Our Days of Fear

Shall We Overcome?

A reader let me know today how much she appreciates my political pieces right now – because she fears sharing her concerns about the election and the future with people in her community. She doesn’t feel safe. And she feels alone.

I understand the fear. With fewer than fifty days to the election, things are increasingly overwhelming and difficult. The lying is unbearable - including the revelation that Trump knew in early February that the pandemic would be catastrophic and purposefully misled the American people as to its severity - many are overwhelmed almost to the point of being incapacitated. Between the pandemic, anger over racial injustice, and the fires out west, that is exactly what many of us feel: immobilizing fear.

Despite the dread, all of my emails, phone calls, and Zoom meetings on Monday were about politics and religion. Some of the correspondence, like the encouraging comment from the reader was welcome. But I also received a couple of notes that were otherwise – one from a woman who insisted that Black Lives Matter is a terrorist group and referred to this summer as “the 100 days of death” in the wake of George Floyd’s murder – “Have you turned a blind eye to many videos of them cheering the death and injury to cops and others who have different views?” she asked, and then ended with a demand: “This is mob rule and it needs to stop.” 

The other note came from a Texas man, who didn’t appreciate my recent piece about kindness, and used my hope for a more generous politics against me: “If Biden wins the election there are not likely to be any angry, unkind public demonstrations,” he insisted. “If on the other hand Trump wins the election, I am very certain that there will be a lot of unkind actions, riots and destruction.”

He went on to claim that liberals speak a “language of unkindness that I do not see coming from Trump supporters. It is the language of rocks and molotov missiles, looting, arson and murder that I would expect to continue if Trump wins.”

When I mentioned this to a friend who is a pastor, she said that the church she serves has received anonymous letters calling Black Lives Matter “a godless Marxist hate group.” Yet another told me how her Trump-supporting friends and family are sharing propaganda with the clear intent of making others fear for their lives and safety. “I’m afraid to even talk with them. Afraid to open Facebook or Twitter.”

All of my correspondents today wanted to talk about faith and current events, yet every exchange wound up being about fear. Some shared anxiety about expressing their own views in divided communities. Others inflicted their fears on me - clearly wanting to manipulate me into agreeing with them, almost as if evangelizing me into panic. 

How do we sort this out? Is there a way through this thicket of dread?

I suppose readers might expect me to quote from the Bible: “Fear not!”

Instead, I’d like to remind you of these words from President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s first inaugural address. One phrase – the only thing we have to fear is fear itself – is well known. But we rarely recall the whole:

I am certain that my fellow Americans expect that on my induction into the Presidency I will address them with a candor and a decision which the present situation of our people impel. This is preeminently the time to speak the truth, the whole truth, frankly and boldly. Nor need we shrink from honestly facing conditions in our country today. This great Nation will endure as it has endured, will revive and will prosper. So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.

He pointed out that there are different sorts of fear – first, the “nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes” us; and second, the sort of anxiety that can be overcome by truth. 

The speech is from 1933, and FDR was working from intuition and common sense regarding the problem of fear in politics. What he didn’t have access to was contemporary brain science.

In the decades since, researchers have discovered that fear is a primal emotion, located in one of the oldest parts of the human brain. Fear triggers a “fight or flight” response, and causes a cascade of biological changes: pupils dilate, breathing accelerates, heart rate and blood pressure rise, blood flow increases, and organs such as the gastrointestinal system slow. This is the biology of panic, and it prepares us for only one thing: to survive an immediate threat by either fighting or running away. What FDR called “nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror.”

Fear was evolutionarily advantageous. But human beings needed an additional response to fear – we had to learn to sort out real threats from challenges that could be overcome. The same scientists who tracked fear also discovered how fear moves into more developed, newer parts of our brains, where the primal instinct encounters higher thinking capacities, including complex responses like compassion and gratitude. When this occurs, extreme biological reactions lessen and our bodies relax. We can think more clearly, see new options, and choose to solve problems. What caused our fear is still there – we don’t deny legitimate sources of worry or concern – but when fear meets truth, it gives way to courage and creativity. 

And that’s what Roosevelt understood: there’s primal fear and there’s the fear that inspires action. 

Some of my correspondence today was about little more than primal fear – There are monsters! Terrorists are coming! They are going to kill me! Destroy everything that matters! I hate my family!

Yet most of my conversations were about the other kind of fear, where people were afraid but not held hostage by unreasoning terror. We are living during a time of complex and alarming challenges: the reality of racism, the suffering and grief caused by a global pandemic, and the near-helplessness we feel in the face of the climate crisis – all made worse by an uncertain election. The people I talked to confessed they felt enervated with anxiety, but they refused to give in to the fear.

I fear all these things, too. In order to not panic, I do lean into my faith with its injunction to “fear not!” But I also daily arm myself with knowledge and compassion, with the hope that fear can awaken us to the reality of the difficulties we face and inspire genuine change.

The only thing we have to fear is primal fear itself – and that some have turned that ancient instinct into a political strategy. Honesty about the fearful challenges that surround us shouldn’t cause terror or panic. Instead, pointing out what makes us afraid with clarity and truth is the way toward the valor we need.  

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I cannot pretend I am without fear. But my predominant feeling is one of gratitude. I have loved and been loved; I have been given much and I have given something in return; I have read and traveled and thought and written. I have had an intercourse with the world, the special intercourse of writers and readers.

Above all, I have been a sentient being, a thinking animal, on this beautiful planet, and that in itself has been an enormous privilege and adventure.
-Oliver Sacks

Do one thing every day that scares you.
-Eleanor Roosevelt

I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.
-Nelson Mandela


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