Friday, September 10, 2010

Have no fear (Sunday Reflections for September 12, 2010)

There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. (1 John 4)

Certainly one of the most famous lines from a presidential inaugural address is from FDR’s first in 1933: “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” If it is an overstatement, it isn’t one by very much. As one scans history or the events of our own lives, fear appears again and again as the culprit in many of our worst judgments and disastrously impulsive acts.

In recent years, science has been making us aware that many of our primitive instincts are ill-suited to modern life. Reactive behaviors which saved our pre-historic ancestors’ lives, and were programmed into our DNA, now can work against us. Often they short-circuit our ability to pause and reflect on events or environments that seem to threaten us. In the wild there was often no time to think, as seconds could be the difference between a narrow escape or ending up as some other creature’s lunch. Fear saved us, triggering a rush of adrenaline to power our heart and legs as we literally ran for our lives.

Such a response can still be appropriate—and life saving—but now in the modern world threats are often more subtle and the best response to them less obvious. Nonetheless, the old fight-or-flight mechanisms still function. We still get that adrenaline rush and can barely resist the urge to do something, whether it makes sense or not, whether it might not, in fact, make the situation worse rather than better.

Roosevelt’s inauguration occurred 3-1/2 years after the infamous October 1929 stock market crash. After an initial skid, the economy had seemed to be recovering. Then in 1932 the bottom dropped out: economic activity slumped, unemployment soared, banks failed, savings disappeared. During this time there were many voices seeking to exploit people’s fears. There’s a reason that economic crises have often been called “panics.” These voices called for drastic action, saying that the existing order had failed and something completely new had to be tried.

In many places around the world, such voices were heeded. In Italy and Germany, fascist parties muscled aside fledgling democracies and indeed soon had industry producing and people working again. The Soviet Union seemed to have escaped the global downturn altogether. Years later, these achievements were shown to have been unsustainable (in the case of fascism) or illusory (in the case of Stalinism) but at the time they were alluring alternatives.

It’s understandable then that much of Roosevelt’s speech in that early spring of 1933 sought to rebuild confidence in America’s democratic institutions. He needed to, for many saw them as hopelessly broken and beyond repair. People were afraid and demanded action. What FDR needed to prove was that the existing system could rise to the occasion and right the badly listing ship of state.

One of the primary tactics of the voices of fear has been to find someone to simplistically blame for the nation’s troubles. From the Bible, such people have come to be called “scapegoats”—one hapless victim made to take responsibility for the community’s ills. If only we get rid of “them,” then our problems will be solved.

Here, too, science has been helping us understand this behavior and it’s really just another aspect of our innate fear response. Again, our primitive ancestors’ survival required that they be able to quickly identify exterior threats. It also seems that survival chances were improved for those who could quickly unite to fight a perceived common enemy. Thus today the most divided communities can still be brought together to fight an external threat, even if it had been impossible to come together for any other purpose.

Fear and anxiety never go completely away. Typically, however, they are kept in check by the general sense of security provided by society’s political, economic and cultural structures. Today that sense of security has weakened and the voices of fear have become more numerous.

This weekend it is nine years since the attacks of 9/11; long enough that it is now only a blurry memory for adolescents. For most adults, however, the images are still vivid and the anxiety it induced is only just below the surface. As a result, those memories can still be exploited by demagogues and hysterics, such as the Quran-burning pastor from Florida. He and his tiny church are, of course, virtual non-entities. What is so interesting is how easily he has gotten the attention of global media and political leaders. (There has also been a paranoiac reaction from church leaders rushing to say “He’s not one of us!” But that’s another story.)

There is no question our country faces serious problems but possible attacks from Muslim extremists is probably not actually very high on the list. One of the reasons Roosevelt saw fear as an obstacle was its potential to distract attention from the real problems needing to be solved. Too easily we are drawn to an irrational problem with a simplistic solution, rather than confront the real problem whose solution may be protracted and complicated. Again, we have to fight our own instincts to DO SOMETHING NOW in order to pause, think, plan, and then get down to work.

Every religious tradition recognizes the close connection between fear and hatred. In that sense, the 1 John verse quoted above is not remarkable. Its insight, however, is that we will not conquer our fears (and the hatred that accompanies them) by removing all their causes. There will always be sources of danger in our lives.

Rather, we conquer the power fear has over us by love. By loving family, friends and neighbors we, first of all, pull our attention off of ourselves and our problems and onto others. It strengthens our ties with other people and makes the whole world seem less threatening. Love also rebalances our lives and readjusts our priorities and sense of what is genuinely important. We cling less; and open up, let go, and reach out more.

The political and economic problems we face today are serious but they also are complicated and a long time in the making. There will be no quick fix, no enemy to be disposed of, and no man or woman on a white horse who will ride to our rescue. Indeed, our attempts to pursue any of those things will only make our situation worse.

We will need calm spirits and clear thinking to accurately perceive both the problems and their solutions. Fear is the biggest obstacle to all those things. Rediscovering who and what we love is the surest way to short-circuit the power of fear and those who seek to exploit it.


Barb D-P said...

Great, as usual, Doug! Thanks!

Doug said...

Thanks Barb!

Anonymous said...

I'll second that. Very concise and on spot. As usual. David Mc

Anonymous said...

This might be a bit off topic. I find the comments by the public encouraging -

David Mc