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Afraid of Fear

When I was in seminary, we were told that motivating people out of guilt was inadvisable. As a minister, of course, making people feel this way is not only a real possibility but a comparatively easy feat. After all, people come to us for the care of their souls and with questions about eternity. Facing the abyss, many wonder about their existential situation or the broad course of their life. They come before us, in other words, in a state of vulnerability. Guilt can take advantage of this, allowing a person to manipulate actions and motivate decisions.


A problem with inducing guilt, of course, is that while the feeling can be sharp and push someone in a certain direction, it tends not to be very long lasting or persistent. More than that, I think, using this kind of guilt as a tool is rather base. It either preys on weakness or seeks to create it. It heightens emotions in a way that makes a person susceptible to suggestion. If I am the one that brings about guilt in my hearers, I might very well be creating an experience in them that can only be address by negation. Their desire, therefore, may be to simply get rid of guilt rather than move in any positive direction.


I have some parallel feelings about fear. Don't get me wrong-- it is an understandable emotion that has a long history in the human species. Without a clear sense of danger in the wild, on the battlefield, or in a variety of dodgy situations our survivability rate might plummet. The part of fear that it legitimate consideration of risk and which involves a heightened awareness makes sense.


Many times, though, our fears are not so clear. They are more diffuse, hypothetical, or even imagined. And our imagination is not our friend here. Not simply about the momentary environment or stalking predator, these kinds of fears can be persistent, ongoing, and continually built upon. They do not simply come and go. They come and stay...and they get worse. Unlike guilt, they have greater staying power even after the ones that stoke those fears have moved on. Perhaps this is because guilt is something that makes us feel bad about ourselves and which we would rather not think about it, while fear justifies its continued existence by making the case that it is trying to protect us.


There are those out there who, like merchants of guilt, trade regularly in fear. Some do so out of well-intentioned caution. Some look to raise what they perceive to be legitimate concerns. But others--possibly many--heighten our fear in a desire to get us to do what they want, whatever that might be and/or in whatever direction we are already prone to be afraid.


Fear is a song that sings to us all. Once rooted in our hearts and minds, it can take over and metastasize. It can adopt a life of its own. Down the road of fear-colored glasses can be paranoia and an inability to consider that what we are afraid of may be less of a danger that we've been led (or led ourselves) to believe.


We who lead, preach, teach: we all have a relationship with fear. Our own fear as well as that which we can bring about in others. In our world of shared and social media there is a sense that almost anyone can find material to stoke the fires of this volatile emotional state. It is a power I wish we did not have. But we do, and as such the challenge is to think carefully--not only about what we are afraid of, but whether we should be afraid at all and what the effect of fear may be our ourselves, others with whom we decide to share it, and the societies in which we live.


I'll close with a word from Kaitlyn Schiess in her new book The Liturgy of Politics, part of which has motivated my thoughts here:


"Our fear easily isolates and pits us against each other in a contest for security and safety, and God continually commands us not to fear but to trust in Him, the Creator and sustainer of the community into which we were called."

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Joshua Ziefle

Seattle, Washington

joshuaziefle@gmail.com

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