11/04/2013 02:23 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

How Do We Process Our Fears?

Fear is the emotion that emerges out of anticipating a danger that threatens our well-being, whether that threat is real or imagined. Fear is natural. Fear is necessary. It enables us to live responsibly. Without fear we all would have been dead. Martha Nussbaum notes that "The removal of fear would produce social disaster: obtuseness about real dangers to life and limb, failures to protect both self and other." The emotion of fear helps us to look after the well being of others and ourselves.

Sometimes we experience a dissonance between the inevitability of fear and the way Jesus rebuked the disciples who panicked when the boat was drowning: "Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?" Or when the psalmist declares "The LORD is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The LORD is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?" Is fear a sign of a lack of faith? Are we called to repress our fears? Is this the right and healthy path? Is it possible for us to get rid of our fears altogether? Having no fear is not only unreal and impossible, but also makes us fall prey to real menaces and threats around us. Thus, having the right amount of this emotion helps us be safe and secure.

This does not mean that we fall prey to our fears, however. Because having too much fear consumes us, distorts our relations, and causes us act in hostile ways. The question that lies before us, then, is how to handle our fears in a way that discerns and navigates through real fears and unwarranted fears. "Untamed fear, writes Nussbaum, can produce unreliable and unpredictable conduct." It can manipulate us to act in aggression towards that which we think is a threat. If this fear is not processed in a holding and safe, yet critical environment, it will grow in an unhealthy manner and produces a sense of insecurity, which will possibly perpetuate acts of violence.

The fear of the unknown and unfamiliar makes us become more self-centered and as a result we lose sight and become unable to distinguish between real fears and exaggerated fears. Fear often feeds onto stereotype about an ethnic or a religious group; such stereotypes need to be dismantled because they are harmful and unhelpful generalizations. Thus fear needs to be scrutinized and evaluated. In a world where politicians manipulate the masses by fear, communities of faith need to recognize the importance of its role in the process of discerning real fears from imagined, perceived and self-projected fears. This is a commitment to exposing lies and to speaking the truth.