Befriending the Difficult Emotion of Fear

Fear. The body gripped by a sudden rush of adrenaline. Intense breathing, heart pounding, sweating, trembling. The fight or flight reflex. All of it a result of being faced by a threat, seeming or real, to the safety of what one holds dear—people you love, one’s nation, one’s world, oneself. Lately it’s been shooters in churches; it’s been hurricanes, gas shortages, rising prices, bank failures, a 700 billion dollar plan to avert a financial meltdown on Wall Street, politicians who can’t seem to get their act together. On top of this are constants like terrorism, the Iraq War, and the environmental crisis. Then there are the threats that hit us closer to home: bullies, illnesses, hurting relationships, trouble at work, trouble at school. So many threats. Even when the threat is really an opportunity, as when a hidden potential calls us to do something risky, take a leap of faith. All such things trigger an emotional alarm clock that wakes us up. It’s fear, saying, “Watch out, do something!”

“I’ll never forget the feeling,” says someone who was downsized. “The CEO called me into his office, looked into my eyes and said, ‘Jock, this isn’t working out.’ I was 57. I had never lost a job in my life. All my career changes had been carefully planned. I was in charge of my professional life, or at least I thought I was. Never had anyone come in to yank it out from under me. As I looked back into the CEO’s eyes and realized what was happening, fear rushed through me. My mind felt like it was going to explode. I had a huge mortgage payment, car payments, a family to support, and I was 57. How could I ever find another job? That night, and for several weeks following, I would awaken around three in the morning to a feeling of fear.”

Just listen to this person’s voice. The loss of control in a time when a mortgage payment, car payments, and a family to support all demand control. Self-esteem and identity just stripped away. No wonder this man says, “My mind felt like it was going to explode.” That’s fear. And that’s what we’re wanting to befriend today. We’re wanting to see how we can enter into our fears mindfully, rather than banishing them; we’re wanting to see how we can listen to them and respond in ways that are truly helpful, rather than blindly reacting. “To fear is one thing,” says a wise person, “but it’s another thing entirely to let fear grab you by the tail and swing you around.” And so it is.

Befriending fear. To this end, I’m going to draw on one of our Sources of Unitarian Universalism, the tradition of Judaism—specifically, the 23rd Psalm. “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.” It’s one of the most famous scriptures from the Hebrew Bible, beloved by Jews and Christians and others around the world. And recently, I came to understand why. Not too long ago, in a moment of personal fear, I discovered for myself the healing and calming power of this ancient poem. I experienced it first hand. So let’s take a closer look, see how it might speak to Unitarian Universalists today, facing fear.

Feel free to say it with me:

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures:
he leads me beside still waters;
he restores my soul.
He leads me in right paths for his name' sake.
Even though I walk through the darkest valley,
I fear no evil:
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff, they comfort me.
You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life,
and I will dwell in the House of the Lord forever.

Part of the challenge of understanding the 23rd Psalm (or any other piece of scripture) is achieving a historical grasp of what’s really going on. The past is truly a foreign country—they do things differently there—but too often we forget this; too often we can find ourselves rejecting something because it does not make instant sense to our modern American sensibilities. Bring an intolerant, snap-judgmental attitude like this to the Hebrew and Christian scriptures, and we’re always going to miss the good stuff.

So consider the 23rd Psalm. Its largest meanings about courage in the face of fear are ultimately informed by the practice of shepherding in the ancient Middle East. Take, for example, that evocative line, “You anoint my head with oil.” Writer W. Phillip Keller, who is familiar with sheep herding in the Middle East and who was himself a sheep herder and sheep rancher, says that in the summer time, hordes of insects will emerge with the warm weather. “Sheep,” he says, “are especially troubled by the nose fly…. For relief from this agonizing annoyance, sheep will deliberately beat their heads against trees, rocks, posts, or brush…. In extreme cases of intense infestation, a sheep may even kill itself…. And so, at the very first sign of flies among the flock, [the shepherd] will apply an antidote to their heads…. Once the oil is applied, there is an immediate change in behavior. The sheep will start to feed quietly again, then soon lie down in peaceful contentment.”

Or again, consider another line of the psalm: “He makes me lie down in green pastures.” W. Philip Keller explains by saying that “Sheep are notorious creatures of habit. If left to themselves, they will follow the same trails until they become ruts; graze the same hills until they turn to desert wastes; pollute their own ground until it is corrupt with disease and parasites. And so, the greatest single safeguard which a shepherd has in handling his flock is to keep them on the move.”

Now press pause for a moment. We have before us the image of flies crawling on sheep and driving them into destructive behaviors; and we also have the image of sheep stuck in a rut, following the same trails and grazing the same hills until the land is ruined. Both are powerful images of what happens when people skip a step in awareness and go straight from the experience of fear to reaction. Fear thoughts, swarming like a horde of insects, and some people cope by inventing an image of a past that never was and then frantically trying to recreate the present in this image, through bad public policy. Fear thoughts swarming, and some people numb out, the fear turns into silent bitter rage, and the rage makes them a school shooter, a church shooter. Fear thoughts, and people turn xenophobic, scapegoat the gays, scapegoat immigrants. Destructive behaviors all, because a step in awareness has been skipped. This is also true when we talk about people getting stuck in a rut. The spreading contagion of fear, locking us into rigid habits and patterns. Investors too afraid to invest, or banks too afraid to extend credit, when doing so would spell true relief. People rushing gas stations when it’s not absolutely necessary—but I see the lines and you see the lines, and so we get in line, we add to the spreading contagion of fear. Or this: the lock-step of a consumer-oriented society, the lock-step of a society that is afraid to give up on its unsustainable ways, afraid to change. Sheep, stuck in a rut, following the same trails and grazing the same hills … until the land is ruined.

For myself, all I can say is, I relate. I have an inner sheep. Some people have an inner child; I have an inner sheep. And I admit this sheepishly, since fear is not supposed to affect the so-called mature, the so-called rational. Fear doesn’t seem to have the same dignity that grief has, or anger. Fear is just for scaredy-cats. All I can say in response is … BAA. I’m coming clean about it. I’ve got an inner sheep. And listen to something else that W. Philip Keller has to say: “The strange thing about sheep is that it is almost impossible for them to be made to lie down unless [they are free from fear]. As long as there is even the slightest suspicion of danger from dogs, coyotes, cougars, bears or other enemies, the sheep stand up ready to flee for their lives. They have little or no means of self-defense. They are helpless, timid, feeble creatures whose only recourse is to run.” That’s my inner sheep! It’s hard to admit, because ours is a culture that shames people for feeling fear. But there it is. How many of you have an inner sheep too? Fact is, it’s painfully aware of its vulnerability. Life puts a big target on our foreheads. Bad things could happen any time to us, to our families, to anyone and anything we love. And in case we happen to forget, the media dutifully reminds us about all the dogs, coyotes, cougars, bears, and other things that are out there, out to get us. So our poor inner sheep: constantly on guard, constantly ready to run, constantly ragged and worn down, not fresh like they need to be if in fact they do encounter adversity and hope to have a truly creative, effective response.

The 23rd Psalm is powerful because, in part, it helps us own up to the fact that we have an inner sheep that needs intentional tending. Without that, it can act destructively, towards others and towards itself. It needs oil rubbed on its head; it needs to be led to new pastures; it needs soothing to release it from constant free-floating anxiety. That’s what it needs.

And so we turn to the figure of the shepherd. The shepherd who does all this for our inner sheep, and more. Who is this shepherd?

I say that the shepherd is anything that gives us strength to enter into our fears mindfully, to listen to what they are saying without blindly reacting to them, or banishing them, or numbing them. “Even though I walk through the darkest valley,” says the psalm, “I fear no evil: for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.” The shepherd is whatever goes with us into even the scariest places—and note especially the image of the rod and staff. W. Philip Keller says that for practicing shepherds, “The rod is a symbol of [the shepherd’s] strength, his power, his authority in any serious situation…. If the shepherd saw a sheep wandering away from its own, or approaching poisonous weeds, or getting too close to danger of one sort or another, the club would go whistling through the air to send the wayward animal scurrying back to the bunch…. [In addition to this, the] good shepherd, the careful manager, will from time to time make a careful examination of each individual sheep. As each animal comes out of the corral and through the gate, it is stopped by the shepherd’s outstretched rod. He opens the fleece with the rod; he runs his skillful hands over the body; he feels for any sign of trouble; he examines the sheep with care to see if all is well. This is a most searching process entailing every intimate detail. It is, too, a comfort to the sheep for only in this way can its hidden problems be laid bare before the shepherd.”

Who or what plays this role in your life? Helps you know what the safe boundaries are, and so if you go beyond them, you can rely on clear feedback that says, “Danger, Will Robinson, danger!!!!” Our children need this desperately—all ages do. Thoughtful mentoring. Guidance that’s full of care. The creation of safe space in which there can be honesty—hidden problems laid bare—your fleece opened up and searched for signs of trouble. Unitarian Universalists, we need to know who or what the shepherd is in our lives. The health and wellbeing of our inner sheep need it.

One answer is this: the shepherd is a healthy relationship. Miriam Greenspan, therapist and author of the book Healing Through the Dark Emotions, talks about how critical this kind of shepherding is for people and how, without it, fears turn into anger—couples playing what she calls Marital Mortal Combat. Know what I’m talking about? “Why can’t you listen to me?” one partner cries. “Why can’t you respond to my feelings?” The other counters, “Why can’t you accept me as I am? Why can’t you see all the things I do to please you?” Portrait of a couple at an impasse: portrait of a couple arguing the same argument for what seems like forever. Inner sheep, stuck in a rut. BAA! But what Miriam Greenspan is saying is that the angry words are just a symptom of something deeper, of fears unfelt and lying beneath the surface. But only if you feel them can you heal them. She says to that couple playing Marital Mortal Combat, “If you could just pause when you are about to say something angry, and search deeper to see the fear beneath. And then—give voice to that fear instead. Share your fears. Say, “When you don’t respond to me emotionally, I feel afraid that you aren’t there for me, and I’m just free floating.” And to this, reply, “When you criticize me, I’m afraid that you’ve lost all respect for me.” Share your fears with each other, says Miriam Greenspan, rather than go for the throat. The good news here is that when couples and people in all kinds of relationships—married or not—learn to do this, hearts that are hard begin to soften. Speaking our fears directly to each other can lead us beside still waters, restore our souls, help us find the right paths. This is one way in which the shepherd can come into our lives: as a quality of relationship that we actively nurture with key people, a safe space we can rely on to give voice to our fears and see what’s in them, what they are really trying to say.

“Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil: for you are with me.” The shepherd can come into our lives as a healthy relationship with another person, and it can also come into our lives as a healthy religious community. Think about it: Here in this place we can experience oil rubbed into our fleece, repelling anxiety flies that get in the way of clear thinking. Here in this place, we can reflect on healthy boundaries in our lives and experience encouragement to live up to them. Here in this place, we can give voice to our fears, personal and global; feel validated in this; be heard into speech; and then together, we can decide what we can do about them—what strengths and resources we can draw on to make a difference. Here in this place we can realize the ruts that fear drives us into and chart a different course, lift up a vision of sustainable living that is positive and attractive, and move. Act. It happens in worship services like this; it happens in classes and small groups and committees; it happens in pastoral care moments; it happens in all sorts of gathering times, formal and informal; it happens through collective action. The religious community can be the shepherd, and it is with you when you walk through the darkest valley, IF you allow it to do that for you, IF you sustain it with your focus and your time and also your generous financial giving. Can’t forget the IF.

My hope is that all of us will experience shepherding through our personal relationships and through this congregation. But there can be yet another dimension to shepherding, and this particular dimension won’t appeal to all of us in this wonderfully diverse community, but to some of us it’s crucial. I’m talking about a transpersonal dimension to shepherding. Experiencing it coming from a force or presence that transcends the human. The shepherd as God. The shepherd as the Divine, the Goddess, a Spirit Guide, the Tao. I want to speak for a moment to those of you for whom this dimension of shepherding is meaningful. What’s all-important here is trusting in your relationship with the Divine. Trusting the larger unfolding pattern. Knowing that you can have God’s peace right now, this instant, even if things feel way out of control and things are not yet clear to your mind and the problem is not yet solved. Trusting that nothing is going to come your way that you cannot truly bear. Trusting that somehow you are being reshaped to fit a larger order, you are being ushered forward, you are being nudged towards a greater fulfillment of your destiny. And you CAN trust it. God’s gonna surprise you. So let go and let God.

The shepherd can come to us in so many ways. And the shepherd is good, for this is what he does: he “prepares a table before us in the presence of our enemies.” Now just listen to that. Isn’t this an amazing image? Perhaps an odd one, for in the face of the enemy, who might jump up and grab us anytime, how can we eat? How can we actually put food into our mouths, and swallow? Yet the good shepherd knows something—the good shepherd that is a close relationship, a religious community, or a God. This: That life is abundant when one learns how to dwell richly in the midst of one’s worst fears. You can’t get to joy in life if you can’t feel the fear. The truly good shepherd teaches us that. Not escape. Doesn’t smooth away the wrinkles of our lives. Doesn’t solve it for us, doesn’t dumb down the complexity. It can’t do that anyway. But what it can do is invite us into a deeper relationship with our world, and it does this with a sense of wonderful flair. Lays out the finest tablecloth and china. Polished silverware, napkins folded into swans. Pours the drinks, serves the food. Says, “I know you might feel totally out of control right now. I know about the hurricanes, I know about the gas shortages, the rising prices, the bank failures, the 700 billion dollar plan to avert a financial meltdown on Wall Street, the politicians who can’t seem to get their act together, the threat of terrorism, the Iraq War, environmental threat. All sorts of dogs, coyotes, cougars, bears out there, just licking their chops. I know that. The world is scary all over. But it’s not going to help to just thrash about and hurt yourself and others. It’s not going to help to get into a rut, or hide out. Sit down. Relax. Continue the small sustaining rhythms of your life. Sustain that which sustains you. Be grounded in the abundance of this world. Rediscover a sane routine. Find your center, be at peace, and then: accept your fears. Let them come. Let them wander over. Let them find their own seat at the table. Let them become known, and look them square in the eye. Be curious. Talk to them, and let them talk to you. Share in the hospitality of the table, your fears and you, and that’s how you will find your cup overflowing. That’s how your cup will overflow. Goodness and mercy will follow you all the days of your life, and you will dwell in the House of the Lord forever. That’s how.”