week is precisely that of working up both party members and citizens of the fictional world of Oceania into a frenzy of self-righteous hate for the enemy, pushing out of their minds all thought of the unsatisfactory lives that they themselves are living in constant fear and insecurity. Government use of fear on a population to manufacture consent for bad policy is not new and only succeeds because we allow it.
Big Brother turns ethics inside out by declaring that the end justifies the means. The controllers see virtue in the use of lying and deceit for political purposes. The practice of doublethink and newspeak is the institutionalization of falsehood on a systematic basis. Citizens are no longer capable of making a distinction between veracity and mendacity, because the State controls all means of communication.
Big Brother’s all-consuming hunger for power admits no barriers, and must have complete dominion over everything. Nothing, and no one, is safe. Inflicting pain and humiliation helps maintain control. The old saying, ”ignorance is bliss” is no new discovery. It has generally been assumed that understanding, which brings with it a sense of responsibility, an awareness of suffering and a realistic view of life, has compensations of a spiritual nature. Modern tyrannies deny citizens this sense of responsibility, and gradually eliminate all feelings. This numbing of the moral conscience creates a world of fear, treachery and torment, a world which will grow not less but more merciless as it refines itself. The greatest enemies of the totalitarian state are not ideas but aesthetic and erotic sensations, such as the sympathy of love and the empathy of art. These feelings, along with imagination, must be eradicated from the human heart, if citizens’ allegiance to Big Brother is to be complete.
Destructive fear takes on many shapes, and plays a frightening role in gaining and maintaining power. The flood, history’s most successful act of genocide, demonstrates the theological reality of Psalm 110:10 that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. God is both a punisher of evil and a rewarder of goodness. St. Augustine wrote that healthy fear is the beginning of wisdom: “The first step to wisdom is fear. We should be led by the fear of God. This fear will of necessity excite in us the thought of our own mortality and of the death that is before us.” Kierkegaard offers this gem of wisdom: “Wouldst thou learn to fear, not the severity of justice but the greatness of love, for love pierces far more deeply than justice.”
Jesus Christ teaches that we need faith in God to overcome fear and evil in the world. Jesus offers these consoling words: “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the one who can destroy both soul and body in hell. Matt: 10:28 Jesus also challenges us: Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with goodness. The first step in overcoming evil is to come to terms with the fear that evil produces by committing oneself to the path of goodness and love.
Fear and anxiety are endemic to the human population. Jesus Christ offers a clarion call to live by love and not by fear. The more we love one another and offer each other mutual support, the more we will be able to handle the fear factor of human life. Love assures us that we are not alone. Jesus reminds us, Fear not, I am with you always. Faith in God’s providential love can help us cope with the feeling that our world is spinning out of control. If we trust that God loves us in good times and in bad, we will find protection from unhealthy fear. Faith and reliance on God guarantee that we will be spiritual survivors, no matter how disturbing the fears we encounter along life’s journey.
In The Little Flowers of St. Francis, we read: The fear of God makes a person obey humbly and the more one fears God, the more frequently that person prays the prayer of adoration.
Blessed are those who have learned that we are not human beings having a spiritual experience; rather, we are spiritual beings having a human experience.
In a flash of spiritual insight, an unknown poet writes: God didn’t promise days without pain, laughter without sorrow, sun without rain, but He did promise strength for the day, comfort for the tears, and light for the way.
— Fr. Stephen, a staff member of St. Francis Chapel in Providence, R.i., is a frequent contributer to this newsletter. He also writes for national publications.