when fear surfaces

Sometimes we are given the gift of seeing our fears and our wounds in the plain light of day.  This doesn’t happen nearly as often as we’d like, for if it did we would find healing to be a much less daunting and seemingly impossible thing.  Our fears often remain hidden, well below the surface where they could be seen for what they are.

These things don’t surface at our command, not usually at least.  They arrive unbidden, with stealth and surprise; they often catch us off guard and trigger reactivity instead of a gentle response. Perhaps that feels like bad news, because we don’t have as much control over our fears as we’d like.

And yet, at the same time there are great opportunities here for growth and healing.  If we can learn to be ready for these moments, to be able to recognize and respond to these opportunities for transformation, then we’re really getting somewhere.

I am grateful for Audra Abt’s sermon several weeks ago, in which she talked about how fear plays into our lives.  She offered a powerful insight about how the Lenten disciplines we take on tend to have a direct relationship to the fears that are most dominant in our lives.  That really hit home for me…I realize now that almost any Lenten discipline I’ve ever taken on have been clearly related to my fears.

Think about it:  using herself as an example, Audra shared how she tried to read the whole bible one year during lent.  Her fear? Not feeling like she was “Christian” enough. (I would add that if Audra isn’t Christian enough then we’re all in a lot of trouble.) This year I’m trying to memorize hymns for lent.  My fear?   I worry about getting our church into the rut of doing the same hymns over and over again simply because I don’t don’t know enough church music by heart. We’ve all taken on Lenten practices of less junk food, more exercise, less stress.  The fears?  Mortality, aging, becoming sick. It’s all there. The beauty in this is that in coming up with seemingly benign Lenten challenges for ourselves, we accidentally bring to the surface some much bigger issues.

In an interview on Krista Tippet’s On Being, Bishop Desmond Tutu speaks of his exhilaration at boarding, after years of apartheid, a flight crewed by two black pilots. He said that it made his heart soar, and yet when the plane hit the “mother of all turbulence,” he was shocked to hear himself asking whether, without a white pilot in the cockpit, the pilots could handle it.  They handled it just find of course, but here too was a moment when the long-term damage, the wound of apartheid, made itself known in an unbidden ascent to the surface.

Would that we all had the self-awareness and compassion that Bishop Tutu had in that moment, to see his wounds in the light of day, and thus deprive them of some of their power.  Our more common response is to play a psychological game of whac-a-mole, impatiently trying to force them back under the surface, if we even see notice them at all.

Perhaps if we can learn to be better listeners to ourselves, to be ready for these moments of surfacing with compassion and gentleness, then we will experience some measure of healing.  We may even get so good at compassion and gentleness that we begin to show it towards others as well.


About bernardowens

I'm an Episcopal priest in Greensboro, North Carolina.
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2 Responses to when fear surfaces

  1. Thomas Smith says:

    Very interesting, BJ! I had never thought of lent in this way before. I always kind of saw the tradition as penance (which personally I think is a sort of out-of-date practice), and preparation for the commemoration of the death and resurrection of Jesus. The angle that you approach in this blog however reminded me of the most recent form of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy present in psychotherapy. Essentially the focus is to change the behaviors of the individual experiencing emotional difficulties first, in hopes that the negative thoughts/feelings shift to more positive ones following the behavior change. It is effective because, just like you said, our fears and negative thoughts are often hidden, and when we try to focus on the thoughts and feelings it can quickly become overwhelming so that more often than not the individual will do nothing to change said feelings. Lent offers a way to change a problem emotion without having to confront it at all! Neat!

  2. Anne Wilkinson says:

    i was driving down Williamson Ave. in Burlington, and a little Presbyterian Church with a large marquee read: “Lent is not about giving up Chocolate.” My parents never encouraged me to give up anything for Lent. As an adult i started thinking about it in terms of noticing my bad habits and working on them. As far as penance goes, i prefer to think of penitence. there is a difference. i supposed it has something to do with the fear of wasting time (with bad habits). Last year i gave up poisonous thoughts. The benefit was increased awareness thoughout the year. Lent is actually one of my favorite Liturgical seasons.

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