Fear: Not My Favorite Spiritual Companion
Patricia Adams Farmer
Fear. If you're feeling it, you're normal. You're paying attention. The coronavirus is an invader that has come upon us with great speed and virulence. Like a bull in a china closet, this new invader blithely wrecks our most precious plans, blocks our ability to congregate, and stomps out normal touching and hugging. If that's not enough, it turns to decimating our economy. This bull is on the loose. We would be crazy not to stand back and tremble.
Fear is not my favorite spiritual companion. But I have to remind myself that fear is not evil in itself, only when it becomes attached to irrational and evil ideas -- like fear of the "other" that leads to prejudice and hate. Sometimes fear is simply here to protect us, like it did for our ancestors who knew when to run for safety from what Oz's nervous Scarecrow only imagined as "lions and tigers and bears—oh my!"
In normal times, fear creates untold mischief in the world and in our lives. But when the tigers are real -- the tigers are real. In those cases, fear stands by like a drill sergeant with a megaphone yelling, "Hey, knuckleheads, pay attention! This is not a drill. I repeat, this is not a drill! Shape up, wash your hands, stay away from others, learn technology, and get your act together -- or else!" That's what I hate about fear: it's so harsh and demanding. But, on occasion, we need a good solid shout from fear's megaphone in order to strike through our complacency, and very possibly save our lives.
So what do we with this loud and bossy companion? And what if the threat of the virus combines with worry over losing income or an entire livelihood? Then we are looking at real terror, the kind that leaves us frozen in fear. If this happens, we need to have a talk with fear. Maybe we can talk to it once a day, say 20 minutes in a journal. Maybe we can listen to it when we pray or watch it pass through us when we meditate. Maybe we can just keep an eye on it, so it doesn't get separated from the facts. Maybe we can even allow fear to ride along with us on our journey. It might help guide us when the terrain is rocky and confusing, and even give us the impetus to try a new direction. But it doesn't have to sit in the front seat. Let rationality drive the car. And compassion. And a sense of hope and perspective. If we let fear drive our car with no other passengers aboard, we are looking at chaos and wreckage everywhere, including in our bodies and our minds.
Yes, we would do well to take a deep breath and widen our souls to make room for this difficult companion. Once we make friends with fear – "friends" may be too strong a word -- we can learn to work with it and around it and through it. We can know that this "friend" is here to help us for a time, like it or not, and that we need to nurture our other spiritual companions to join us too: compassion, love, joy, peace, faith.
Jesus said, "fear not" umpteen times in his ministry, so if we take Jesus along on our journey, giving him the front seat, we can keep fear in the backseat. If fear tries anything, all we have to do is look at the guy in the front seat and say, "Perfect loves drives out fear" (I John 4:18). It may not drive out all fear, but it might keep fear from the taking the wheel and driving us down the road of panic and irrational behavior.
The Hebrew Bible is also filled with fear nots. My favorite is the 23rd Psalm: "Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff -- they comfort me." And then, the Psalmist says something that I've never understood until now: "You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows." My cup overflows when I feel the presence of God not apart from, but alongside of, in the very presence of, my fears. That is how wide we need to open our souls! It is here where the human and divine co-mingle in love that goodness and mercy will have a fighting chance to follow us all the days of our lives.
We are never told that everything will be okay, that everything has a happy ending in this world, or that "everything happens for a reason" (God save us from that old saw!). But we are told that we are never alone. We are assured that we have a Companion that goes with us through the valley of the shadow of death, or as my favorite philosopher, Alfred North Whitehead said, "God is the great companion – the fellow sufferer who understands."
Our fellow sufferer. This is important. The Shepherd suffers with her sheep. Before Bonhoeffer was executed in Nazi Germany, a small scrap of paper was smuggled out of his prison cell. It read, "Only the suffering God can help." Such is the God of love who suffers with us and offers us resurrection possibilities for the transformation of tragedy into some form of tragic beauty.
Fear may be our companion, a needed companion during times of war and natural disasters, but there is more -- so much more! May we take a breath of hope, not to rid ourselves of all fear, but simply to calm the loud and noisy clamor. Then, take another breath of compassion for the world and its troubles, for the vulnerable and the poor. And for ourselves, too. The more breaths we take, we enlarge our souls, our capacity for inviting in all the feelings that will surely visit during this crisis. Anger, fear, sadness, grief -- they will all make an appearance in the coming days and they demand our attention. But they do not define us; they are only here to help.
So, invite fear in for a conversation. Sit with it. Listen to it. Then, respond with honesty and self-compassion. After a time, let it go to the backseat of your mind while you breathe and smile for all that is still good and true and beautiful in the world. Come what may, we can participate in the next moment of becoming with largeness of spirit, wideness of mercy, and depth of beauty. We are not alone.