Fear is a familiar feeling for many of us.
We may recognize it immediately when it taps us on the shoulder, squeezes our chest, punches us in the gut, slaps us in the face, or spins around inside our head.
And certainly, sometimes, that fear is actually our friend. When a real and present danger is detected, fear swoops in to save the day. It courses through our veins, sending blood and adrenaline rushing to our limbs and our brain, helping us to focus, fueling our body to fight or flee as needed.
In this sort of situation, fear is an ally of immense importance.
But at other times, fear is an unwelcome and unhelpful guest.
Sometimes it shows up, unannounced, and muscles its way into our life. Sometimes it sneaks through the backdoor. Sometimes it moves in and takes up residence right under our nose. Sometimes it hides in a closet and creeps out to startle us when we least expect it.
Too often—to make matters worse—fear doesn’t arrive alone. It comes with reinforcements. Troublesome friends of its own—anger, sorrow, despair—who each bring along their own baggage.
One of fear’s besties is shame.
Remember the first biblical declaration of fear? Way back in the beginning. From Adam—immediately after the Fall. “I heard you in the garden,” he whispered to the holy God from behind a bush. “And I was afraid because I was naked, so I hid.” Of course, his nakedness was only awkward then because of his sin.
And ever since that gut-wrenching confession in the garden, we—every last one of us—are born into a fallen world full of fear.
We are introduced to fear early in our lives. It might even be our very first feeling upon leaving the security of the womb.
And when fear isn’t dealt with well, when it isn’t acknowledged and addressed and released, it can stubbornly stay with us—from childhood, through adolescence, and long into our adult lives.
Just like you, I have many fears. Loss, failure, rejection, and so on.
But one of my oldest and most visceral is that someone close to me will be harmed, and I will be unable to help. This isn’t surprising if you know a bit of my family background.
I can trace that fear back to some of my earliest memories—of almost daily watching my dad fall down. His body was twisted by cerebral palsy, making it difficult for him to use his arms and legs. And though he’s been gone for almost 10 years now, I can still see him so clearly in my mind, lying on the ground, struggling to stand.
When we are young, the world feels like a frightening place indeed when the people who are supposed to keep us safe are simply not up to the task.
Many of us—for a myriad of specific and heart-rending reasons—know all-too-well this particular and painful fear.
Each of us has also developed—often inadvertently—our own go-to response when faced with fear. Some of us run. Some of us hide. Some of us lash out. Some of us drown fear out with distractions.
I’m sure I do a bit of all of these. But my main m.o. is control—which can also look like vigilance, achievement, and perfectionism, among other things.
I will attempt to beat back fear with my superior planning skills. I will try to contain fear in a tidy corner by bringing order to my universe.
This reaction is so deeply ingrained in my being that often this fear-response shows itself first. My drive for control takes over—automatically—before I even recognize that fear itself is in the vicinity. I become extra-irritated with any mess in our house. I lash out at my family when they don’t meet my expectations. I clean closets and fill the calendar. I accumulate projects, make lists, and sacrifice sleep to cross items off of my never-ending to-do.
Until—eventually and finally—I collapse exhausted in a chair and recognize that gremlin face peeking out from behind the sofa.
“Fear, is that you?”
We all feel fear for many reasons. Some legitimate, others not. Some helpful, others damaging.
But regardless of the impetus, there are some things we can do to address the emotion and assess the situation:
- First of all, recognize it. As simple as that sounds, it isn’t always easy. Our coping mechanisms can be surprisingly “effective” and “comfortable.” And fear often wears a mask.
- Second, once you realize that fear is present, look it in the face and call it by name. “This is fear.”
- Third, let fear come. Open the door. Welcome it. Feel it in your body. Scream. Weep. Beat a pillow to a pulp. Go for a run. Do whatever you physically need to do. Just don’t try to stuff and repress. Fear is a fighter. It will have a voice. It refuses to be ignored. And it only gains strength when we hold it down.
- Finally, ask some key questions in order to process the situation:
1.What am I afraid of?
2. Is this threat real or perceived? (If you answer “real,” continue to question 3. If you answer “perceived,” skip to number 12.)
3. How imminent is the threat?
If the threat is imminent…
4. Do I need to run? Sometimes this is the only option.
5. Is there a concrete action I need to take? What would be a helpful and healthy way to “fight”?
6. Do I need help? What sort? From whom? How soon?
If the threat is not imminent (lies in the future) or is lingering (remains in the past),
7. Am I in danger right now?
8. Is there anything I can or need to do about this threat right now?
9. Can I release the emotion of fear to God? Will I?
10. Can I invite the Holy Spirit to replace the fear with peace and joy? Will I?
11. From that place of peace, what plan needs to be put into place to address the future threat or continue to heal the past?
If the threat is perceived/If the fear is without clear or concrete cause…
12. What happened in the present to trigger the feeling of fear?
13. What old fear from the past is being poked? What still needs to be healed?
14. How am I responding to the feeling of fear?
15. Is that response appropriate and helpful?
16. Is there a concrete action that I need to take?
17. Can I release the emotion of fear to God? Will I?
18. Can I invite the Holy Spirit to replace the fear with peace and joy? Will I?
19. From that place of peace, what plan needs to be put into place to heal the past?
20. Do I need help? What sort? From whom?
Certainly, when Peter suffered his stroke last fall, some of my fear was founded. It’s a scary thing to watch someone you love suffer. To have no answers for a time. To not be able to fix a problem. To encounter the fallibility of medical professionals. To realize (again) that the people who are supposed to keep us safe are not always up the task.
Certainly, some of my fear was helpful. It drove me to find answers and take necessary action. The adrenaline propelled me forward when I was otherwise depleted.
But that appropriate fear also poked other old fears. It came with reinforcements who continue to try to trip me up.
And—rather than simply accept and revert to old, automatic responses—a second lesson that I have been learning during this long year is how to better recognize my fear in all of its forms. By the grace of God alone, I believe I’m growing—little by little, day by day—in my ability to look fear in the face and call it by name. To feel that fear and then let it go. To see my own coping mechanisms for what they are. To laugh at myself more quickly and more often. To confess my own fallenness and ask for help and make new choices—small and large—for the glory of God and the sake of others. To pray for peace and welcome the Spirit’s care.
And actually—now that I think of it—I believe this lesson, in its totality, has a name of its own.
Let’s look her in the face, too, and call her “Courage.”