I am the greatest expert on fear that I know, which statement I can certify with the next: I know no experts on fear personally, besides my own person, of course. Suffice to say, this essay was thoroughly researched and each statement carefully reviewed by these previously alluded to experts. Now, being this great subject matter expert, which I am, on the topic of fear, I will venture further to state that no other expert raised up nor research made upon said emotion might shed more light than my own, in that my research and expertise fully encapsulates the breadth and range of this topic that a single heart might manage to contain within its given life time. Indeed, my far-reaching knowledge on the subject came to me through the tried and true methodology of personal experience, which, I hasten to point out, is nearly the same as saying I am an expert on my own person, which I believe I have already done at some great length. To assure you of my qualifications, however, I shall proceed to enumerate the lengthy researches I have performed upon the topic of fear.
A Rationale for Fear
The oldest document to come to my hands, now quite faded with time and in parts illegible, is an account from the late eighties. In it we find the subject, myself, at the ripe age of four, who lived then within the confines of one of those great Texas metropolises. He is observed careening across a cul-de-sac upon his Big Wheel with his brother speeding by upon his own. While to them the day seems sunny and bright, even almost yellow with glee, dark storm clouds churn in the skies above. A shout echoes across the tidy neighborhood of multicolored brick homes. It is their mother screaming at them to come home—fast! The two boys race each other across the tarmac, bumping for pole position, and park their speeders practically within the front door of their home. My four-year-old self looks up at his mother, perplexed. He has never seen such fear in her eyes. As soon as they cross the threshold, the father of the two boys grabs their hands and rushes them into the bathroom. My former self looks up at his father’s face to find a great fear there too. Mother comes right behind, clutching their infant sister. The family piles into the bathtub as their father races to pull a mattress off one of the beds and bring it into the bathroom. He then climbs into the tub with the rest of them, everyone squeezing to fit, and clutches the mattress over their heads. They wait. Though they sit in the center of their home, the fierce winds roaring through the trees outside seem like they are on the other side of the bathroom door. The house creaks and groans ominously. Then, almost as suddenly as it came, the storm passes. Later, when they go outside, the boys find the tree they used to climb split in two down the middle. Soon after, my young self is found to have torn pages out of library books, in which were depicted storms.
What this experience taught me, and even slightly traumatized me with, is that there are things that frighten even my parents. There are things they have no control over, and which therefore could harm me. There is danger in the world!
This type of fear falls neatly in the category of rational fear. It is based on a real, even physical threat of death or injury. It is a thoroughly legitimate fear. A tornado may well destroy your home, thus you need a way to escape it, hopefully one more robust than a porcelain bathtub and your father’s arms, which, though undoubtedly strong, would certainly be tested by three-hundred mile-per-hour winds.
Rational fear, however, is something I have discovered to be a genuine rarity in the modern world. If there is one thing that modernity does well, it cocoons us in safety. There are certainly real dangers, but their proportion is greatly lessened. We generally do not want for food, shelter, or heat. We typically do not face down ravenous beasts, marauders, or pirates, though we do contend with politicians. Now many no doubt live in places where real dangers are more prevalent, like the wilds of Alaska or Chicago, but, on the whole, our world has been fairly sanitized of its rational fears. In their place, however, have arisen monsters far more sinister, wrought of smoke and fire, pulsing with unnatural powers. These are the irrational fears.
Things That Go Bump…
As I thumb through my files, I come across a string of incidents that may serve well to illustrate the tenets of irrational fear. The subject, once more myself, did not generally suffer from a fear of the dark, save in those cases where he found himself alone outside after sunset. In those moments the world surrounding transformed. Trees bursting with flowers and fruit in the day metamorphosed into great black monsters growling and heaving in the dark. Their verdant branches turned to shadowy tentacles grasping at him across the benighted landscape. Shades crept behind. Footfalls of hungry beasts tracked after. Inevitably he raced the last few hundred feet back to his house.
The rational mind knows that a bright green tree is the same thing at night. It knows that branches heavy with apples in the day are not heavy with shrunken heads in the dark. Irrational fear conjures these imagined horrors within the mind itself, so that the sufferer feels them to be true, which is very different from knowing. Given enough time or sufficient trauma, however, these unresolved feelings transform into a sort of false knowledge, where the apples really are shrunken heads, and the shrunken heads all scream damnations at you. In the end, however, even these false beliefs are but tricks of the mind; not optical illusions, but emotional illusions. Moreover, their conjuring powers are only as strong as the fuels we feed them, and as easily overcome as mist and vapor. After all, had I but reached out my hand and grasped a shrunken head, it would have immediately changed back into a ripe red apple.
My Wish List of Fears
In the course of researching for this article I undertook to compile a catalog of the various fears that harass me. I did this primarily to quash any possible objections to my findings due to lack of empirical evidence, which purpose you shall presently see that I did perfectly accomplish. Of the one-hundred-five fears that I uncovered during the course of my half-hour of inquiry, which consisted entirely of asking myself what I am afraid of then writing down whatever came to mind, I discover that approximately ten should be labelled as rational, though even some of these were questionably rational. This means that about ninety-percent of my fears are irrational. Ninety-percent of the fears that seem to box me in and hold me back are actually smoke and mirrors! Ninety-percent of the beliefs that seem to define my life and person are false! Even if that number were only twenty-percent, it would be a decidedly emancipating notion, but ninety-percent is positively transformative.
All that is left to me now is overcome my fears. I may well find some so deep rooted that even as I try to pull them from the tree they remain stubbornly attached, shrunken heads screaming at me that no one loves me or that I will never amount to anything. These have hung there in the blackness of night for so long that I may need to bring in a proper arborist to prune their falsehoods from my mind. Yet the majority of them will easily fall to the ground with a few shakes of the trunk, and at that point I may well discover that the first ones have come down alongside.
Defined by Fear
Fear is a fog, not a wall. Fear is an illusion, not a reality. Fear is a deception, not a truth. Yet fear is a wall, in the sense that on the other side of it is a garden. It is a reality, in the sense that the trick was real. It is a truth, in the sense that the truth shall set you free.
Fear is a smoke screen, a diversion keeping you from seeing the way forward. It projects monsters into thin air, only the monsters really are thin air. It has no real power, only that which we give it. Fear is only as powerful as we allow it to be. In the immortal words of FDR, “We have nothing to fear but fear itself!”
Navigating the Valley of the Shadow
Seeing how this was said by an American president many years ago, I imagine that this is a truly universal principle, that fear really is the only thing to fear, but it is a revelation to me. I would also imagine the military teaches soldiers something like it, otherwise we would never have taken Omaha beach. That, however, was the realm of rational fear. Bullets were flying. Men were dying. Yet even there amidst war, with mayhem and carnage on every side, the only way forward, the only way to survive, was to run directly at the thing that frightened you. To stay still is death, to run away worse. The thing you are most afraid of is the thing you need to run hardest towards, whether it is a machine gun nest or those wounds nested in your own heart.
What God has taught me is that fear is the enemy trying to keep me from doing what He wants. Therefore, if I am afraid of doing something, I can legitimately assume that something is what God wants me to do. Oddly enough, fear shows the way forward, for the way forward is through the fear.
Only by overcoming your fear can you overcome your fear. Do not be afraid. In fact, I believe that is the most common thing God says in the Bible. To not be afraid, you must overcome your fear. To come over it, you must come to it. Stand before your fear, then, walk right over it. It is really quite simple.
Facing Fear is Trusting God
To apply this principle in life, to always confront fear, means there is little that can stand in our way. The reason is as equally simple as the solution. The person who faces fear learns something far more powerful than fear, that is courage. A courageous person can overcome anything.
Furthermore, this principle is the practical outworking of God’s repeated admonition to not be afraid. Yes, we trust in Him, which is why we should not fear, but we only eliminate those fears by running them over, which is the evidence of our trust. God does not intend our faith to be a purely intellectual or purely emotional endeavor. God expects our faith to be practical. After all, James tells us to show him our faith without works, and he will show us his faith by his works. Running towards the things we fear is the demonstration of our trust in God. It is, so to speak, the work of trust.
How many a child is afraid to jump in a pool. Their father stands in the water and urges them to jump. “Trust me! I’ll catch you,” he says. Now, the child may stand on the edge his whole life and say to his father, “I trust you,” but never jump. Obviously, he does not trust him. Only by jumping does he show his father and himself that he trusts him.
A Frightful Conclusion
Which brings me to a rather tragic revelation about myself: I have not trusted God. Sure, in some few areas I confronted my fears, but in most have I stood on the poolside muttering to myself that I trust Him, only never to jump. In so many vital areas have I simply idled as the years passed me by because I was too afraid to deal with them. The things I feared felt powerful, even deadly to my psyche and soul. So I wallowed in pain far longer than I needed to, only to realize that this was not self-preservation, but cowardice.
It is the coward who does not face his fears. Yet this is not a condemning finger. Everyone is a coward until they are not. Everyone stops in their tracks until they charge. The courageous are simply running away from cowardice. In running towards what they fear they are running away from what they fear.
There truly is nothing to fear but fear itself.
I end here with ninety-five shrunken heads awaiting my pruning shears, for I must busy myself lopping them off.