By Jock Cameron
an unpleasant emotion caused by the threat of danger, pain, or harm
I walked into a café the other day – the first day after COVID restrictions had been eased in our city. Expecting to have to fight for one of the small number of tables that would be open for business, I was surprised to find the café completely empty. Apparently, in spite of expert medical advice that it was safe to come out, at least my neighbourhood wasn’t really buying it. Nor have they for the rest of this week.
COVID-19 is certainly something to be afraid of - we’d be fools not to respond with urgency to something so threatening. But more than that, something like COVID has a way of manifesting the underlying fear that lurks in our hearts; it gives that fear a name, something to attach to. It invokes a dark spirit that lives in our basement that always knew something terrible was going to happen.
And this kind of fear isn’t merely personal; it’s collective. We all feel it, dwell on it, magnify it and pass it on to those around us. It becomes like a shared atmosphere that we live in each day, a herd instinct that’s almost impossible to live immune from. Even the most rational of us were tempted to rush out and buy toilet paper.
It’s not as if before COVID we were all living fearless lives; but at least we had some routines, plans and structures that helped us to manage our fears day by day. That is until a worldwide pandemic came along and bowled them all over like tenpins! But maybe before we figure out how to package up our sense of terror and put it into a new management system, we should take this opportunity to look at it. We might be surprised to find that we won’t be instantly vapourised by doing so.
Essentially, fear is what might be described as an instinctive posture towards the future. It’s not the only posture we might have, but it is certainly a common one for many of us. Fear - our emotional response - reveals our underlying beliefs about the future. Even the most optimistic of us would have to admit to harbouring fears of some kind about the days, weeks, years ahead.
Persistent as fear may be, I don’t believe we should resign ourselves to live with it. We weren’t made for fear. Yes, we were made with a survival instinct and an adrenal system to respond to immediate threat, but most of the fear we experience has nothing to do with that. Mostly it’s boxing at shadows, obsessing about terrible outcomes that never actually eventuate. When we step back and see the big picture of our lives, we would probably concede that looking forwards things often seemed terrible, but looking backwards, things turned out much better than we feared they might. Even our most difficult circumstances, in hindsight, turned out to be seasons of significant learning and growth, for which we are now grateful.
Typically, things aren’t as bad as they seem. But unfortunately, there’s something broken in us that reaches for impending doom far too quickly. I’m not trying to be a ‘glass half full’ guy: I know there are a lot of really difficult things in life that most of us have to contend with at some stage. I’m not advocating mind over matter, a denial of reality, or an escape into dogma. But I am suggesting it’s possible to have a more luminous view of the future.
I don’t want to be too prescriptive about how we define this, but I do believe that human beings are multi-dimensional: we have a physical dimension, an intellectual dimension, an emotional dimension and, indeed, a spiritual dimension. It’s our spiritual dimension that connects us to meaning, to something bigger than ourselves. Some of you might see your connection to God at the centre of your spirituality: others might describe that centre differently. Or at this stage of your spiritual journey you may only have an instinct, a sense of something, that you haven’t even been able to put words to yet. Wherever you are, what I’m about to say applies to you:
You cannot discover your destiny unless you deal with your fear.
Fear is anti-life; it is a great thief. It comes to take and not to give. It causes you to live smaller than that for which you were made. You cannot bargain with it, make a truce with it or sing its song. You have to cast it out of your house.
In my estimation, the two great antidotes to fear are hope and faith. Hope pertains to the heart and faith to the mind. We have to feel that things are going to be OK: hope is the energy that propels us. Faith is the decision we make to act as if that hope is true. Often this step of faith is necessary, even when the fear is still holding tightly to our ankle as we walk away from it.
My sense is that hope doesn’t come from what we think about things; rather it comes from how we feel about them – from what might be described as our story. Our story is the narrative we tell about our lives - the past, the present and the future. All of us have a story, even if we aren’t consciously aware of it. These inner beliefs define nearly everything we do, and don’t do.
Changing our story - the way we feel about things - isn’t easy: perhaps there’s nothing more difficult. And that’s why we need spiritual resources; we need help that comes from beyond ourselves. Without it we’re left trying to think positive thoughts, trying to believe in ourselves, trying to love ourselves. All the energy needs to come from the self: it’s very hard work.
When I was a kid in church, I learned a song. It was no musical masterpiece, but it has been an earworm all of my life. It comes from the old book and it goes:
Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.
When you pass through the waters I will be with you; And through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; When you walk through fire you shall not be burned, And the flame shall not consume you.
In my darkest moments when I’m tempted to give up and assume the worst of myself, I often hear these lines in the back of my head somewhere…
Fear not! I will be with you! You are mine! You will not be overwhelmed!
And somehow, I manage to get up to press on in faith, until the fog lifts once more.
If you want to live a good life, you need a good story. If you don’t want to be defined by fear, then you need a source of hope.
If it’s true that there’s someone out there who has called us by name, who sustains us in our darkest hour, what a source of hope that would be.