Fear – Understanding & Combating

Fear – A Shrinking Back

            Fear can be a constant nagging, agitating, and even crippling feeling that affects many people. Sometimes we experience it as worry, and at other times it manifests as anxiety. It can disguise itself as something that is important to focus on, or a matter that needs immediate attention; or it can be a concern that if you do not address it, it will immediately alter everything in your life. Franklin D. Roosevelt once said: “There is nothing to fear but fear itself”.  In life that is commonly true. How many times have we had an enormous fear of something happening; and then it actually does happen, and the thing that we were afraid of happening, when it occurs, is not nearly as bad as what we expected. Sometimes, though, fear is realized when a terrible event does occur, and it was worse than expected. Then that fear can be the fear of something bad happening all over again.  In the Bible, the phrase “Fear Not” is mentioned 365 times. It was so important to God, that he mentioned it enough times to cover every day of an entire year. Why is it so hard for us, though, to give up our fear? Is it because we feel that having that fear is somehow making us feel like we are responsible for the things we can’t control? How much can we really control in our lives anyways?

            Fear is classified as what is often referred to as an emergency emotion.  So, when we are in fear, the alarms and bells are sounding, signaling us to prepare for an emergency.  Fear represents an emotion of the overwhelmed. In other words, fear is a flight from some threat that we consider to be greater than what we can bear.  If an ordinary house cat walks up to me, I am not likely to fear. The cat poses no threat that is greater than I can bear. Now if I come across an unattended pit bull while walking down the street, I am very likely to fear.  This is because I consider the pit bull to be greater than my abilities to ward off.  

            We can see from this example that there are two variables to consider in the discussion of fear.  One has to do with the subject (in this case me), and the other has to do with the object (in this case the cat or dog).  If the object feared can easily overpower me, then I will experience fear. This is why fear is an emotion of overwhelm.  We fear those things that will overwhelm us, are bigger than us, and bring defeat. Additionally, we can look at how fear can be influenced both by ourselves, and the object feared.  In regard to ourselves, one consideration has to do with work or effort. We often fear those things that will require work or exerted effort on our part.   How often are we opposed  to doing something, or have a distaste for something, because of the effort required on our part?  Many of our daily irritations, whether directed at our spouse or kids, spring from this fear of work. Many of the stresses we experience in work and life are due to fears we have about the taxing of our resources, whether it be time, energy, or something else. The other way fear is influenced by us is by the appropriateness of our actions.  We fear that which makes us lowly esteemed in the eyes of others. We typically know this as shame and embarrassment. We are afraid of the appraisals of others. How often do we worry about what others might think about the car we drive, or the clothes we wear, or how likable we are? In regard to the object feared, certain aspects of a thing will contribute to its fearfulness, such as:  the magnitude, the unpredictability, and the newness of an experience. All of these aspects of an object or situation feared will make it more fearful. What people or situations, being unpredictable, bring you hesitation? What situations seem way too big for you? Do you avoid new, and unfamiliar experiences? Oh, how often we retreat back to the comfortable!

            A few comments would be appropriate in any discussion of fear.  First, when we are overcome with fear, we are reduced in our capacity to choose properly.  Common experience will remind us of the things we did or did not do out of fear. And had it not been for fear we would have done otherwise.  So, one might aptly conclude that fear diminishes our humanity to the degree that we are hindered in our ability to choose. For to choose is one of the essential markers of what it means to be human. This is why learning to cope with fear is so crucial to our development.  If fact, many of the psychoanalytic models have fear and anxiety as the driving force behind neurosis. This is because fear or anxiety may become associated with a certain normal human need or drive.   When this occurs, we respond to these needs or drives in ways to ward off the anxiety. However, problems can occur when the ways we are reacting are not very suitable to our present situations.  But we are often stuck in these patterns of behavior because of the fixed fearful associations.   This also has the effect of limiting our choice of behaviors as these patterns become more fixed in our character structure.

            Next fear, like all emotions, can affect or skew how we see and think about situations.  One who is in the confines of fear will have a much different outlook on a situation than one who is more confident.  This means that fear can significantly affect our perceptions and judgements of situations.   Additionally, we can also learn a lot about what sort of things we are attached to by what we fear.  My adolescent fears the loss of game time, so one could correctly surmise that he is fairly well attached to video games. Finally, we can grow to take on more fear. As riding a bike can become a second nature to the child, so is fear an action that can become a second nature.  This simply means we can grow in our fearfulness. It becomes more ingrained in our characters.  

            So how do we go about combating fear?  First of all, we should remind ourselves that we are all growing (this is very important as it provides a rational structure to our fear.  We do not want to be controlled by fear, and one way out of its control is to revert back to our reasoning powers by adding to the fear a rational component).  We continue to grow throughout the duration of or lives. Because of the plastic nature of our souls, as well as our perfectibility, we should never stop striving to grow.  This, our nature demands. None of us will ever reach our full potential. But we can strive to be perfect, as He is perfect. Christ is the model that we strive to emulate.  I use perfect here in a certain sense, the sense the scholastic philosophers used perfect. This means the complete conforming of our soul’s faculties or powers to their created design and usage.  In other words, we strive to develop and pattern our intellect, will, and emotions, and behaviors to the created ideal. Granted we are often prevented on this journey of perfection. There are no shortages of fears that crop up along the way that seem to force us to retreat.  We must recognize that we, as image bearers of God, must do all that we can to grow into the people that we are designed to be. This is a moral imperative. We have a moral obligation, a duty, to tend to the fields of our lives and cultivate them as best as we can. We should not let fear of work, or the magnitude of the object feared intimidate us into retreat. We cannot enter the promised land and have rest until we first enter and settle the land. But there are numerous obstacles, barriers, and enemies we will encounter along the way.  

            This brings us to hope.  Without hope, there is no conquering fear.  Hope is the power within us that allows us to believe that we can prevail through difficult times. As Christians we do not put our hope in things of this world, but in God. This allows us to bring a Godly perspective and order to our lives because we look at our circumstances through the perspective that transcends our finite conditions.  We can live without fear because our eyes are fixed on Him, and we will have a long-term perspective.  When hardships press upon us, we trust that our loving God is involved and is shaping us into the image we were created to manifest. We know that shaping and pruning can be a painful process.  But because something is hard and painful does not make it bad (remember we stated above, fear often stems from the hard and the difficult). It may make it harder for us to receive, but it nonetheless can be just what we need. In other words, we can imbue our fearful situations with a meaning and hope that transcends our private little worlds.    

            Another instrument to help us combat fear, is a what the Christian tradition calls holy detachment.  We do not cling too tightly to the things of this world. Paul said “I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want”. Temporal goods are not the things we live for. They can be nice and very pleasing to us, but we do not hold them too tightly. Their loss can even be our gain. When we are not too attached, we are not fearful of their loss. They are not the reason or purpose of our existence.  A mentor told me one time, “the more you have, the more you have to lose”. His point was that the more we have, the more the steaks are increased, and this has no small part to play in generating the fear and anxiety of our lives. Not only material things, but damage to our egos can cause us fear.   Do you hold your ego too tightly? Remember, the Lord loves a humble and contrite heart.

            Another thing we can do is to increase our abilities, skills, or exposure to fearful experiences.  My oldest son was terrified of the swimming pool when he was very young. But after enough good experiences, and developing the ability to swim, he became very comfortable with getting in the pool. The same goes for most everything, as we gain experience and abilities, we become more comfortable in doing the hard things.  There are no shortcuts; we must learn and develop in order to adapt. This is one reason why there are free public schools. We cannot contribute to the common good if we do not develop ourselves.  And if we do not contribute to the common good, then we are limited as to what goods we are welcome to receive. “You get out of it what you put into it”. Are you struggling in a particular area?  Then learn the necessary skills required to function without fear. You can start out small and work up to larger situations. Always challenge yourself in an area you fear. The damaging thing with fear is that by retreating we rob ourselves of the necessary experiences required for our growth.  But we all have limitations, and there will be some things that we just cannot do. It’s been said that a sign of maturity is when we can accept our own limitations. When we have given all our effort and simply cannot develop the necessary skills, we can turn to the resources around us. God, friends, family, and other social networks that can be developed are a tremendous asset in combatting fear. A three stranded cord is not easily broken.

           Another thing we can do is to keep a proper perspective, and not exaggerate the situation.  Regarding our fear of work or effort, Albert Ellis in his Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy brings out an important observation that we tend to exhibit low frustration tolerance, and because of that, we can “awfulize”, or dramatize our situations.  Many of us, when confronted with a situation, tend to exaggerate the magnitude of the experience. We “awfulize”, which means we tell ourselves that the situation is terrible – “it is so awful”. He recommends that we relabel the situation, so that we no longer think in terms of awful but merely inconvenient, unfortunate, or something along those lines.  This suggest that we tend to make certain things or situations too big, and ourselves too small.

            I also mentioned that our actions can cause us fear.  If we engage in activities that compromise our integrity, our consciences can gnaw at us.  A sense of guilty fear plagues our souls. Make it a habit of doing right in all aspects of your life and you will feel freer from the nagging anxiety which comes from a condemning conscience.  This goes not only for our overt actions, but our covert ones as well. Challenge yourselves in your thoughts and imaginations. Do not mingle with that which is bad; our sins will find us out. Many of us are experiencing trouble in our lives due to the consequence of some previous actions.  Never tire of seeking the good. If you hitch yourself with bad behavior, people, or situations, they are prime to bring more badness in your life. And this will bring a train of fear. This then, as mentioned earlier, can become embedded in our characters, and then fear will become an identity marker of our self concepts.

            No discussion on fear can ignore its good aspect.  Fear is an aid to our protection, hence it’s emergency function.  Looking at fear from an individual’s perspective, it is easy to see why we need fear.  Any parent can attest to the thankfulness they have for their child’s healthy sense of fear.  It has the obvious objective of preserving our life. But the same applies to the social sphere.  Not only does fear protect us as individuals, but it also protects us as groups, whether marriage, family, association, or community.  Actions have effects, or consequences; and there are certain actions that deliver harmful consequences that help protect our social goods: such as those that follow from murder, theft, destructive anger, or even just shunning a neighbor.  All these deliver back in kind a blow to the self. Any harm we dish out to the others as part of our common good, the same will be delivered back to us. So, fear can be a great teaching tool to motivate us to avoid harming the common good. It is in a similar vein that the good book says, “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom”.


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