I think I have always lived slightly afraid of something.
• I am not afraid of being attacked like a soldier must feel on a battlefield.
• I am not afraid of falling off a cliff, although I would be if I did not avoid heights.
• I am not afraid of being struck by lightning because... well... I'm just not.
My fears have always been slightly more subtle ones.
Here are a few of them...
• I think my extroverted nature hides my fear of being invisible.
I developed this fear in my young adult years. My father was an expert extrovert and it came naturally for him. That is, whether in a group of two or three friends or speaking in front of a thousand people, Dad was always funny, a great storyteller, and completely at ease in almost any situation.
I, on the other hand, was not. I always felt invisible, almost like a prop on someone else's stage. I am sure Dad sensed this and was bothered by it. Being the good father he was, he tried to include me whenever he and his peers were chatting it up. I would chime in but only ever awkwardly. I never felt as if I had much to add, however.
For these reasons, and probably many others I am not even aware, I learned to compensate for the fear of being invisible to everyone by working hard to be unavoidable. I became an extrovert, too. But the difference was two-fold: my extroverted personality came across unnaturally.
As a consequence, my auditions for everyone's approval were regarded suspiciously or interpreted as mere self-promotion. That created a different set of problems for me. The invisibility I feared and sought to avoid was only enhanced instead.
Do you know a similar fear?
• I think my fascination with wealth hides my fear of not having enough.
I do not remember a time when I have not been fascinated by opulence and wealth. I have always imagined having plenty of the latter, which probably explains why I did not dismiss the impulse to buy a Powerball ticket when it recently reached a half billion dollars.
I do not regularly buy lottery tickets. It is an ethical matter for me. But, when the amounts reach planetary heights, I find myself temporarily suspending my principles and trying my luck at planetary travel.
"What harm could there be in that?" I reason. "Besides, 'Somebody's Gonna Win...Might as Well be Me!'" (To read a recent post where I outline the actual odds of winning the Powerball Lottery, follow the link to "Better Listener.")
You might recognize the words, "Somebody's Gonna Win..." as the slogan the Lottery Commission used for years to promote the buying of Powerball tickets.
Whenever I feed the fantasy of having hundreds of millions dollars, I enjoy the temporary reprieve I get from the fear of not having enough.
As I do, do you worry too much about having too little?
Sometimes, I fear I might not have enough income for my present needs. At other times, I am scared I might not have enough for my future needs. Is this true for you?
I have been involved in professional fundraising for many years. I always found it amazing whenever I interviewed a retired person whom I regarded as sitting on a heap of investments at least equal to the gold of Fort Knox. I would be amazed at how reluctant some of them could be to turning loose of even a little of their acquired wealth. So much for the "trickle down" myth.
"What are you scared of?" I often wanted to ask. "You, my friend, are sitting on a fortune. Why don't you share some of it?"
When I finally stopped asking these questions in my head and looked instead into my own heart, as well as my own fears, I understood. They were only worrying about the same thing I feared - the fear of not having enough.
Having more makes no one less fearful. It might in fact make you more fearful. You certainly have more to worry about protecting.
• I obsess over fitness and health as a way of avoiding my fear of death.
My Dad died of an unexpected stroke at the age 67. He was too young to die and with no prior symptoms about which we were aware. He had been active, played tennis almost daily, and traveled extensively. But one night, unexpectedly, while giving an inspirational talk to several hundred people, he just collapsed in the middle of a sentence.
He never recovered.
And, his death scared me to death.
While that was twenty years ago now, the whole thing still sends shudders down my spine, but not because I am worried about where he is. There was a time I might have been. I was raised in a conservative religious church where most of the preachers constantly questioned whether people had properly prepared for eternity. That was the extent of their beliefs about salvation. They would never admit this. But, if their preaching were an indicator, all they were really concerned about was getting people "saved," as they called it, so they would go to heaven and avoid hell when they died.
Eternity was not my enemy, however. My enemy was the same as Saint Paul who described death itself as "the last enemy" (1 Cor.15:26).
Death or dying or both frightened me.
They still do.
Over the years, I think I have used my obsession with running and fitness as a means of running away from this fear. You can imagine, therefore, what consternation struck me on July 13, 2014, the day I experienced a heart attack myself but at an age younger than the fatal stroke that stole my Dad's life twenty years before.
This was not supposed to be the outcome to my fitness devotion. I had been running for four decades to avoid something like this. For months now, I have been on a quest to go deeply into my fear of death, as well as my other fears, and actually understand them, deal with them, and ask the hard questions about how to cope with them. And while I am at it, I have been seeking to know what my faith, if anything, has to say about the fears with which I have struggled for most of my life.
The following is the procedure I have been following on this journey into my inner world. The good news is, I actually think this process is helping me cope with my fears. Maybe something here will helpful to you and your management of fear.
1. I no longer feel I am failing at my faith just because I live with fear. I made this mistake through much of my spiritual life. I would tell people, "Jesus said, 'Do not be afraid,' (Jn 14:1) so, if you are ever afraid, just know that means you're not living by faith. Why? Because fear is the opposite of faith."
That's a crock of you know what!
Jesus was afraid from time to time. How could he have been human and not be afraid? To assume he was not because of his divine nature, or worse, to say that he was not ever afraid because he was God is not honoring his divinity but robbing him of his humanity.
What makes Jesus so accessible to me is not his divinity. I am divine. So are you. If that is not what "image of God" in us means, what does it mean?
His humanity makes him accessible.
His unconditional compassion makes him approachable.
Jesus knew fear. What else could he have been feeling in the Garden of Gethsemane? (Matt. 26:36ff). What else could his words have possibly meant: "Why have you forsaken me?" (Matt. 27:46).
Yes, he knew fear.
Yes, I know fear.
It is part of what it means to be human. I showed up in this world, just as you did, as an eternal, divine being having a temporary human experience, as the Christian philosopher, Teilhard de Chardin, loved to remind us.
My task, and your task, too, is not to escape my humanity, mistakenly believing there is something inherently depraved or evil about it. Instead, I am to live into my humanity as fully as possible, which is what makes Jesus' life so remarkable. He showed us how.
It does not mean, therefore, I am less Christian or less divine because I live with fears. It means I am affirming my humanity and accepting its limitations.
2. When I am afraid, and that is more often than you might think, I try to be aware of it. I try to acknowledge and watch like an observer the fear in me. I try to locate the trigger of the fear, too -- as in, what might have precipitated it?
I ask myself questions like, "Why am I feeling afraid? Can I name the fear?" And then, I get quiet and watch my inner world, much like a watching a drama on a stage. By doing this, it is as if I'm turning a spotlight on the dark places of my soul. I usually see, too, what it is causing me to feel afraid and I name it, which is half the battle, is it not?
In the past, whenever I have been afraid, I would pretend I was not afraid instead. Or, I would judge myself for feeling afraid as if I were failing. Neither approach worked to eliminate my fears.
In fact, those ways of coping only seemed to feed my fears, the way fuel feeds a fire, making them all the more acute. Inner awareness, therefore, is the key I am using to unlock the mystery surrounding my anxieties. Naming my fears helps, too. Try this approach yourself but let go of self-judgments.
3. Once I am aware of the fear and have named it, I seek to step squarely into it, much like stepping into the shower in the morning. Can you imagine turning on the shower but, instead of soaking yourself freely in the warm shower, imagine trying to dodge the multiple streams of water?
"What would be the point?" you ask.
It is similar with fear. You can no more live free of fear than you can shower without getting wet. To be afraid from time to time is the stuff of living. You cannot avoid it. Nor should you. Fear is necessary.
What is not helpful is the obsessive, compulsive nature of fear. This is what I seek to guard against. And, you must, too.
My approach to avoid the compulsory nature of fear is to step squarely into it...to feel it, not judge it or, worse, try to run from it, as I literally did for years with the fear of dying. I seek to feel my fear instead, much like I would feel the warm water running over my body in the shower. Not because I enjoy feeling afraid. I do not. But I am learning that for me, this is the only way to temporarily cleanse myself of the ill effects of fear.
4. As I fully feel my fears, I then ask God to free me. This is what having a savior means to me. I do not need Jesus for the future. I need Jesus now. The future, whatever and whenever it shows up, will only appear as another now.
That is true of eternity, too. Whatever lies beyond your last breath is really just another now.
I do not mind admitting either that I need Jesus. Maybe you do not. Good for you. I do, however.
Why? There are times I am weak. And, too much of the time, I am scared.
But, in all such times, I need my faith, which is why one of my favorite stories is that of Simon Peter walking on water. He does so well but then, all of a sudden, he sinks beneath the tumultuous waves.
You perhaps remember the story (Matt. 14:22ff). I like it because I have been right there where he was and more than once.
Sometimes, it seems as if I can walk on water. In fact, I fortunately feel this way most of the time. But there are those days, and moments, when the wind and waves are beyond my control. I feel overwhelmed, scared and even sick right in the pit of my stomach. I can neither explain this nor control it without feeling a need to call on God.
So, I do. And, it works. Is it all imaginary? Maybe to you. Not to me. Whatever God is, I feel she responds to my plea for help. I get through, too, and go beyond the fears and return to a place of joy and inner peace.
And, it lasts for a while. Sometimes, for a very long while...
And then, the process outline above needs repeating because they return and I repeat it.
Could this be what the spiritual masters meant when they spoke of a spiritual practice? Well, I think so. But, in any event, it has become my spiritual practice.
This post first appeared on Dr. McSwain's website blog.
Dr. Steve McSwain is an author and speaker, counselor to non-profits and congregations, an advocate in the fields of self-development, interfaith cooperation, and spiritual growth. His blogs at BeliefNet.com, the Huffington Post, as well as his own website (www.SteveMcSwain.com) inspire people of all faith traditions. Dr. McSwain is an Ambassador to the Council on the Parliament for the World's Religions. His interfaith pendants are worn by thousands on virtually every continent, sharing his vision of creating a more conscious, compassionate, and charitable world. Visit his website for more information or to book him for an inspirational talk on happiness, inner peace, interfaith respect or charitable living.