Most of us have no trouble naming the thing or things we fear the most. I bet when I just said that some of you had your biggest fear pop right into your head.
One of my own biggest fears is relatively common. According to Google about 15% of Americans share my fear, but somehow that knowledge doesn’t make it any easier for me to live with. For a long time now I’ve been terrified of going to the dentist. Unlike some fears that have no obvious source, mine comes from some dental surgery I had as a teenager. I wasn’t numbed up enough when they did the procedure, so now every time I even enter the dentist’s office, I begin to sweat and my heart beats more quickly and I have to really focus to stay present.
Fear is a universal part of being human. At its root, fear is simply the awareness of danger, so in a sense it’s good that we are able to feel afraid. In our evolution as a species fear helped us to survive and thrive. Fear is a necessary and inevitable part of being human.
But there’s a lot to be afraid of right now. The wildfires in California, Washington, and Oregon are scary, and in a way their relationship to the larger danger of climate change is even scarier. We fear for our lives and those of our loved ones during this pandemic. We fear for our livelihoods, for the election, for our democracy, for what kind of world our children and their children will inherit from us. These are dangers that threaten everyone.
But as we know some people in this country are more vulnerable to harm than others. Some fear being harmed by a loved one’s violence, others are afraid of being brutalized because of their gender, sexual orientation, or race. So many parents send their children out in the morning afraid they might not come home for dinner. So many of our neighbors are afraid of being detained in a concentration camp or deported back to the countries they fled.
19th century Unitarian minister William Silsbee once preached that “Fear is one of those forces which tend most powerfully to destroy freedom. It may be fear of punishment, fear of censure, fear of ridicule, fear of poverty, fear of social exclusion, or what else.” Fear is a powerful emotion, one that can come to shape the decisions we make, the dreams we have, the things we allow ourselves to imagine.
I think this is why overcoming fear or finding release from it is so often framed in religious terms. Buddhist teaching points to fear as the source of ego, probably because of how often our fears are about the future, about things that haven’t happened yet, that might not ever happen. In this tradition, practicing staying present in the here and now offers a way to find release from fear. In the Hebrew Bible and Christian scriptures there are dozens of stories about prophets urging their people to fear God. But alongside those stories are many others in which angels appear and tell people not to be afraid even though God is about to turn the world upside down.
Since most of us don’t have angels to comfort us when we are afraid, and because fear is so hard wired into us as human beings, I don’t think it’s worth it to try and avoid feeling fear all together. I think the real challenge is to learn how to live and act with our fears. As Nelson Mandela is famous for saying “courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.”
We talk a lot in church about courage and bravery. Courage to do the right thing even when it is hard, even when others may not support our decision. Courage to be ourselves in a world that may not affirm who we are, or who we love. I think about the friends and colleagues I know who have been arrested for the crime of leaving water for asylum seekers to find on their journeys across the border. I think about civil rights heroes who engaged in civil disobedience to try and change unjust laws. But the other day I spoke with a clerk at the store while she was ringing up my purchase. She told me that in the last few weeks she’s been spit on, threatened, and verbally abused after asking customers to wear masks. I’ve heard the same from friends who work in food service. Those people are navigating scary situations not because they are choosing to, but because their jobs place them into an impossible situation.
Whether we choose courage or have to somehow muster it up to face the day, it is our fears of confrontation, fears of being made sick, fears of arrest and imprisonment, bodily harm and death that are being manipulated by some in power whose interests run against our values. Unlike the frogs in our Time for All Ages story, if we don’t keep swimming even though we are scared we will drown, we will most definitely drown. It is only in facing the fear, acting out of a sense of what is possible rather than what we fear might happen, that makes it possible to change the rules and remove power from those who would use it to control us. This is what Silsbee meant when he said that fear destroys freedom.
James Luther Adams was another Unitarian minister, though he lived a hundred years later than Silsbee. Adams witnessed the rise of Nazism while studying in Germany and his theology was profoundly shaped by his experiences there. Here is some of what he had to say about courage and living out of faith instead of fear:
… in Nazi Germany I soon came to the question, “What is it in my preaching and my political action that would stop this?” Maybe it was an extreme judgment of myself, but I said, “If you have to describe me, you’d say I’m not really involved, for example, in combating anti-Semitism as it is in the United States.” It is a liberal attitude to say that we keep ourselves informed and read the best papers on these matters, and perhaps join a voluntary association now and then. But to be involved with other people so that it costs and so that one exposes the evils of society… requires something like conversion, something more than an attitude. It requires a sense that there’s something wrong and I must be different from the way I have been.
Our theme for worship this month is renewal, so it may seem a little strange for me to be preaching about fear. But I think it is important now more than ever to seek after the kind of renewal or conversion or what Adams called “more than an attitude” that will help us live with integrity and in this often scary world. It is important, now more than ever, to ground ourselves in who we are not only as individuals, but as members in community, people with many relationships and sources of support and comfort, strength and purpose.
I imagine few of us will ever rid ourselves of our greatest fears. I’m not sure I’ll ever get to the point that I don’t feel scared when I go to the dentist. And I don’t expect any of us will stand up to bullies or confront injustice or engage in civil disobedience without some measure of real, legitimate fear. But I hope and I pray that we can learn to lean on one another for strength and support. I hope and I pray that we can practice relying on one another for help and encouragement in acting out of our sense of what is possible, out of our shared faith in a world that is different than the world we now inhabit, a world that will require us to be different from the ways we have been in order to bring it about. I hope and I pray that we who have no extraordinary power will act not out of fear but out of faith as we reconstitute the world.
Early 20th century merchant and philanthropist, John Shedd, once wrote “A ship is safe in harbor, but that’s not what ships are built for.” What are the ships in our lives? What are we holding back out of fear? What blessings or resources can we bring to bear in the service of our values, in the service of our deepest purpose?
May we all find the courage we need to embark on the fullness of life’s journey, to live with our inevitable fears but not be defined by them, and to act out of our faith in what is possible. Because it’s only in striving in faith, towards the horizon of possibility, that our hopes and dreams can ever become reality.