Tuesday, October 1, 2013

The power of fear

Fear is so pervasive that it is often not discussed.  Many writers, it seems to me, fail to address its insidious power, which can so quickly lead to anger and hatred and even violence. I am always on the lookout for writers who use fear as a motivating force in fiction or as a theme in non-fiction.

Having lived with a heavy dose of fear for most of my life, I know, too, that it can have it positive side, making us more sensitive and empathic to others who are worried, anxious, nervous--and who isn't?

The heart without fear would be less tender, writes Edna O'Brien. And anxiety can stir the imagination like little else. I have a summary of a comment she made some years ago in a journal I keep.

In general, O'Brien says that fear is a dreadful drawback in our lives because it stops us from living in the moment; it forces us to focus on an imagined future horror.  Fear happens, she says, when we don't really meet one another: one part of us meets a part of another person, but somehow we make it difficult to be our real selves with other people and so we become false, diminished, or somehow artificial.

Another perspective is from Ernesto Cardinal: The universe is expanding, but we often are not; our souls or selves are contracting. Thomas Aquinas said that where there is fear, contraction takes over. "To allow fear to take over our ways of living or our hearts or our institutions is to avoid a cosmic law: the need to expand through love and courage."

The contrast between institutional fear and a love that has no limits is captured today in the critical stance of some on the extreme right in the Catholic Church toward Pope Francis, who does not seem to fear meeting people as his real self.  He confronts others with the open, human face of pastoral love and compassion; yet his "liberal" openness is seen as a threat to some of the hardliners, making them fearful of meaningful change. They want the old institutional rigidity to remain since change is dangerous.

A final perspective on fear is from Nelson Mandela's 1994 inaugural speech: "Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that
most frightens us. We ask ourselves, who am I to be so brilliant, gorgeous, talented, and fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be?"  He goes on to say that each of us is shining with the glory of God, so we must let our light be seen.

If we do so, if we are liberated from our fears, we give others permission to do the same. And the world becomes a better place. (It sounds so simple--yet what is harder to achieve?)

Our instinctive fears serve a purpose and must be wisely monitored: when they become too extreme, we can be crippled; when they are turned into trust and love, they can help us do amazing things for the world.

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