By Mark Shea - OSV Newsweekly, 10/31/2010
It’s almost that time of year again. Soon, terrifying figures will be roaming our neighborhoods from door to door and the air will be filled with the sound of voices begging that we “treat” them to a gift they badly need and warning of “tricks” that could befall us if we do not heed their pleas.
I speak, of course, of Election Day, that national ritual in which politicians terrify us with our worst fears and tell us that if we don’t treat the Donkey (who alone can save us) to a vote, then we will die from global warming, and if we don’t treat the Elephant (who alone can save us) to a vote, then we will die from a terrorist attack.
Politicians love fear. It’s one of the most useful tools in their bag of tricks when they want to stampede people toward a desired goal. Hint darkly that things too terrible to describe will happen if you don’t vote for Smith and you not only get a lot of votes for Smith, but (if you play your cards right) a sort of snowball effect you can turn to again and again every election year to herd people back into the booth for Smith.
Even if you are an incompetent or corrupt boob, you can always say, as pols have done since democracy was invented, “Look. So I’m not that hot. So I’ve kept you waiting for 30 years with promises that I will soon get around to that Issue you care so much about. But remember this: If you don’t vote for me then the horrifying Jones will take my job and all you have worked so hard for will be lost — forever lost! — just as I was about to really finally do what I’ve been promising to do for you all these decades! Be afraid! Be very afraid! For Jones will destroy all that you love most!”
Of course, it’s not just pols who love fear. Anybody who is trying to manipulate you for any purpose likes to exploit its marvelous properties. Entertainers love it. It makes a good horror film. Incorporated into a song in small doses, it can fill an audience of needy young teens with the terror of being the first to get dumped by their significant other or the last to lose their virginity. In advertising, fear is an invaluable ingredient in countless ploys by salesmen to sell ice to Eskimos. Indeed, one of the wonders of modern marketing is that here in my native rain-soaked Washington, watered by a thousand streams of pure fresh mountain streams, somebody has talked us into the desperate need to buy bottled water to avoid all those toxins that aren’t there in our water.
Why are we such suckers for fear? Well, the first and most obvious answer is: There’s a lot to be afraid of. War, famine, pestilence, plague, high taxes, and the Seattle Mariners’ next losing season are all causes for fear. We fear losing our money, our lives, our loved ones, our freedoms. We fear the dentist, the final exam, the onset of labor, the rise in prices, the rise in ocean levels, the fall of American culture and the fall of some world-destroying asteroid. Turn on the news or entertainment and the culture is filled with fear.
But fear is something more than the external beating of the world’s threats upon our eyes and ears. It is internal as well. There is an element of choice to fear. And these days, lots of people are making that choice, and telling themselves (or listening to the culture tell them) that now as never before we face a scary world.
I will be blunt: That is a lie. The myth of a golden past in which human beings did not face threats to life, limb, loved ones, liberty and land such as we face today is just that: a myth. Back in the happy Reagan years, we came this close to the Soviets launching a nuclear strike against us (prevented only by some Soviet functionaries who refused to follow procedure and whose guess that their early-warning system was in error turned out to be true). When we baby boomers were children, the happy innocence of “Howdy Doody” was overshadowed by the hydrogen bomb. Before that, we were facing down the Depression, Hitler and Stalin. Before that, there was World War I and polio. Before that, all the diseases that antibiotics have wiped out, plus a boom and bust economy, Civil War, smallpox, the Black Death, the Thirty and Hundred Years’ Wars and so on. Take it as far back as you like. The reality is that there has never been a time when we were not faced with just as much, if not more, to fear as we are right now.
The good news about this is that, since fear is pretty much a constant of the human condition and not some new thing just discovered by our generation, it means the Catholic tradition has a long experience of it and can help us learn to respond to it with the wisdom of the Holy Spirit.
Interestingly, tradition distinguishes between two kinds of fear: “servile fear” (bad fear) and the fear of the Lord (the good kind of fear). Against servile fear, Scripture offers us the exhortation to “be not afraid.” This is why, again and again, angels who appear to humans begin the conversation with the exhortation to not be afraid when the humans to whom they appear start to melt like wax with terror. Similarly, Jesus repeatedly has to exhort the apostles not to be afraid of everything from bad weather to the hatred of men. St. Paul more or less sums up the paradox of the Gospel here when he tells Timothy:
“For this reason, I remind you to stir into flame the gift of God that you have through the imposition of my hands. For God did not give us a spirit of cowardice but rather of power and love and self-control” (2 Tm 1:6-7).
This exhortation and warning against servile fear goes way back to the Old Testament and points out a linkage we often do not think to make — namely, that just as one of the benefits of trusting God is courage, so one of the consequences of fading faith in God is fear.
Here, for instance, is Leviticus, spelling out for Israel the blessings and curses that will attend those who keep or fail to keep the covenant. Note the parallels as God says to the faithful:
“I will establish peace in the land, that you may lie down to rest without anxiety. I will rid the country of ravenous beasts, and keep the sword of war from sweeping across your land. You will rout your enemies and lay them low with your sword. Five of you will put a hundred of your foes to flight, and a hundred of you will chase ten thousand of them, till they are cut down by your sword” (Lv 26:6-8).
But to the faithless, he says:
“Those of you who survive in the lands of their enemies I will make so fainthearted that, if leaves rustle behind them, they will flee headlong, as if from the sword, though no one pursues them; stumbling over one another as if to escape a weapon, while no one is after them — so helpless will you be to take a stand against your foes!” (Lv 26:36-37).
Living, as we now do, in a culture that jumps at its own shadow, filled with security cameras, endless false reports of imminent terror attacks (and some genuine ones), jittery about every new scientific finding that proves something else in your diet, with water or air that wants to kill you, and besieged by endless scenarios in both news and entertainment about some new and ingenious way large numbers of us will be slain in our sleep, or on the bus, or in our cars, or on an airplane, our post-Christian culture is coming to resemble this Levitical picture of a restless society of frightened sheep very much.
So we do silly things like banning 6-year-olds from school because they brought their lucky whittling knife to class in their backpack. We solve the problem of religious differences by banning all religious expression in the public square, making a desert and calling it peace. Or (much more darkly) we look the other way when an innocent man named Maher Arar is renditioned to Syria for 10 months of torture because we are afraid of his foreign name and looks. Arar, a Canadian, was subsequently awarded $9 million dollars and a full apology from his own government, while we refuse to acknowledge wrongdoing because we’re afraid (there’s that word again) of looking bad. (See below for more on the dark side of servile fear.)
Of course, not all fear is utterly paralyzing. There are fears that we can choose to cooperate with — or not. We can seek God’s help in overcoming our fears, or we can suckle at the breast of fear and deliberately find more and more things to dread. And we needn’t be unbelievers to do it. Indeed, some pursue anxieties to which the godless are immune, perpetually fretting about the latest alleged Marian apparition and the imminent doom it foretells, or angsting about whether some conspiracy has kept from us the true Third Secret of Fátima, or sweating about whether 2012 might really be last year of the world. Sometimes, being spiritual simply means that you can choose to have a larger cosmos in which to let your fears roam like free-range chickens.
But, of course, the good news of Jesus Christ is that we always have the option of turning to him instead of to servile fear and coming to be rooted in the good kind of fear, the fear of the Lord.
Such fear is, we are told, “the beginning of wisdom” (Prv 9:10; Ps 111:10). To get the hang of what the biblical tradition means by this, you must imagine, not a cringing slave, cowering child or fawning lickspittle, but something like the sort of smallness and humility of spirit you might feel looking up at the starlit sky on a clear summer night. It is the exhilarating sensation of recognizing your vanishing tininess before sheer immensity. And it is heightened, not lessened, by the breathtaking and beautiful realization that the Power and Glory upon which you gaze is not an impersonal force or fate, but a Father who loves you and gave his only Son to die a slave’s death out of sheer love for you. A little literary picture that gives a glimpse of what we are talking about can be found in “The Wind in the Willows,” when Mole and Rat encounter the awe-inspiring Piper at the Gates of Dawn:
“‘Rat!’ he found breath to whisper, shaking. ‘Are you afraid?’
“‘Afraid?’ murmured the Rat, his eyes shining with unutterable love. ‘Afraid! Of him? O, never, never! And yet— and yet— O, Mole, I am afraid!’”
Of this sort of fear, Scripture has nothing but good things to say — and so do all the saints and any other soul blessed to have tasted it. It is there that joy puts down its roots into the soil of our childhood and we recall the sweetest memories of blissful reverence before that which is greater than we. We can learn the elementary steps of that dance in our awe and humble fear of some great figure in our life — perhaps a father or grandfather, perhaps some sports hero or other wonderful figure. But all earthly experiences of such fear are only dim shadows of the beautiful fear of God that is so highly prized that the Church, following the prophet Isaiah, sees it as one of the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, given in confirmation. Not only does wisdom begin with it, but in the sacrament, such holy fear feeds and strengthens us to have courage against the very assault of hell itself.
In short, the great paradox is that as we rely more and more on God in awe-filled, holy and joyful fear we discover the great mystery of self-denial for Christ and learn that the things of this world intimidate us less and less. When you lose your life you save it.
In the case of fear, the “loss of life” we must undergo is that of choosing hope over its twin enemies, presumption and despair. Like hope, these two sins are always oriented toward the future. Unlike hope, both sins pretend to know how the story ends: happily (says Presumption, so it doesn’t matter how much you try to obey Jesus in the present moment) or horribly (says Despair, so it doesn’t matter how much you try to obey Jesus in the present moment). Notice the common theme? The devil’s goal is always to get you away from obeying Jesus in the present moment. In contrast, Our Lord tells us:
“So do not worry and say, ‘What are we to eat?’ or ‘What are we to drink?’ or ‘What are we to wear?’ All these things the pagans seek. Your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom (of God) and his righteousness, and all these things will be given you besides. Do not worry about tomorrow; tomorrow will take care of itself. Sufficient for a day is its own evil” (Mt 6:31-34).
In short, the key to defeating fear is not to look to the future (except insofar as to prudently plan for it) but to look to the Eternal Christ in the “sacrament of the present moment” and lift our hearts up to him now. For it is here and now that you can meet him who is hope — right here and now. And it is he to whom we say, “The LORD is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear?” (Ps 27:1).
Servile fear can talk you into doing evil things, and it can keep you trapped in impenitence once you do them.
Take Herod Antipas, for instance. He made a rash promise to Salome to give her anything — up to half his kingdom — if she would dance for him. She did — and then demanded the head of St. John the Baptist on a platter. Herod knew that she was asking him to do something completely evil. “The king was distressed, but because of his oaths and the guests who were present, he ordered that it be given” (Mt 14:9).
You might think that this is about as low as somebody can go under the lash of fear. But there you’d be wrong. At least Herod felt sorry for what he was doing, coward though he was. But fear, combined with pride, can lock the soul into monstrous justifications for evil where we can lie even to ourselves and persuade ourselves that gross sin is an act of self-sacrificial courage.
Here, for instance, is Heinrich Himmler, head of Adolf Hitler’s SS, in a secret address given in October 1943 to troops carrying out the mass murder of Jews:
“It is one of those things that is easily said. ‘The Jewish people is being exterminated,’ every party member will tell you, perfectly clear, it’s part of our plans, we’re eliminating the Jews, exterminating them, ha!, a small matter.
“And then along they all come, all the 80 million upright Germans, and each one has his decent Jew. They say: all the others are swine, but here is a first-class Jew.
“And none of them has seen it, has endured it. Most of you will know what it means when 100 bodies lie together, when there are 500, or when there are 1,000. And to have seen this through, and — with the exception of human weaknesses — to have remained decent, has made us hard and is a page of glory never mentioned and never to be mentioned.
“We have taken away the riches that they had, and I have given a strict order, which Obergruppenführer Pohl has carried out, we have delivered these riches completely to the Reich, to the State. We have taken nothing from them for ourselves. A few, who have offended against this, will be [judged] in accordance with an order, that I gave at the beginning: He who takes even one Mark of this is a dead man.
“A number of SS men have offended against this order. There are not very many, and they will be dead men — WITHOUT MERCY! We have the moral right, we had the duty to our people to do it, to kill this people who wanted to kill us. But we do not have the right to enrich ourselves with even one fur, with one Mark, with one cigarette, with one watch, with anything. That we do not have. Because at the end of this, we don’t want, because we exterminated the bacillus, to become sick and die from the same bacillus.”
Note the sick logic here: the willingness to commit murder is transmuted, in Himmler’s diabolical imagination, into a brave act of self-sacrifice. “SS soldiers are tough men willing to do the dirty work of war. They don’t moralistically refuse to do acts that risk hell. They have the guts softer men lack to slaughter thousands of innocent Jews and are willing to endure this hardship — the psychological trauma that goes with doing monstrous evil — for the sake of the love of country without looking for any loopholes. But see! We don’t take any spoils for ourselves as we carry out the slaughter. All is given to the Reich. So our charnel house of race murder is pure of heart!”
So great is Himmler’s self-inflicted fear and hatred of the Jews that he becomes a child-murdering monster in order to destroy what he fears and hates — and tells himself he is a hero for doing it. It is a supreme act of cowardice.
Now most of us will not (God willing) find ourselves at the extreme end of fear, trying to justify genocidal cowardice as courage. But all of us are tempted, in little and big ways, to take steps down the road toward allowing fear to dominate us in one way or other, sometimes more culpably, sometimes less.
At the minimal culpability end of the scale are things like powerful phobias. The world teems with these sorts of things: fear of bugs, heights, crowds, dogs, etc. And the last thing that helps us overcome them is the demand to “get over it.” (A favorite Bob Newhart sketch has him as a psychotherapist whose only two pieces of “help” for a woman who is terrified of being buried alive in a box are 1) STOP IT! and 2) STOP IT OR I WILL BURY YOU ALIVE IN A BOX!) This sort of approach, based on raw application of human will, is more or less what the entire Old Testament exists to explode. We cannot overcome our human weakness. We require the help of Almighty God. And he is always willing to give it — especially through prayer and the sacraments.
In “The Screwtape Letters” (HarperOne, $13.99), C.S. Lewis’ demonic Uncle Screwtape explains hell’s strategy of using fear to keep our minds on the future:
“To be sure, the Enemy wants men to think of the Future too — just so much as is necessary for now planning the acts of justice or charity which will probably be their duty tomorrow. The duty of planning the morrow’s work is today’s duty; though its material is borrowed from the future, the duty, like all duties, is in the Present. ... He does not want men to give the Future their hearts, to place their treasure in it. We do. His ideal is a man who, having worked all day for the good of posterity (if that is his vocation), washes his mind of the whole subject, commits the issue to Heaven, and returns at once to the patience or gratitude demanded by the moment that is passing over him. But we want a man hag-ridden by the Future — haunted by visions of an imminent heaven or hell upon earth — ready to break the Enemy’s commands in the present if by so doing we make him think he can attain the one or avert the other. ... We want a whole race perpetually in pursuit of the rainbow’s end, never honest, nor kind, nor happy now, but always using as mere fuel wherewith to heap the altar of the future every real gift which is offered them in the Present.”