Fear. Why do we feel fear? There is certainly a survival impulse in the base of our brain, the amygdala, that compels us to fight, flight, or freeze. There are times when that response can literally be a lifesaver (like jumping back from a speeding car that nearly clips you) and there are times when that “reptilian” brain response gets in our way. Like when you are having a disagreement with someone, and somehow things escalate and get a bit heated or even out of hand. Yet, we can pause and give our neocortex a chance to kick in. This was explored in the 1940s by Viktor Frankl, who saw the best and worst of human fear and response as a prisoner in a Nazi death camp. He wrote, “Between stimulus and response lies a space. In that space lie our freedom and power to choose a response. In our response lies our growth and our happiness.” We truly can use our neocortex to come up with better responses to our fears.
One of the prevalent fears of the pandemic time is the fear of the unknown. None of us knows for sure if we’ll get Covid, if our lives will be changed forever, if we’ll be able to take that big trip this summer, if church will be reasonably the same next year, if our jobs are secure, if climate change will despoil the planet for our children and grandchildren, if American democracy will soon come to an end, and ultimately if we will meet our earthly end as a result of the virus. That’s a lot to feel fearful about. The question is how we use the space between the stimulus (the invitation to fear) and our response.
I’ve experienced plenty of fear and anxiety over the past two years, and I have found an app that helps to “unwind” anxiety and stress through mindfulness-based stress reduction. Instead of spinning into a mental tangle of thinking how to "fix our worries, the course helps us to identify that we’re feeling scared, worried, or anxious about something. To name that event or that pattern and just experience it, to feel it in our bodies, to breathe into it, and to eventually ride it out. That helps to provide the space that Frankl talks about.
When the biblical angel says, “Fear not!” (again and again and again) it might be getting at something: fear is not congruent with faith. That doesn’t mean that we should not experience fear or worry or anxiety, but that we shouldn’t dwell there. We shouldn’t allow fear to dominate our lives because it isn’t life-giving. And sometimes un-dealt-with fear causes us to misidentify problems and to get off track.
Marketing guru Seth Godin recently wrote, “When dealing with someone who’s afraid, when they’re objecting to something that’s important, it’s tempting to imagine that more evidence will make a difference–that it’s the objections that matter. But more studies of efficacy or public health or performance aren’t going to address the real objection. Money (“it’s too expensive”) is a common objection, but it’s often not the real reason. Price is simply a useful way to end the conversation. ‘I’m afraid’ is something we don’t want to say, so we search for an objection instead.”
We don’t need to stay stuck in fear. We have God-with-us in every moment, a God who sees our fear and helps us to acknowledge it and move forward with courage. Wouldn’t the world be different if we all put a bit more trust in God? One of my favorite John Bell short songs for worship goes like this: “Don’t be afraid. My love is stronger…my love is stronger than your fear. Don’t be afraid. My love is stronger, and I have promised to be always near.” (Here is great recording.)
I wish you courage for the journey ahead!
The Rev. Hal Chorpenning has been Plymouth's senior minister since 2002. Before that, he was associate conference minister with the Connecticut Conference of the UCC. A grant from the Lilly Endowment enabled him to study Celtic Christianity in the UK and Ireland. Prior to ordained ministry, Hal had a business in corporate communications. Read more about Hal here.