I wrote this for my weekly column, but decided to post it here for, perhaps, wider reading.
Fear, Faith and Freethinking
I was relating a story to some friends about camping in Yellowstone National Park. A windstorm blew my tent to the other end of the campground. Several bison lumbered a little too close for my comfort. Resting for lunch by the Nez Perce creek, I was alert to the fact it was spring when grizzlies were emerging from dens looking for meat—like me.
I’ve had many moments in the wild places where I didn’t feel safe. Of course, that’s part of what wildness means. Untamed, unpredictable, uncertain. One thing is certain in the wild—you have to be alert, aware, attentive. You also need to be honest and realistic. For instance, in Yellowstone, what were the chances I would be eaten by a bear, trampled by a bison, bitten by a rattler? My rational mind would say I had a far greater chance of being hit by a distracted tourist steering their soot-spewing motorhome.
Fear is a funny thing, is it not? It both disconnects us from reality (when we’re being irrational), and connects us to the immediate environment (when we’re being rational). Fear can be a very good thing—an instinctual response to danger, real or imagined.
Here are some things that raise my flag of fearfulness: losing a family member; destruction of species and those wild places; unwise leaders; mean dogs; mean people; getting sick and dying (maybe not so much actual death); that education is less and less valued; that truth and wisdom are harder and harder to discern; nuclear war; and … those grizzlies, rattlers, ticks and other creatures that mean me no harm but scare the hair off my head (what’s left of it—my hair, that is).
When I was a person of faith, even worse things “put the fear of God” in me. That phrase gives a hint. Making God angry or “hurting God’s heart” were a concern. Living a faithful life and proving it by daily Bible reading, prayer and spreading the “Good News” made me anxious. Sure, God loved me, but God could choose to send me to fearfully hot flames forever if I didn’t obey. As I feared my dad’s anger when he took me into the basement to spank me, I was petrified that my heavenly Parent would take me into his basement for a “whuppin’.”
As much as preachers would assure us that we didn’t have to fear God if we just had enough faith, that became an inner tape loop that was hard to shut off. Some might emphasize passages such: “cast all your worries and cares on Him” but how’s that working in the real world? Another popular verse claims that “perfect love casts out fear” but there again, how would I ever have “perfect” love since I was so imperfect? “Be ye perfect as your Heavenly Father is perfect” was perfectly impossible to live up to. Just a rabbit on a stick, perhaps? And the stick used for another whuppin? Whatever. This leaves an indelible sense of fearful uncertainty, that we can never be quite good enough.
To be honest, as I progressed in my faith journey I let go of most of those fears. It wasn’t the theological stuff or biblical demands that unnerved me any more, but the daily, practical matters. How to make a living doing ministry? Am I doing what I should be doing? Will my daughter be safe and happy? Will I be? As I endured painful periods with many anxious days I carried great worry over where I was going to live, how I would put food on the table, and frankly, how to stay alive. Somehow I made it through, but it wasn’t always about overcoming fear as much as endurance, getting up day after day, pushing through, swallowing the anxiety though it sat heavy in my gut.
As I turned onto the trail of freethought, I found my life was no longer shaped by fear. Still plenty of anxiety. The unknowing could still be raw and troubling. Hard questions of life remained. But I found that freethinking could free me up to handle life on life’s terms. As I wrote to a relative when I was feeling concern: “Que, Sera, Sera, I guess.” What will be, will be. Some things we simply can’t change. Life “throws a curve ball” and we either risk a swing or strike out.
Here’s the thing: freethought fearlessly (as much as possible) faces the realities and considers the alternatives. You can choose to face life with faith, believing it’s all part of some great divine plan, or you realize we’re all in the wild—there are dangers and disappointments, and a lot that’s out of our control. Yet, unless we think about our circumstances, situations, dilemmas and such, we lose ourselves to otherworldly thinking or fearful resignation.
“The only thing to fear is fear itself.” No. Feel free to face it, and don’t allow it to make you feel powerless.
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