The Dark Side of Fear

I was 20, attempting to assert my independence, and determined to show that I didn’t necessarily need the help of others to find my way around. After all, I had been in London for a couple months. I had mastered the Tube. I could follow maps. There was no reason why I shouldn’t be able to find my classmates at the theatre after a day of exploring on my own. But then I got lost. It was dark, I got turned around, and no one seemed keen on helping a lost American student who was just trying to get to a performance of Macbeth.

It wasn’t until I was safely back with my group and settled to watch the show that I learned that I might have been wandering aimlessly around a decidedly less safe part of London.

Because I didn’t know I was supposed to be afraid, my panic was related to being lost, not to something potentially terrible happening to me. My fear kept me alert but didn’t paralyze me.

Fear has its place. It keeps us aware of our surroundings and prevents us from taking irresponsible risks. Much of the time, fear can protect us from making poor decisions and force us to think through the potential consequences of our actions instead of us always acting on our immediate desires.

But fear can also bring out our worst traits and hurt us and those we come into contact with.

How?

Fear keeps us from trying new things. We get comfortable with the way things are and don’t want to take risks, even when the potential reward is greater than our current state. Several weeks ago our pastor preached about letting go of the things that were holding us back from fully following God and finding our purpose. Then another of our pastors preached at my school’s chapel later in the week and talked about the benefits of following God into the unexpected. They were both messages that I needed to hear and had no desire to listen to. Why? Because fear has always kept me from trying new things and stepping into the unknown because I don’t like the loss of control. Our move halfway across the country was a huge leap of faith but it wasn’t entirely unknown. I knew people where we were moving to, I was comfortable with the change, and it was only kind-of risky. Still, it was scary, and there was plenty of fear that almost kept us from making a positive change in our family’s life. If we had caved to our fears, our family’s story would be completely different, and we are happy with the story we’re living.

Fear of abandonment and betrayal keeps us from developing meaningful relationships. Not long ago I saw a CBS news segment about the importance of teen friendships in developing romantic relationships later in life. As someone who moved when she was eleven and sixteen, the segment hit a raw nerve. I have several friendships that have carried over since childhood, but the number of long lasting, close friendships is very small. Why? Because I was afraid to get too close to people. It hurt to be ripped from those who knew me most and I didn’t want to go through it all over again. During my junior and senior year of high school, I focused on survival. I went to school, I did my homework, I participated in some school activities like theatre because I enjoyed it, and then I went home. My friendships were minimal, the intimacy with those friends was even more limited, and now well into adulthood, I have very few close friends. I have friends and people with whom I am friendly, but my intimate friendships are few and far between. I watch movies about women who have been friends since they were little girls and I envy even their fictional closeness. But we need people, something I keep reminding myself of, and so I take baby steps into new friendships pushing through my fears of change and abandonment.

Fear causes us to retreat from our neighbors and put up metaphorical and literal walls. In the months leading up to our family vacation to Big Bend National Park and in the months following, I’ve been amazed by the people who have questioned our decision to 1) visit the region and 2) cross the border into Mexico. Wasn’t it scary? Did you see any crime? I wouldn’t do that because why would I want to put my family in danger? What if you couldn’t come back? In all our discussions around our trip across the border, we never once thought to be afraid of the people we would encounter in and around the national park. One, we knew that the border crossing was being run by the National Park Service and if there are any government officials that we trust, it’s the many park rangers that we’ve met over the years. Two, we know the difference between perceived danger and actual danger. Yes, there is criminal activity along the US/Mexico border. Yes, there are certain areas that are more dangerous than others. Yes, there are bad people out there who want to cause innocent people harm. But it’s that way everywhere. We weren’t throwing caution to the wind and we weren’t going to allow the miniscule chance that something could happen to our family to prevent us from exposing our kids to another culture and genuine interaction with people who didn’t look or sound like them. Our family is better because of the experience. Those comments and questions concerning our activities, while full of genuine concern, highlighted a much bigger problem. Fear of those who do not look and sound like us keeps from achieving true racial and cultural reconciliation. I grew up in Detroit after the height of white flight, but over eight years we watched as our neighborhood and my inner city private school continued to become more homogenous, our white friends and neighbors leaving the city to settle into the “safer” suburbs. As a kid I was oblivious to the systemic racism driving those neighbors away, but now I can see how fear of others changed the make-up of my street and school, creating a losing situation in more ways than one.

Fear causes us to hate that which we don’t understand. In the eight years that we lived in Detroit, my great-grandmother, who only lived a couple hours away from us, never came to visit. The only time I ever saw her was when we traveled westward across the state to visit her for a couple hours or overnight either after visiting my grandparents or before. I remember once asking my mom why her grandmother never came to visit us. After all, my grandparents could have brought her with them on one of their many trips. My mom finally admitted that my great-grandmother “didn’t like black people.” The revelation shocked me. I was growing up in a racially diverse environment and couldn’t imagine never knowing African Americans. But my family would come face-to-fact with our own inexperience just a couple years later when we moved to central Wyoming, where my diverse upbringing would prove useless as we were introduced to Native American culture, something that we would quickly discover we did not understand. Over the course of life, I have spent a lot of time learning what I don’t understand about different people and cultures and coming to grips with my own fears of those I do not know. And while I have sought understanding, I know there are those who choose to give into their own fears. When those fears remain unchecked, they can grow into intense, damaging hatred. Consider the reactions of many immediately following 9-11, Muslims and those of Middle Eastern descent or appearance subjected to harassment or worse. Consider the people who still complain about the neighborhood falling apart when a family of a different race or ethnicity move in. After years of studying genocide and civil rights, I’ve come to the conclusion that fear is the root of hatred. The only way to erase that hatred is to take away the fear.

When I look around my country today, I see a lot of fear: fear of the unknown, fear of the new, fear of the other. We’re afraid of changes in our neighborhoods, afraid of the outcome of the next election, afraid of the changing economy, and afraid of loss of control. It’s this fear that causes us to lash out online and vote against the best interests of our neighbor. It’s this fear that keeps us from trying something new and reaching out to help someone else.

I know what fear does to me and I don’t like it. And while I can’t just wish it away, I want to do better. I want to live in hope, not in fear. I want to work to better the world for my neighbors, not just protect my own self interests.

It just means defeating the fear that tries to stop me from doing so.