March 2, 2014
Fear of public speaking is said to be the single biggest fear of most adults. I have heard that people are more afraid of public speaking then they are of snakes. Really? That just doesn’t seem right. I mean, who has ever been walking in the woods and heard someone cry out “watch out for the podium!” ? Anyway, I have a bit of fear of public speaking upon me, now, so I would like to model what I learned to do about fear in AA, I will pray. Most loving Lord, please remove my fear of speaking and direct my attention to what you would have me be. Amen.,
I have listened as many of you have shared the word and wondered what I would speak about if I ever decided to speak up and I concluded that it would be about fear. Why fear? Because in my work with different women in AA I came to recognize that fear is a toxic emotion that sucks our serenity and blots out the sunlight of the spirit. Without exception, every woman I worked with suffered from bouts of fear. Most people suffer from attacks of fear and don’t know what to do to stop living in fear. No surprise that the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous tells us that fear is the great enemy of alcoholics, but more about that later.
A few weeks ago I read an e-mail to Will asking if he would like to share the word as there were many openings for speakers. I took that as a nudge to volunteer. I looked through the lectionary readings to find a scripture I could hook onto. In my catholic/Episcopal training, I was taught that sermons originate from the readings. I was elated when I saw that in this weeks reading from Matthew, Jesus admonished the disciples to “fear not.” There was the connection. As I researched more on this topic I had to laugh because I need not have worried about finding a fear related scripture in order to tie in with the reading. Apparently, the admonishment against fear is the most oft repeated phrase in the bible, repeated, some say, more than 326 times. There are not, however, instructions on how to not fear.
Fear is harmful because fear separates us from God. As someone in an AA meeting recently proclaimed, to fear is to meditate on God’s unfaithfulness. Or as I like to say, to fear is to dwell in the wreckage of the future.
What is fear?
Webster’s definition is: 1 a) ” an unpleasant often strong emotion caused by expectation or awareness of danger; b) an instance of fear or a state marked by fear; 2) concern about what may happen.
AA definition: an expectation that we will lose something we have or fail to get something we want.
Fear is the first emotion that I remember having and the emotion that dominated my childhood. At a very young age I realized that my parents were the ones responsible for me (and my siblings) and that they weren’t really up to the job. Their loud fights, my Mom’s tears, the lack of order in our home, the electricity being shut off, not having money for things at school, all pointed to the reasonableness of my fear.
I was very afraid of the dark. I didn’t dare stick my feet out of the covers lest a rat, or who knows what were to crawl up my leg. I was vigilant, fighting sleep off so I could watch out for attacks that never came. Alone in my room at night, I could hear rumbling noises in the big room outside my bedroom. I figured the noises were the sounds of a monster. I complained to my parent but they just laughed. One night, when my grandparents were visiting and I was in bed, I heard the monster. Summoning up all my courage, I ran through the dark to the stairwell and made it downstairs. I ran straight to my grandfather and told him of the monster. Unlike my parents, he listened. He came back to my room with me and sat and waited to hear the monster. Sure enough, the monster growled. My grandfather wasn’t afraid. He said that he had heard the noise before and knew what it was. It was the furnace cooling off between cycles that caused a moaning sound. What a relief to share my fears with someone and get help.
Most of my fears I did not share with anyone. As I got older my fears turned to the larger world. When I was 5 years old I was fearful I would be arrested for an unpaid library fine but couldn’t figure out where to get the money. By the time I was 10, I feared that I wasn’t good enough and others would, sooner or later, figure it out. The older I got the more my fears multiplied.
My fears were compounded by the training I received in the Catholic church. I was taught that God was always watching, keeping score, and that the final exam was very unpleasant. The constant talk of hell, sin, and judgment was terrifying. I remember crying myself to sleep many nights because I was convinced that the grandmother I dearly loved would not be in heaven with me. She was not Catholic.
My fears usually came at night, often delaying sleep. I was defenseless against them. My head would spin with uncontrollable thoughts of doom. The pain of the fear was usually more than the pain of whatever actual event I worried about. Mostly, what I worried about didn’t happen. But I thought such worrying prepared me to solve problems. It really sapped the energy I needed to face them.
It wasn’t until I learned from the AA program that fear was one of my great enemies and that there was a solution that I began gaining control of my fears. The Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous says that fear is
” an evil and corroding thread; the fabric of our existence was shot through with it. It set in motion trains of circumstance which brought us misfortune we felt we didn’t deserve. But did not we, ourselves, set the ball rolling? Sometimes we think fear out to be classed with stealing. It seems to cause more trouble.” [Alcoholics Anonymous, 4th Edition, Pages 67-68]
How does fear work?
In the early 1890’s Dr. William Cannon did some research on fear. He found that man, along with most animals, when confronted with a dangerous situation has an almost immediate reaction of fight, flight, or freeze. These reactions are intended as a short-term response to a present situation. Responding in these ways over a long period of time and responding to an imagined future situation can do tremendous damage to us.
Types of fear
Healthy fear. Type 1: Part of survival mechanism, necessary to survive; fight or flight link between threat and response; is immediate. Type 2: generated by imagination and fed by experience of life. For example, we have fallen and know how painful it is, we extrapolate to falling from a great height, this fear keeps us from jumping off a building. This appropriate fear is a common sense. Children do not yet have much experience to fuel this kind of imagination so a large part of parenting is the protection of the fearless child. My son-in-law has this kind of fear of heights. He so strongly imagines the pain of falling, that he can’t bear to be at a height such as a ferris wheel or a ski lift. The imagined fear of how painful a fall at this height would be overrides his ability to reason out the likelihood of such an event actually happening. He therefore is held back in life from many experiences that others freely enjoy. Many of us are like that. Ask yourself, what might I be able to do if fear didn’t hold me back?
In addition to direct experience, conversation, rumor, and storytelling can fuel our fantasy. There are many things we have never directly experienced, but our imaginations can be quite graphic. For example, smashing our fingers with a hammer is something most of us have not done but all of us have imagined.
At times our imagination exceeds its appropriate boundaries. Our minds can be confused because of stress, illness, drugs, etc. but the results are an escalation of emotion. The fear response distorts our normal common sense. Our imaginative ability can cause enormous grief, generating fear beyond the needs of survival and dominating our lives.
Inappropriate fear has 2 major elements 1) misinformation and/or 2) delay. The longer the gap between something that causes uneasiness and the response, the more our imagination has to develop. One way to face this kind of fear and gain objectivity is to ask oneself if: 1) am I in immediate danger?; and 2) how well do I understand all the factors here? It is helpful to talk about your fears to another person whom you trust because they can often have more objectivity. This is what I do for my sponsees.
Why inappropriate fear is harmful
One of the main qualities of spiritual liberation is the release from the suffering of inappropriate fear. [Cooper, David A. A Heart of Stillness, p. 110-115]
Besides the pain caused by unfounded fears, the toll such fears take on the individual is significant because such fear drives out the sunshine of the spirit and negatively affects one’s spiritual condition. Fundamentally, inappropriate fear is an exercise on focusing on the future, not on the present, and leaving our reliance on God out of the picture. We separate ourselves from God in so doing because God lives in the present. For those of us who must rely on God’s power to defeat our addictions, such turning away from God can be fatal.
I believe that it is because of the harm that fear causes to our spiritual condition, that we are urged in scripture time and again to not fear:
I find that a helpful tool to combat fear is to meditate on the unlimited power of God versus whatever we feel challenged by. For example, if you are out of work and fearful for your future, remind yourself that God has always provided for you. Yes, think on His power over all obstacles.
A second tool to turn away from unfounded fears that AA espouses is to turn our attention to on all we have to be grateful for, our gratitude list. When one meditates on how God has provided and been faithful, one quickly realizes that is where one’s security lies.
However, the most fundamental way to banish fear is to fully rely on God,
“The compensation for the loss of that sense of personal independence which man so unwillingly gives up, is the disappearance of all fear from one’s life, the quite indescribable and inexplicable feeling of an inner security, which one can only experience, but which, once it has been experienced, no one can ever forget.” [William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience, p. 275.]
There is fear as long as you want to be secure, the moment the mind seeks security in or gratification in any form, at any level, there is bound to be fear. J. Krishnamurti, Think on these things p. 259. I suggest that there is fear whenever we place our security anywhere but from God.
The more important reason that we are urged again and again in scripture to fear not, is because fear indicates that we are not fully relying on God.
Here are but a few bible quotes about fear:
Fear not therefore: ye are of more value than many sparrows. [Matthew 10:24-33]
For God has not given us a spirit of fear and timidity, but of power, love, and self-discipline. [2 Timothy 1:7]
Fear not, for I am with you: be not dismayed for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my righteous right hand. [Isaiah 41:10]
There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love. [2 John 4:18]
I sought the Lord, and he answered me and delivered me from all my fears. [Psalm 34:4]
The fear of man lays a snare, but whoever trusts in the Lord is safe. [Proverbs 29:25]
At the end of the day, our fears illuminate the disconnect between our desire to rely fully on God and the reality of our spiritual practice. Our fears tell us that we are not stepping forward in faith.
I have all but overcome the fear attacks of my former life using certain tools. When I have fear, I talk to someone I trust about the fear and get an objective assessment. I remind myself when fear sneaks up on me, that God is my refuge and my strength and that I am not in charge. I review all the times that God has been faithful. I make a gratitude list. And I pray that God relieve my fears and direct my thinking to what he would have me become.
Psalm 23 says it best:
Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil for you are with me. Your rod and your staff they comfort me. [Psalm 23:4]