Saturday, July 20, 2013

Fear and the Zimmerman case

The topic missing from most of the discussions I have heard of the Trayvon Martin-George Zimmerman trial has been basic fear.

It was captured eloquently yesterday in President Obama's personal remarks about how he sees his younger self in Trayvon Martin. And in an important article I read yesterday and will return to.

What prompted Zimmerman to shoot the 17-year-old boy? Fear, the age-old fear of the outsider, which in America has historically meant the black man in a white world. In saying this, I realize I risk simplifying a complicated legal case. But it seems important to look at the bigger picture.

Fear, which protects us, leading to the instinct to flee, can also lead us to fight because this primal feeling can provoke anger and hatred in a matter of seconds, as any study of racism or homophobia reveals.  Fear prompts Florida to allow the Stand Your Ground law on the books; it prompts white supremacy groups and other extremists to fight against sensible gun laws or immigration reform.

The antidote to fear is love, as Patrick Fleming eloquently says in an article in the current issue of America. (Note: I read the article before realizing that the author, a St. Louis-area psychotherapist and author, is a cousin of mine.)

Fleming does not discuss the Zimmerman case but the mass shootings in Boston and elsewhere which cause what he calls spiritual trauma. These events, he says, inflict "psychological wounds but spiritual injury and trauma as well." Referring to his own anxiety, heightened by the Newton massacre, he writes: "Fear becomes a soul sickness when it becomes our basic stance in and against life."

This is the kind of systemic fear that sees danger everywhere, that tells us to trust no one, change no gun laws, and build a fortress whereas, he says, the soul tells us to trust.

In a passage that seems inspired in part by Thomas Merton, Fleming writes that at the deep part of us that we call soul, at the core of our being, "there is a wellspring of energy, hope and purpose."  The soul can provide us, he goes on, with the spiritual vision to see with the light of love, which is always present, even when we feel threatened or fearful. 

Ordinary moments of "soul resilience," the result of reaching out to others in love, happen every day, often without our realizing it: they are "much more common than moments of trauma, darkness and evil.  They are so common that we fail to see them." He refers to simple gestures of aid we give the elderly or disabled, the encouraging remarks we give to nervous students. We need to be reminded of the fact that we are surrounded by little acts of love.

In this short article, Patrick Fleming has captured the spiritual dimension of human psychology.  By focusing so clearly on the basic elements of fear and love, and relating them, he provides me, and I hope others, with ideal reading this weekend, as many Americans ask why the Trayvon case continues to gnaw at our collective psyche.

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