ARE YOU AFRAID?
It is a strange fact that intelligent, able-bodied adults, perhaps with grown-up children of their own, can be haunted by nameless, irrational fears. My mother was afraid of spiders, and could tell at once when she walked into an empty room that there was a spider in a corner of the ceiling, nor could she remain in the room until we had ejected it. Other people have been afraid of rats, bats, cats. My own irrational fear was of dead animals and birds: I was quite incapable of taking a dead mouse off a trap. The cause of such fears might be revealed by psychoanalysis, but in practice they could probably be overcome by a direct confrontation with the object arousing the fear. My mother should have kept a tame spider, handled it, fed it and learned its habits. I should have been made to pluck and dissect a dead bird. We are afraid of the unknown; if it can be made familiar, the fear disappears.
There are other kinds of fear, equally irrational, which need to be taken more seriously as they interfere with a person's work and life-style. I had a letter from a lady who was appealing for help as she was obsessed by fears: fear of being alone, fear of traveling by herself (she had to take a stiff drink before going to the supermarket!), fear of what others might be thinking of her, fear of doing the wrong thing when in company. Maybe she needed professional help, but I tried to give her some advice. She should confront her fears, as with the spiders and dead birds. She should verbalize what she thought she was afraid of: what might happen to her on her way to the supermarket, what people might be saying of her behind her back, what she might do wrong when in company; and write it all down on paper. When she saw it in writing it would seem so ridiculous that she might find herself able to master the fears. Or, alternatively, she could describe in words a highly successful journey to the shops, a happy evening spent on her own, a pleasant meeting with friends, and so on. Emotions are difficult to deal with unless they are intellectualized or attached to thoughts or expressed in words; you can face up to and handle the thoughts, and then hopefully the emotions will be seen for what they are and can be encouraged or rejected in a rational manner.
Take notice of your body as well. Before undertaking anything of which you are afraid, sit quietly and relax for a while. Or stand in front of an open window and breathe deeply. Put on some music with a good rhythm, and move every limb and muscle in time with the music, until all tensions are loosened. Doing this regularly will have a good therapeutic effect, especially if you can be thinking at the same time that the Lord's life is flowing into you, strengthening and healing you. You are under His Divine protection, now and always.
Much of our nervousness, fear and insecurity are due to a lack of self-respect. Self-respect is not the same as self-love. Far from it! In fact, a lack of self-respect often shows itself as self-love! If you are doubtful about your own worth, you tend to push yourself forward and boast and brag, continually drawing attention to yourself; and this cuts you off from a healthy relationship with other people, and ultimately from God himself. Self-respect puts this right. I don't mean the "stiff upper lip" sort of thing, supposed by foreigners to characterize Englishmen, but rather the capacity to be comfortable with oneself, to be well integrated and stable on one's own two feet.
The Americans understand this better than the British. An American college girl wrote to us recently and said: "I am getting along fine here. I like myself. I like the way I relate to other people. I like my attitude to life." Knowing the girl I am convinced that there was absolutely no boasting here. She had detached herself from herself, and was making an objective appraisal of herself. She loved herself in the same way that she loved her neighbours, which is precisely what Jesus said we were to do: "to love our neighbour as ourself." She does not consider herself more important than other people, which would indeed be a foolish and dangerous attitude to take. But she accepts herself happily for what she is, without always trying to be something different.
After all, God made you, so you must be basically good! Think of some of the qualities you possess which are admirable (you must possess some such qualities — everybody does!). You will have some bad qualities too (everybody does!) and there are occasions when you should undergo a thorough self-examination of your evils, in order to overcome them; but if you are trying just now to deal with insecurity and irrational fears, don't harp too much on the negative aspects of your character. Accentuate the positive! Think about yourself. You might have been brain damaged. People might have had to make allowances for you, and say: "Oh, poor dear, she can't travel alone, she would lose her way, she would be knocked down crossing the road. Someone must go with her." Then rejoice and thank the Lord it's not like that at all! You are able-bodied and intelligent, and it's you who should be helping others, not they helping you.
Many of our fears are due to emotional immaturity. When we are children and cannot control our environment, we have to put up various defenses. We build a wall around ourselves for protection. Then we grow older and become adult and no longer need that wall, but many of us still keep it there. We retain our fears, which were justified while we were children, but make no sense at all when we are earning our own living and taking our place in the world. We are eager to be well thought of by our age-group, and to be safe and inconspicuous — which was important when we were children, but not now. Stop living in a fantasy world of the past, and face up to reality!
So far I have been speaking of irrational fears. But there are other kinds of fear which come into a different category. Fears of accidents and sickness, fear of poverty, and, in some countries, fear of the secret police. These fears have substance, because people do suffer accidents and sickness and so on. The risk is always there; it may be our turn next. But if we follow our Lord's advice and take each day as it comes, being not anxious for the morrow but trusting in the protection of His loving Providence, then our fears will disperse like the morning mist when the sun shines on it.
Strangely enough, those of a trustful disposition do tend to be safer than those who are always expecting disaster. There is a theological explanation for this. We are all of us exposed to influences from heaven and hell. By harbouring cheerful thoughts and hopeful attitudes of mind, we attract good spirits, and bring ourselves into a safe and healthful sphere. Even if troubles do come, we shall see them as a challenge: tough and rugged exercises for strengthening our fibre, and we get a sense of satisfaction from dealing with them. On the other hand, gloomy and anxious thoughts attract evil spirits who hate us and want to destroy us, bringing upon us the very situations we fear. "That which I greatly feared has come upon me," said Job. Even if we succeed in avoiding physical disasters, we become spiritually sick.
Looking back over my own life, I am quite astonished at the remarkable way in which occurrences that seemed disastrous at the time have turned out to be for the best. I can now see the hand of Providence in everything that happened. Well, if the Lord has worked so wonderfully for me in the past (and other people say they have had the same experience), cannot we safely trust Him in the future? "God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore will not we fear, though the earth be removed and though the mountains be carried into the midst of the sea." (Psalm 46: 1,2.)
Fear is not always for oneself; it can be for a loved one. A lady in South Africa told me how desperately frightened she used to be on behalf of her husband, when he was away on the many long car journeys he had to take alone, on bad roads through wild country without any possibility of telephone communication. She couldn't sleep at nights when he was away, worrying about him; it was making her quite sick. Eventually she decided she must take herself in hand and confront her fears. She asked herself, "Suppose he does have an accident?" Then she tried to visualize in practical detail exactly what might happen, even to the possibility of his lying dead in a ditch. She was merciless with herself, bringing all her fears to the surface and dealing realistically with them. Her conclusion was that she could do nothing about it after he had left in the car, so it was useless to worry. What she could do was to live happily with him when he was with her at home! Having faced up to this, she put all these negative thoughts on one side, and concentrated her mind on visualizing a successful journey for him, and a joyous reunion when he returned home - which he invariably did!
There is nothing to fear in death. Emanuel Swedenborg gives a detailed and trustworthy account of every stage through which we shall pass at death and after; and to me it is a matter of excited anticipation — I can hardly wait to experience it! The actual process of dying may be physically painful, but in the vast majority of cases it is not so; it is like lying down to sleep when one is overcome with weariness, and just drifting off. Let us remember this instead of concentrating our imagination on the possibility of an agonised struggle. Even when a terminal illness is long, drawn out and painful, the pain will be psychosomatically increased by thinking of it with fear. People who die suddenly in accidents do not generally realize what has happened to them until someone in the spiritual world comes up and tells them they have crossed the frontier!
Fears? Quite unnecessary! If you know of anyone suffering from any such fears, talk to him and try to ease his mind. Contrary to appearances, we are living in a safe world, a safe universe, under the personal care of a loving God.
However, and in spite of all that has been said so far, there is a kind of fear which we ought to cultivate — the FEAR OF GOD. What? Are we to be afraid of our Father in heaven? Of course not. We can trust him absolutely. But remember: He is the Creator of the Universe as well as our Father. We should regard him with awe, reverence and wonder, not just casually as one would think of an equal. "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom."
There is an element of fear in all love: a fear that you might do something foolish which would damage your relationship with the loved one, or hurt his or her feelings in some way. In your relationship with God, you are the inconstant one; His love is infinite and changeless. Protect your love. Watch it carefully. Do not let anything harm it. "Fear Him, ye saints, and you will then have nothing else to fear." These two lines from the old hymn, based on Psalm 34:9, are the final word on the subject of fear.