Discriminate when it comes to fear | Learning to discern what is Really Real

I read a lot of fantasy, because it helps me think slant about Reality, especially in times when its ugliest parts are staring me in the face and I want to look away, but I can’t look away, so I need to look at something else to see it. Get it? I’m no 1-to-1 subtype, so locking eyes with naked Reality in a hyper-focused way can be a bit intense. Reading fantasy is, for me, like turning around and making eye-contact in a dimly lit mirror--a whole different kind of connection. Reading it is a way for me to stay alert and process what's happening in the world, while taking a little space to get clear about what is overwhelming me. And lately I’ve had ample time and desire for it because, well, this is a year with an abundance of “space” and “overwhelm.” Can I get an Amen?

I’ve also recently begun reading The Givenness of Things, essays by Marilynne Robinson, at the behest of a friend whose opinions on these things I trust. As he listened to me processing away on the phone one day, he said, “Annie, have you read the chapter on Fear yet?” I hadn’t, but when a good listener points you towards something you need to read, you get right to it. So I did, and I stopped writing what I thought I was going to write because Marilynne Robinson is a gem who has said what I would’ve wanted to say, better-er. Also she loves John Calvin in a way I cannot understand or resonate with, and this intrigues me. As a Christian, and American, and one traumatized by 5 point Calvinism, I thought, hey, maybe she can help renew my mind? Turns out she is doing just that. Read on to hear what she has to say about Fear, and then what I have to say about what she has to say. If you are not a Christian or an American (the people singled out in this piece), please stick around as well, since this is surely not a “members only” conversation, and perhaps it will be interesting to you in ways that would be interesting to me to know about:

“America is a Christian country. This is true in a number of senses. Most people, if asked, will identify themselves as Christian, which may mean only that they aren’t something else. Non-Christians will say America is Christian, meaning that they feel somewhat apart from the majority culture. There are any number of demographic Christians in North America because of our history of immigration from countries that are or were also Christian. We are identified in the world at large with this religion because some of us espouse it not only publicly, but also vociferously. As a consequence, we bear a considerable responsibility for its good name in the world, though we seem not much inclined to consider the implications of this fact. If we did, some of us might think a little longer about associating the precious Lord with ignorance, intolerance, and belligerent nationalism. These few simple precautions would also make it more attractive to the growing numbers among our people who have begun to reject it as ignorant, intolerant, and belligerently nationalistic, as they might reasonably conclude that it is, if they hear only the loudest voices.

There is something I have felt the need to say, that I have spoken about in various settings, extemporaneously, because my thoughts on the subject have not been entirely formed, and because it is painful to me to have to express them. However, my thesis is always the same, and it is very simply stated, though it has two parts. First, contemporary America is full of fear. And second, fear is not a Christian habit of mind. As children we learn to say, ‘Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I will fear no evil, for Thou art with me.’ We learn that, after his resurrection, Jesus told his disciples, ‘Lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age.’ Christ is a gracious, abiding presence in all of reality, and in him history will finally be resolved…We as Christians cannot think of Christ as isolated in space or time if we really do accept the authority of our own texts. Nor can we imagine that this life on earth is our only life, our primary life. As Christians we are to believe that we are to fear not the death of our bodies but the loss of our souls.

We hear a great deal now about the drift of America away from a Christian identity…In the 26th chapter of Leviticus we find a description of the state the people of Israel will find themselves in if they depart from their loyalty to God. ‘The sound of a driven leaf shall put them to flight, and they shall flee as one flees from the sword, and they shall fall when none pursues. They shall stumble over one another as if to escape a sword, though none pursues.’ Now, of course, there are numbers among us who have weapons that would blast that leaf to atoms and feel brave as they did it, confirmed in their alarm by the fact that there are so very many leaves. But the point is the same. Those who forget God, the single assurance of our safety, however that word may be defined, can be recognised in the fact that they make irrational responses to irrational fears…There are always real dangers in the world, sufficient to their day. Fearfulness obscures the distinction between real threat on the one hand and on the other the terrors that best those who see threat everywhere…Granting the perils of the world, it is potentially a very costly indulgence to fear indiscriminately, and to try to stimulate fear in others…but no one seems to have an unkind word to say about fear these days, unchristian as it surely is.” (124-126)

Let’s see if I can tie together the forcefulness of Marilynne's prose with a little reminder about what the enneagram is. The enneagram a tool for de-obscuring the distinction between real threat and terrifying-non-threat. Because, lest we forget, we are terrified people in a world with very real threats. We carry around little light-up devices that constantly alert us about these threats, real and imagined. So, the first thing the enneagram helps us to do, is to find that common ground—we all fear. The question is how we discriminate what is to be feared. And in this way, we are all very limited. You cannot escape the vulnerability and limitation of your humanity, which includes the ease with which you and I are deceived into seeing something real where there is actually nothing there. And so, I have a piece of paper on my wall behind my desk which simply asks me “are these feelings based on what’s real?” The answer isn’t always quick in the coming, or an answer that I like, but it absolutely must be asked. And I must ask it of myself, aware of and still learning the particular ways in which I am susceptible to self-deceit and despair.

For me, I cling, and have sometimes clung by an unravelling thread, to the Christian story—a story about God's love revealed in Jesus in a real time and place to people who were surprised by it, and who received a radically different hope than they expected—more powerful (if you think about power in a healing and re-making kind of way), and frankly, less powerful (if you think about power in a top-down, control-oriented kind of way) than they imagined. But whether or not you know or trust this story, you can’t escape relying on stories about what reality is and is like. And these stories teach us about what to be afraid of, and what we can depend on. Better stories are, I think, true ones that put us squarely in the domain of the human, and give us hope that we can operate there as people who are both vulnerable and powerful. We are vulnerable in that there are lots of “givens” we didn’t choose in our bodily lives. And we are powerful in that we can extend what we have been given, submit ourselves, in varying kinds and degrees to the service of a bigger love than self-love, and a bigger hope than, say, our bank accounts or today's version of our #bestlifenow. Without stories which broaden and deepen our hope, the pursuit of self enclosed safety and security will always present themselves as the most rational narrative, and we usually choose it, if there's not a better, or more real story.

So, during Advent, we are taught to stop, wait, and pay attention, looking for a very real light that shines into a very real darkness--a different story. A very particular hope. But like most good stories, until we are willing to see that our minds play tricks on us in the darkness, we won’t know that we can hope for more than we see. We’ve grown accustomed, and maybe secure in our ways of getting by, coping in the darkness. The problem with illumination is that it will always show us whether or not our fears are real—and we don’t always want to know. Sometimes we fear the light more than the darkness because we discover we are coping instead of crying out. And perhaps that’s one reason that we find a Christian proverb that says “the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom,” because to know that the Light will unsettle my idea of and control over things is both deeply scary and deeply true. So, Advent at your own risk. And enneagram at your own risk. Both are ways of powerfully entering into the vulnerability of being human, and both find us, fearfully searching for security in our self-enclosedness, eyes closed as we dream, not sure if we want to wake up to the darkness and wait for the light. But this, my dear ones, is the work worth doing, and the strange grace worth receiving, even as we wait for the light. If you are finding it hard to hope, I'll be over here holding onto hope on your behalf. --

If you want to do a little bit of reading that helps you think in new ways about fear and evil, here’s a reading list made up of some stuff that I've read this year:

The Farthest Shore by Ursula LeGuin (this is book 3 in a 6 book series, so I'd definitely recommend the books before and after as well--book 4 is my favorite)

Thoughts in the Presence of Fear by Wendell Berry (this links to the full text, which is well worth a read)

"Fear" -Marilyn Robinson (as partially quoted above)

Have you read any good books about fear and the discernment of threats? send me an email to recommend!

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