Fear parading as virtue
Joy Cowley looks at the place of childhood fears and notes how we make security into a false god
It’s interesting that false gods begin existence as gifts, blessings of one kind or another to help us on life’s journey. So what turns a gift into a false god? When does the blessing become inauthentic? I think the answer lies in the degree of possession. I know that I am given everything I need for personal growth but, like manna in the desert, those gifts can turn bad if they are hoarded and jealously guarded.
Take security for example. We are born with a primal instinct for survival. It is a part of our gene code. As new infants, we blink at strong light, flinch at loud noise, cry when we experience hunger and discomfort. In early childhood it is our fear that helps keep us safe. We reject food that tastes unfamiliar. In moments of uncertainty, we run to our parents. Why is it that all over the world, children are afraid of the dark? Could this be a deeply atavistic reaction? After all, for millions of years, night has been a dangerous time for small, helpless, wandering humans. Fear might be an uncomfortable emotion but it is the gift connected to our survival, and an important gift, at that.
Somewhere early along the road, we start pushing back the boundaries of fear. Children seek adventure, new skills, daring games that occasionally result in fractured limbs but almost never broken spirits. Parents can become alarmed at a child’s appetite for horror films or violent comics. Just as fear is instinctive, so too, does the child feel the need to actively meet fear face to face and stare it down.
Years ago, I had a letter from a mother who was politely objecting to a book I had written for young readers. The story was about a farmer who discovered a giant weta in his bed. The woman said her four-year-old was having his six-year-old brother read the story to him every night, and every night, the four-year-old woke up screaming that there was a giant weta in his bed. This woman was very concerned and wanted the book withdrawn from publication. We had a long and friendly discussion. I told her that the book was written for school--age children who understood the difference between fact and fantasy. Also, I suggested that what was happening to the four-year-old was very interesting. Although he had nightmares, he still insisted that his brother read him the book each night at bedtime. This four-year-old was actively dealing with his fears.
It would be convenient if we naturally outgrew fear, but that doesn’t happen. In adult life, the survival instinct, operating as the ego, still uses fear to protect itself; but in the adult world, fear has learned to wear a socially acceptable disguise. It often parades as virtue.
We would all know that a certain amount of caution is both healthy and necessary. Again, it is a matter of degree. We also recognize that evil in the world is a distortion of the animal instinct for survival, that “me first” instinct out of control, and nearly always it dresses itself up as goodness, justice, even holiness. Society knows how to put a layer of gold leaf on fear and make it an object of worship. The gift becomes a false god.
We are aware of what Jesus said about the worship of security, whether that be related to power, material possessions, status, law or even our own ideas. Jesus advocates an insecurity that can sound threatening to us. He who loves his life will lose it. Take up your cross and follow me. Except a grain of wheat die it remain a single grain. Do not gather treasure on earth. Consider the lilies of the field. It all sounds so miserable! But some time in midlife, when we can reflect on the road behind us, we begin to see the wisdom of insecurity. We realise that some of the protective fences we’ve built around ourselves have become prison walls that can prevent growth and shut out a greater love.
As children we needed to deal with our fears in order to inhabit a wider place in society. Now, in maturity, the process begins again, this time bringing us to a larger place in our spiritual life. Far from being threatening, taking down the fences of fear is the most liberating thing we can do for ourselves. It frees us to the greater love that Jesus talked and lived.
We know how our hearts respond to the words in the St John letter: There is no fear in love but perfect love casts out all fear. The ideal resonates as truth, but our fears have grown subtle. They too, claim truth. All that gold leaf! How do we recognize the false god beneath it?
I believe that this inner journey must be done with compassion, love and prayerful gentleness. Judgmental attitudes come from fear and when we lay criticism on ourselves, we compound our problem. Simple awareness is usually enough. What is it within us that feels tight and restrictive? What thoughts harden our lovely soft hearts? What ideas do we hold in a tight fist? What takes us forward on our sacred journey and what holds us back? Where is the clutter in our lives and how do we name it? How do we fill that inner emptiness that was created for God?
When we become aware of our false gods, they usually melt away by themselves. But that is not to say we won’t make new ones. We will. Of course, we will. That’s what it means to be human. But with ongoing awareness, we can look kindly on our infantile needs, laugh at our performing ego and let the false god of security diminish with neglect.
The Australian cartoonist, poet and mystic Michael Leunig writes:
There are only two feelings.
Love and fear.
There are only two languages.
Love and fear.
There are only two activities.
Love and fear.
There are only two motives, two procedures,
two frameworks, two results.
Love and fear. Love and fear.
Is it really so simple? I think it is. It’s the tension between the two that can make life complex.
There is an old Hasidic story about fear which I find powerful. It goes something like this:
A holy man went on a journey and failed to lock the door of his house. While he was away, a crowd of demons entered and took over his dwelling. When the man returned and opened his door, the demons rushed at him, ready to devour him. The man slammed the door shut and prayed. Then he took a deep breath and opened the door again. At once, the demons pounced but as they reached for the man, he bowed low and acknowledged their presence. An amazing thing happened. Half the demons disappeared but the biggest and strongest were left, and they leapt at the man. He reached out to them and offered them hospitality. Could he give them drink? Cook them a meal? At this, the rest of the demons disappeared – all but one who was the chief. This demon was huge and very fierce. It was not going to be deterred. It opened its jaws, showing the sharpest of teeth, and as it came close, the man put his head right inside the demon’s mouth. The chief demon also disappeared and the man had his house back.
The meaning I glean from this parable is useful:
1. I acknowledge my fears.
2. I embrace my fears as part of myself.
3. I locate the chief fear in my life, and put my head in its mouth.
It is not necessary to describe the pantheon of false gods that can be formed by our desire for security. My biggest false god is created by my ideas and my values. What should be gift held lightly in an open mind, will very quickly become an idol and I find myself sitting on the road, worshipping my own opinions. Always it takes conscious effort and much good humour to be aware of what is happening and move on.
We are sometimes reminded that we are not human beings on a spiritual journey but spiritual beings on a human journey. I like to think of myself as a human becoming, rather than a human being. We are all little souls that must learn to cope with the love and fear paradoxes of incarnation, and that is the job of a lifetime. And if the way at times seems difficult, then we have the great comfort of knowing that we do not walk alone. Emmanuel. God-is-with-us.