COMMENTARY: Fear Should Not Dominate Life

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c. 2004 Religion News Service

(Tom Ehrich is a writer and computer consultant, managing large-scale database implementations. An Episcopal priest, he lives in Durham, N.C. Visit his Web site at http://www.onajourney.org.)

(UNDATED) Now that I am home from vacation, what shall I be nervous about?

I could be nervous about submitting a book manuscript. After months of work, pushing the Send button seems a bit like diving off the high board.

I could be nervous about the sight of my youngest son standing before me in his new school clothes, looking tall and handsome. He starts seventh grade next week, another lap around the adolescent track.

I could be nervous about money or time, of course, for there never seems to be enough of either.

The government certainly hopes I will be nervous about terrorist plots that they conveniently discovered just as political opponents finished their national convention. Even if based on information several years old, threats seize the national spotlight. They might even be accurate.

Your nervousness will be different from mine. Some are nervous about health, marriage, shaky employment, political upheaval or war. Some worries will be overblown, no doubt, but for the most part, I think we are nervous about things that merit nervousness. If nothing else, our fears suggest that life still matters to us.

The point about fear, I think, isn’t to banish fear from happening. We don’t have such control over our emotions or environments. The point is to avoid letting fear rule our lives.

For example, we shouldn’t stifle a child’s growing up because we are fearful of where it might lead. Instead, we can sense our fear, recognize a serious transition, respond as best we can, and pray for strength.

Nor do we want to act out fear as anger, a diversion that is epidemic these days, or turn fear inward in self-loathing or depression, or load our fears onto some scapegoat, another current favorite.

A wise friend doesn’t doubt that further terrorist attack will occur. He is concerned about how we will respond. “Will we soldier on like the Israelis seem to each time they get a suicide bomber?” he asks. “Or will we become more inward and fearful?”

We can’t scoff or scatter at politicians’ color-coded alarms. Their alerts might be real. Or they might be doing better at the mechanics of generating fear than at combating terrorists. Either way, we are vulnerable to danger: from bombs or from those who manipulate our fears for political gain.

If we can’t prevent fear and its causes, how do we avoid letting fear rule our lives? That is the question, it seems to me.

Fear can energize, for example, but it is up to us what behaviors we will pursue with that energy. We can’t let an adrenaline rush overrule our values and common sense.

Fear can forge alliances, a useful bonding in the face of attack, but can be disastrous if manipulated into mob action or group prejudice. We need to remember who God intends us to be to each other: friends and partners, not enemies.

Fear can yield a healthy skepticism, but it can also paralyze and isolate. We need to ask our questions of life, but then join hands with neighbors in trust.

Where do we get values, memory and trust? That is God’s province. That is the “kingdom” that it is God’s “good pleasure” to give us. The “treasure” God would have us seek isn’t material wealth, but the capacity to avoid enslavement by wealth. It isn’t safety, but the confidence to live boldly. It isn’t self-satisfaction, but a sane attitude toward self. It isn’t the faux values of marketplace or group-think, but eternal values yielding life.

As a citizen, I am concerned at the role fear is playing in the current elections. Serious issues are before us, and both national parties have important views and leaders for us to consider. It will be a tragic distortion if either party simply pushes the panic button, trying to generate fear, to name the other as causing it, to manipulate the fearful into turning inward and angry, and to offer simple solutions (“Elect us!”) grounded in nothing more than escaping fear.

That is demagoguery, not democracy. Boldness grounded in honest information will build this nation better than anger grounded in fear.

DEA/JL END EHRICH

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