Fear is the mind-killer.
Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.
I will face my fear.
I will permit it to pass over me and through me.
And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path.
Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.
That is the Bene Gesserit “Litany Against Fear” from the book Dune.
When members of the Bene Gesserit are faced with a situation where fear might cloud their judgment, they use this mantra to remind themselves that fear is something that can be conquered. Fear is not real. Not in the sense that puppies are real or kittens are real. Fear is a label we put on the feeling we get when our bodies react to something that might be a threat. It’s the autonomic response to external stimuli we perceive as possibly dangerous. And that’s the key word – “possibly.” We can be fearful of things that pose no threat or danger to us at all. But if our minds perceive it as a threat or even a potential threat, we react with fear. Like laundry detergent. Sitting in a box, on a shelf, in the grocery store, laundry detergent is no more of a threat than a gallon of milk. Swallowing a box of laundry detergent is a whole different thing, but just sitting there on the shelf it can’t hurt us at all. But in the mind of a six-year old boy who was told by his mom that laundry detergent was poisonous, it is like walking down an aisle of snakes. I know my mom told me that so I wouldn’t be tempted to take a scoop and eat it like it was a box of Pixie Stix candy, but I took it quite literally. I thought ingesting ANY amount, no matter how small, might send me to Death’s door, so every time we were in the detergent aisle I would hold my breath and RUN to the other end. I couldn’t understand why my mom took so long leisurely walking down this row of poison! And with my sister Karen sitting right in the basket!
Fear by itself is like laundry detergent.
It can’t hurt us. It’s meant to help us. Like the cute little guy in the movie Inside Out, Fear is meant to be your bodies warning system. It puts our body on high alert so we can respond quickly if something turns out to be an actual threat. But if we let fear consume us, we can end up doing much more harm than good. The internment of the Japanese population in America is a prime example of this. Despite absolutely no evidence of any actual threat by any person of Japanese ancestry, our government decided to lock up every one of them (including my parents and grandparents). They forced them to move to the desert in conditions worse than most prisons without any compensation for their loss. And although we were at war against the Germans and the Italians, people with ethnic ties to those countries were not typically rounded up. It was fear that drove that decision, despite the evidence against it. The same thing happened after 9/11 with the Muslim community. Hate crimes against people who looked Arabic (whether they were Muslim or not) skyrocketed. Abuse, violence, and even death all in the name of retribution for 9/11 against American citizens whose only crime was looking Arabic. Similar things have happened in the LGBT community, the Mexican community, and pretty much any group you can think of who have been labeled as “different.” In the “Litany Against Fear,” they describe fear as the “mind-killer” and the “little-death that brings total obliteration.” And that rings true on so many levels. Fear erodes at our being. Fear turns us into the worst versions of ourselves. That person who normally would be kind-hearted and caring, can turn into a rabid hate-monger. It’s the “little-death” because it happens without us consciously being aware of it. It’s a “mind-killer” because it erodes logical thought. We don’t suddenly say, “Today I’m going to be a hate-monger.” But as fear gnaws away at our character we develop prejudices and negative attitudes that don’t align with the truth at all. Instead we develop our own “truth” and convince ourselves that our actions are not prejudiced or hateful but are done for our “protection” or the protection of those around us. But if you peel away the layers of it all, it comes down to fear.
But fear can be overcome.
It does not have to dictate our actions and it does not have to erode away at our character. In his second letter to Timothy, Paul is trying to encourage him to boldly proclaim Jesus to the world. I don’t know if Timothy actually has a fear about doing this, but since Paul is in jail at the time, maybe he was trying to bolster Timothy’s spirits? Most of us would feel scared or down-hearted if our mentor who we believed in was captured and put in jail. So Paul is trying to encourage Timothy to carry on in his absence. After a few pleasantries, this is how Paul begins his letter.
7 For the Spirit God gave us does not make us timid, but gives us power, love and self-discipline. 8 So do not be ashamed of the testimony about our Lord or of me his prisoner. Rather, join with me in suffering for the gospel, by the power of God. 9 He has saved us and called us to a holy life—not because of anything we have done but because of his own purpose and grace. This grace was given us in Christ Jesus before the beginning of time, 10 but it has now been revealed through the appearing of our Savior, Christ Jesus, who has destroyed death and has brought life and immortality to light through the gospel. 11 And of this gospel I was appointed a herald and an apostle and a teacher. 12 That is why I am suffering as I am. Yet this is no cause for shame, because I know whom I have believed, and am convinced that he is able to guard what I have entrusted to him until that day. – 2 Timothy 1:7-12
We are not a timid people!
At least that is not the way God designed us to be. God meant for us to be bold in offering the love of Christ to everyone. He wanted us to move beyond our fear of the unknown, beyond our fear of the unexpected, beyond our fear of rejection and boldly show the world the love of Christ in tangible, real ways. Not just the people who make us feel comfortable. Jesus said it himself in Luke chapter 6, 32 “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them. 33 And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners do that. 34 And if you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, expecting to be repaid in full. 35 But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. 36 Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.”
Our temptation is to sink into our comfort zone.
To allow our fear to prevent us from doing what is right and instead do what is easy or helps us to maintain the status quo. And that is how evil works through our fear. It erodes our character, diminishes us from the way God created us to be, and convinces us that the cowardly, cruel, and mean things to do are the right ones. God did not create us to be a “careful” people. He taught us to be wary of those things that might cloud our judgment or separate us from God, but God did not create us to be “careful.” We are supposed to be a bold people. The true test of a person is not how he or she behaves when things are good, but when things are at their worst. Do they hold onto their beliefs? Or do they give in to fear? When we give in to fear, like we did after 9/11 and during World War II, we give in to the evil that is in the world. If we stand strong in our faith we honor the Spirit God gave to us and we create a better world.
There are ways we can fight our fears!
According to Dr. Theo Tsaousides, we first have to respect and understand fear. Knowing that our reactions are sometimes based on fear and not based on reality can help us make better choices when fear enters our lives. So we need to understand where our fear comes from. Some things we are just biologically disposed of to fear. Like giant bears and poisonous snakes. But sometimes fear comes because of our own past experiences. If you nearly drown in the water, you’re probably far more likely to be afraid of swimming. Sometimes we are simply projecting what might happen into the decision-making process and that can bias us into choosing fear-based actions. But we need to be aware that what Dr. Theo calls “forecasting” doesn’t mean it’s likely to happen, and we have to learn to differentiate between the likely and the unlikely. Fear can be conquered, but if we don’t acknowledge our fear, if we don’t work toward overcoming it, we are likely to keep heading down a destructive path. And that is true not just for our lives, but our community, our society, and our country as well. We cannot let fear rule us. And we can be certain that God did not create us that way.
Today, I can walk boldly down the detergent aisle.
I even buy the stuff on my own. That seems to be such a childish thing because it is. But so is being afraid of people because of the color of their skin. Or because they are gay. Or because they eat different foods than you do. Fear isn’t always rational. And for us to be the people God created us to be, we have to recognize our fear and grow beyond it. We cannot allow for fear to dominate our way of thinking. Fear can be a great tool to warn us, to heighten our senses, but it can also be a “mind-killer” and the “little-death that brings total obliteration.” There is nothing wrong with being afraid. The most brave, courageous people in the world are afraid at times like all the rest of us. The difference is they recognize the fear and don’t let it overwhelm them. Stand up to fear. Use it as the tool it was meant to be, but don’t let it use you. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.