“There are very few monsters who warrant the fear we have of them.” --Andre Gide
If I had to sum up the year 2015 in our world, with just one word, it is “fear”.
Fear: the most powerful of human emotions, even more immediate and visceral than love. Fear: of the kind that tightens our chests, upsets our stomachs, makes our hearts race and most of all, tempts us to obsessively imagine worst case scenarios: for ourselves, our loved ones, and the whole world.
What are we afraid of as the year draws to a close? Take your pick. The list is a long one.
There’s terror and terrorism, home grown and far away, inspired by warped religious views or downright mental illness. Paris, San Bernardino, Colorado Springs. Where’s next? Disease is always a dependable boogey man. Remember Ebola? A year ago we were much panicked about that threat. Some fears circle back around, over and over: like the human fear of other humans who are “different” than us, foreign, suspect, who speak a different language or claim a different heritage or worship a different God or have a different skin color. Muslims, immigrants, angry protesters, refugees seeking sanctuary. We need to be very afraid of “them”. Right?
At its best, our fear response protects us. When a real threat arises, the oldest part of our brain, the amygdala, kicks in. Adrenaline floods our system. Our heart rate picks up and our breathing too. Vision becomes hyper focused and hearing acute. Our body steps up and gives us the physical strength needed to confront an adversary or flee from a threat. To save ourselves from a real enemy. Real. The problem arises when a fear response kicks in but the threat is not really “real”. Not in any probable or immediate sense.
Take terrorism. Since 2001, 3,400 American have died as a result of terrorist attacks. In just the past five weeks, 3,400 Americans have died from gun violence and yet which “threat” do we fear more? The chances of you or I or a loved one dying at the hands of a terrorist are astronomical: 1 in 9.3 million. What’s really scary? Dying from heart disease: 1 in 5. Dying in a car accident: 1 in 18,885. Even dying from a fall in the bathtub: 1 in 685,000.
Yet still, we are so afraid these days. According to a December 15th New York Times/CBS News poll, 60 percent of Americans are “very worried about terrorists coming from abroad or domestic attackers inspired by foreign extremists.” And just in case we are not afraid enough, we have ever eager politicians and leaders who gleefully exploit our fears in the hope of gaining personal power. So too we can thank our “if it bleeds, it leads” attention deficit disordered media, for making sure a microphone and camera are poised to report whatever the next big threat is today.
And fear not. Tomorrow we’ll find something else or someone else to fear.
Me? I’m exhausted by all our human fears. Tired of the fear mongers. Fear: that shuts us down and closes our hearts and minds as citizens and fellow children of God. Fear: that pushes us to circle the wagons and demonize “the other” and do all we can to keep the stranger out. Fear: that makes plenty of money for the press and garners plenty of votes for candidates but which is a paper tiger, a mythical nightmare, a cultural warped fantasy we seem forever addicted to. Fear: that in the wise words of 12 step spirituality is so often in fact: False Evidence Appearing Real.
In my faith tradition we are in the midst of celebrating twelve days of Christmas, the story of God come down to earth in a little baby. The divine message weaved throughout the story can work for all of us, regardless of our faith: “Do not be afraid.” Fear not. A young teenage mother and anxious father are told a baby is coming, by an angel, who lovingly reminds them: “DO NOT BE AFRAID!” Quaking shepherds witness a gaggle of celebratory angels in a night sky and are told by that celestial choir: “DO NOT BE AFRAID!”
So here’s a collective resolution and hope for the coming year: to not be so afraid and filled with so much fear. This prayer doesn’t mean that events in this beautiful and broken world won’t sometimes scare the heck out of us. We are only human, after all. It does mean that in face of our fears, we are called to have courage. To put threats into perspective. To trust in the essential goodness of 99.999 percent of our fellow human beings. To even have faith in a power greater than all of us, who made all things and weaved throughout the fabric of existence, love, which is forever seeking to be born.
Goodbye 2015. Hello 2016. God help us to be not afraid. Be courageous. Trust more. Love more. Hope more. And always have faith See you next year.