26 October 2009

Wrestling with Fear

Our parish Sunday Morning Adult Forum yesterday was the third in a four-week exploration of our economic melt-down and the Christian community's response to the many facets and effects encountered over this past 18 months (entitled, "God, Power and Wealth"). It was a fascinating discussion in which most everyone of the 19 people in the room contributed. The one word that kept entering the arena of expression was "fear."

One principle upon which most folks agreed was that the media has played a very large role in both promulgating and sustaining a high level of fear and anxiety within our culture. Sensationalism reigns supreme among the pundits and "talking heads" of both news and talk shows -- regardless of idelogical platform. There remains little or no objectivity in reporting events or critical material to the public. There seems to almost always be an emotional spin-up with any news story. But, that isn't the whole reason.

We are fearful people. The unknown or the uncontrollable can almost instantly create a fight/flight response grounded in fear. Behind that fear is a rather constant anxiety about our well-being and safety. And, even though we live in a time in history of unprecedented safety, fear still drives many of our responses to life events. Example: Almost anyone who lived in the 1950s and 1960s was exposed to two swine flu epidemics. I had swine flu as a young teenager and remember being really, really sick for about four days. My mother, an RN, kept me in bed, hydrated and medicated. I got over it just fine. The fact of the virus was duly reported, and folks were given precautions to take. Ultimately, the epidemic ran its course. I do not recall much fearfulness. When flu vaccines came on the scene, I started getting an annual vaccination and have continued for the past nearly 20 years. No one suggested we should be afraid of these injections....no more than we were fearful of polio vaccinations that began in the mid-1950s. Now, the media spin hard on the "bad news about vaccinations." Please.

Author Ursula LaGuin wrote a trilogy that I read in the early 1980s. The series was called the "Earthsea Trilogy." The first volume introduces the hero, Ged, who is discovered to have unique capabilities that defined him as a "mage" -- a wizard. He went to a special school on an isolated island of Earthsea. Being a tad cocky in his youth, Ged takes the bait of a taunting fellow student and conjures something very dark and sinister, which kills his teacher and begins chasing him all over Earthsea. Ultimately, almost dead, he finds himself at the doorstep of the old wizard that raised him. After being nursed back to health and sharing his deep fear and dread at the ugly blackness pursuing him, the old wizard tells him, "you must turn and face this thing...encounter it, or it will kill you surely."

What ensues is a back and forth flight-pursuit between Ged and this monstrous black thing. Entering a dark valley, Ged is now the one in pursuit. Finally, near exhaustion, the black ugliness turns, and Ged encounters it full force. They embrace and struggle wildly. Ged then looks into the face of the shadowy blackness of the creature and, behold.....it is his own face he sees. This creature is his death!

In the end, the struggle becomes integration. It is then that Ged is fully alive and truly complete. It is only then that he can become what he was created to be...a Mage of Earthsea.

Ursula LaGuin utilizes Jungian psychology to create a story that is the description of the struggle that each of us must engage. It is a story of encountering those things that we most fear, embracing them, learning their true identity and incorporating them into our daily life. Death is the ultimate "boogeyman," and the approach of All Saints' and All Souls' Days is one time to ponder the true hero's journey. The saint is one who has wrestled hard and deeply with the things most feared in life...and has prevailed. They become more alive, more complete and more truly reflective of the Image of God in which we have all been created. These aren't special people. They are the beacons that tell us all what we can and must do in order to be fully alive.

There are times when some folks will say to me, "you don't seem to care about....." (name it...an issue, a crisis, etc), or "you are not very responsive to....." (name it, someone's expressed anxiety or stress or discomfort). What is actually being said is that I am not resonating with the fear they are experiencing and, thereby, sharing it. It's the truth. Part of my vocation is to wrestle with the deeper things of life and creation. It often means walking in the "valley and shadow" of trauma, pain, grief, crises, etc. It is a blessing not to experience fear as a first order response to those situations. It gives me the time necessary to assess, question and identify....and, if necessary, pursue. It does no good whatever to respond to anxiety or fear with my own anxiety or fear.

Do I become afraid? For sure! Do I get anxious? You bet! Do I let it take over and run me amok or drive me to irrationality? Not if I keep my wits, say my prayers, go deep within, give chase and embrace whatever it is. I most often discover the true identity and take it on as a part of my life. In October 2007, I accepted the advice of my Lakota mentor -- when I was seeking to spend my sabbatical doing research among those wonderful people. I made Hanblecheya -- a Vision Quest in the center of the Black Hills (SD). After preparing by way of fasting and gathering the necessary tools for this time, I was led to the top of an isolated hill at dusk and spent the next 14 hours in solitude -- with only my gym shorts, a blanket and seated in on a buffalo skin on a hallowed rectangle of earth. I was admonished not to leave that space, not to fall asleep and to offer prayer as was customary to my tradition. Afraid? Yes, I was in a totally unknown place 15 miles from anything like civilization. It was very dark. What I experienced remains largely between me and those who mentored me through that experience. I came away having stuggled with some very seminal fears. I was truly a different person, as I was helped down that hill after sunrise the next morning -- cold and stiff from being in a small space for so long.

The hero and heroine's quests are not for that "golden or bejewelled something out there" that will make life worthwhile. The quest is what is within that must be discovered and enlivened by the struggle -- the darkness within. If we embrace it, we discover that we are less fearful and more truly alive.

As the letter writer John says: "Perfect Love Casts out Fear." (I John 4:18)


Fred Mann

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