The Common Good
October 2004

Fear Itself

by Richard Rohr | October 2004

Unless we observe and surrender our small, daily anxieties, we won't recognize the really big fears, in all their disguises, that control our politics, our denominations, our bank accounts, ...

Fear has such control over most lives and most groups because it is hardly ever recognized as such.

Fear has such control over most lives and most groups because it is hardly ever recognized as such. It is normally thought of as prudent concern, common sense, deserved anger, or another "bottom line." The pattern is classic: Satan must be disguised as an "angel of light" (2 Corinthians 11:14). It is the only way that evil can gain control over us, since we all seek a positive self-image, and no one wants to think of themselves as paranoid, cowardly, or even slightly fearful—these do not fit the American, Christian, or successful self-image.

It is very telling that exorcisms, which are an "embarrassingly" large part of Jesus’ ministry, often have to do with forcing the demons to name themselves correctly, or to name themselves at all. Much of the work of spiritual growth has to do with "Saying...to those in darkness, ‘Show yourself!’" (Isaiah 49:9). Frankly, if one does not have a developed tolerance for truth-telling and humility about one’s real motives, this hardly ever happens. We remain largely fear-based, while thinking of ourselves as very moral. But Jesus warns against fear more than he warns against anything else, with the possible exception of hypocrisy. Fear is useless, he says (Mark 5:36). It distorts all perception.

Fear, of course, is almost always a fear of losing something. If one is not practiced in losing and letting go, the art of "releasement," you can be pretty sure that your entire life will be controlled by fear. But most of our fears are so petty—and so habitual—that few of us notice what it is that we’re afraid of losing. In a secular culture like ours, you can pretty well presume that some form of fear is the major and controlling "demon" of almost all individuals and groups: There is no one to release to. There is no reason to release, and every motivation to hold on, harbor, and hoard.

Even believers have used the scriptures and the sacraments to cover all their fears, leaving almost no way out of their vicious circle. They even fearfully "love" God, so there is almost no way that fear can be exposed for the blindness that it is. It has become religion itself.

Of course, we can see this much easier today in Islam, or any religion other than our own. They are clearly afraid. Afraid of losing their pride as Arabs, afraid of losing the boundaries of Israel, afraid of losing control and power in any area where they have it.

Of course, that is our problem in the West as well. We tend to be control freaks, which is the price you always pay for being in control. The more you are on top, the more you have to protect, the more you have to lose, the more you are unpracticed in letting go—the more fear-based you tend to be. It is a dramatic and surprising irony.

Thus wealthy people, climbing people, "conservative" people in general are precisely those who have a lot to conserve. By definition, they must be on guard, circumspect, suspicious, wary, with insurance policies at every level. No surprises allowed. One gradually slips into this entire stance toward life precisely through the process of climbing, competing, succeeding, and saving. Those on top literally have everything to lose. I can see why St. Francis told us not to "own" anything, even our own prayer book! He said that once we owned anything, we would say to the brothers "Bring me my prayer book!" or "Who took my prayer book?" You can either say Francis was utterly naive or he was a religious and societal genius.

I have observed in myself, I am ashamed to say, that people I do not "like" are usually people that I am somehow afraid of, but in very subtle ways, and sometimes even understandable ways. I am afraid they will control the conversation, they will use up hours of my time, they will be needy or high maintenance, they will express neurotic or stupid opinions, they will want more of me than I want to give, etc. These all might be legitimate reasons for not diving into a long-term relationship with the person, but I have also had to admit that in each case I am afraid of losing something—usually my autonomy and my self-determination, if just for the next 10 minutes.

Unless we become practiced at observing and surrendering those petty and daily fears, there is no way we will be able to recognize the really big ones (and really disguised ones) that control our politics, our denominations, our bank account, and frankly, the world’s future. Mutual terrorism is the future of life on this small planet, if we do not exorcise this demon of fear.

So our world is overwhelmingly fear-driven today. We have made self-interest into a virtue and called it "enlightened" self-interest. We have made "going to heaven" into the supreme goal of Christianity, which might or might not have anything to do with love—which might or might not have everything to do with fear. When love and service of the other are no longer culturally idealized, we are all put on a track toward fear—because the small and insecure self is now center stage and must promote and protect itself. When religion makes individual "soul saving" into a substitute for a transformed presence in God’s world, religion itself is on a track of fear instead of love, which is not very good religion. The underlying fear is utterly disguised and denied and even made into virtue. Strange that we can see it in Islam and Israel, but not in ourselves.

The letter to the Ephesians (5:13) intuits what later psychology would merely unpackage: Anything exposed to the light will itself become light, the author says. That is rather amazing considering that most of us today think in very dualistic terms about good and evil. Here Ephesians says that "dark" things, like fear and shame, can actually be used for our own good and transformation, if we just hold them up to the light. They themselves can become a form of light!

Goodness is not just evil avoided, or even denied. It is much more evil transformed, as the cross itself reveals. Salvation and sin are correlatives more than opposites, and the biblical tradition does a most amazing thing by revealing this surprising and divine pattern. Paul makes it very explicit when he says that "it is when I am weak that I am strong" (2 Corinthians 12:10).

In other words, we cannot just talk ourselves out of our fears. We cannot just pretend we are not afraid. We cannot hate or frontally attack our fear. To begin the process of appropriate "exorcism," we must first of all feel and "suffer" our actual fear, taste the nature of our anxiety, get a sense of its texture and style, its falsity, its plausible disguises. We have to admit that we don’t want to lose something, and admit exactly what that something is. Is it our reputation, our manner of living, our group identity, our control? Then we can deal with the real demon, instead of shadowboxing with enemies that are not the real enemy at all.

Rainer Maria Rilke described this human conflict well when he wrote that "when we win it’s with small things, and the triumph itself makes us small" ("The Man Watching"). To "win" by denying or projecting our little fears only gives them even more power over us. Somehow, we must each admit that we are tiny, insecure, and needy. I guess I have real doubts whether the autonomous ego can do that. It has to pretend that it can and will do all things by itself. The strong only appear to pull it off; the ordinary masses capitulate in every form of prejudice, violence, and silly status symbol. You see, the ego must deny or project its fear to be an ego. It’s the only name of its only game. Egos manufacture themselves through constriction and experience fear when asked for any kind of surrender, intimacy, or releasement.

Some thought that the post-Enlightenment person would be forever free and rational. Yet in many ways, contemporary humanity, even educated humanity, is more fear-based than ever. Education is not the same as transformation. Secular humanity has no one to rely upon. No one to trust. No one to share the burden with. The imperial ego is collapsing under the weight of its smallness and it concomitant fear. The small self has everything to lose because it is all an unanchored project to begin with.

Unfortunately, governments, political parties, and even religions long ago learned how to manipulate these fears and offer people a quick way out or a false way through. Usually these paths involve the oppression of some other group, or the repression of your true self. If you do not recognize that fear, I would say that you are almost totally manipulatable, or as Jesus would say, "a reed shaken by the wind." We must name fear for the true blinding and evil demon that it is, or I see little change in our political situation. Senatorial and educated old people seem to be just as "possessed" by this demon as the rest of us. Fundamentalist Christians are not appreciably different than fundamentalist Jews or Muslims. It is the same demon.

Knowing I will sound very much like a preacher, I will still say that "the only cure for possession is repossession." Somehow one must be held and contained in a larger Self that can recognize fears for what they are. We must be "possessed" by a Secure Identity that is not subject to every payoff, momentary reward, false promise, and trumped-up fear. We believers would call that Secure Identity the Godself or the Christself. If "salvation" does not mean that, I really wonder what it is that we are being saved from and saved for? Salvation had better start meaning something in the social, political, and economic order, or we are going to wonder if we need it.

But it takes a poet to sum up, and I return to Rilke’s "The Man Watching":

What we choose to fight is so tiny
What fights with us is so great!
If only we would let ourselves be dominated
as things do by some immense storm,
we would become strong too....

There are two immense "storms" in life, it seems to me: the storms of our negative emotions and the storm of a true encounter with God. Eventually, you must "feel" both of them. It is the price that we must pay for both emotional intelligence and spiritual awareness.

Richard Rohr, OFM, founder of the Center for Action and Contemplation in Albuquerque (www.cacradicalgrace.org), New Mexico, had recently authored Soul Brothers: Men in the Bible Speak to Men Today (Orbis Books, 2004) when this article appeared.

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