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The Fear of All Somes: Rethinking Our Fearful Reflexes

Fear is a necessary emotion. People who backpack in isolation in the mountains should worry about running out of water. Boaters should take precautions to avoid high waves. Drivers should lock their car and remove valuables. But this does not mean that fear is virtuous and something that Christians should hide behind.

The command, “Do Not Be Afraid,” appears at least 70 times in the Bible. And people in those times lived in places where genocide, infanticide, and sexual abuse were not only practiced—they were tolerated and sometimes celebrated. Yet the constant command is, “Do not be afraid.” Some fear can be healthy; most fear is not.

Fear can be unfaithful. It is a rejection of God’s providence in our life.

Fear can be isolationist. It precludes anyone else from being able to help.

Fear can be hateful. It creates and sustains reasons to dismiss or resent others.

Fear Makes Us Anxious

I was at lunch recently with a friend who looked at his phone multiple times after receiving notifications from his doorbell camera. In each case, it was nothing. People are alerted for every Amazon delivery, unleashed pet, and car that uses the driveway to turn around. Alerts notify users each time—letting them check in live on their front lawn to see that nothing has really happened. It’s a constant interruption to say that everything is okay, which can become really unnerving. It’s like being tapped on the shoulder at the movies by an usher telling us that our credit card information is still secure and our popcorn wasn’t laced with anthrax. Um. Thanks? Somehow we’ve convinced ourselves that we should settle for $6 takeout pizza to save money while happily dropping $15 each month to be immediately notified with live footage when windswept garbage approaches our porch. Perhaps sometimes knowing less is better.

Darby Saxbe argues that misplacing a focus on teenage mental health issues can exacerbate the teen’s problems, causing “prevalence inflation,” a phenomenon where teenagers identify ordinary experiences by clinical names. Saxbe continues, “Instead of ‘I am nervous about X,’ a teenager might say, ‘I can’t do X because I have anxiety,’ which actually reduces their capacity and willingness to do hard things.”


“Instead of ‘I am nervous about X,’ a teenager might say, ‘I can’t do X because I have anxiety.'” —Darby Saxbe


Our Response Becomes Exaggerated

Psychologist Lisa Damour worries that we’ve unfairly equated good mental health with always being calm or relaxed. She argues that some situations call for anxiety and fear. But not all. And sometimes because people believe they should always feel good, they have no coping mechanism for times they don’t. Very soon, ordinary life situations all appear as threats.

Next, our fears become vague, unlikely, and unbending. Something. Somewhere. Someone. What if something happens? What if it happens somewhere? And by someone? The sum of the somes can be overwhelming. Soon we respond to generic threats with very particular commitments. We baby our children and coddle our teenagers. We move out of cities and isolate ourselves from those who are different. We enter information silos and echo chambers in hopes that our views won’t be challenged.

During times of anxiety, people often resort to two options: isolation or victimization. Isolationists choose rugged independence. They determine that governments, schools, media, and the larger society stand against their values, so they find other places to flourish. Every fear prompts flight. Every conflict merits division. Every threat necessitates a weapon. At some point we must admit that some of the fractures in our community might be the result of a disinterest in doing the hard work of building community in the first place.


“During times of anxiety people often resort to two options: isolation or victimization.”


Then there are others who take another option. They become perpetual victims—not ruled by fear, but instead by fragility. In their mind, their hardships have been worse, their pain has been greater, and their experiences matter more. Of course, some people require intervention, medication, and special care. But this hardly means that everyone is best served by special attention, safe spaces, and white gloves.

If the individualists flee society and isolate, this group rushes to the bottom to suffer. The Oppression Olympics don’t usually produce outcomes any of us would want. Hardship is supposed to make us stronger, not weaker. Our feelings are like our pets; we should absolutely take care of them, but we cannot expect everyone else to take care of them, too.

Jesus once walked on water at night during a raging storm and approached a boat that was carrying his disciples. He had the audacity to tell them, “It is I; do not be afraid” (John 6:20). I would have freaked out. Jesus knows another response is possible: do not fear. Jesus does not minimize the danger of the storm; instead he emphasizes his presence within it. Jesus does not call for us to ignore the circumstances, but instead to put our eyes on something that is greater than our fears. Our lives all have real reasons for fear that cannot be dismissed. But our lives also have better reasons for faith that must always keep our focus.


“Jesus does not call for us to ignore the circumstances, but instead to put our eyes on something that is greater than our fears.”


The fear of all somes does not compare to the sum of our faith.

“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.” (Hebrews 12:1-2, NRSV)


From Bob Turner’s “Stationery” site. Used with permission.

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