For as much “turmoil” as we’ve had in the United States in the last year, we are one of the most stable countries in the world. Warfare hasn’t happened on the mainland in an incredible amount of time, and when it did, we didn’t have to worry about airstrikes or other types of modern warfare. Thanks to this stability, these are things, Lord willing, I will never have to worry about. I will not need to duck and search for cover when I hear a military jet fly overhead; I will not need to worry every night for the safety of my friends and family; I will not need to contemplate fleeing my home or homeland for safety.
In Syria, this is not the reality. Everything that I may never have to worry about is a daily experience for the people of Syria. The White Helmets is an Academy Award winning documentary covering a group of volunteers from Aleppo who choose every day to dive into the aftermath of bombings and airstrikes to search for survivors. With the possibility of more than 200 strikes on any given day, the work seemingly never ends. Through all of this, the members of the White Helmets must deal with the fear that they will be injured or killed while working in the rescue effort, the fear of what or who they will find under the rubble, the fear for the safety of their families, and the fear of what may happen in the future. In addition, members of the White Helmets participate in rescue training in Turkey: they must endure all of these fears from an incredible distance, feeling even less of an ability to help when things go wrong.
Whether due to some inherent desire to understand fear or because of a perverse desire to hear more and more about other people’s fear (but hopefully the former), I have spent a large amount of time recently going through stories, sermons, videos, and other media about fear. Having gone through this fairly large sample size, there are a few things I think hold true for many people:
- Everyone is scared
This thought is not the same as “everyone gets scared.” I think we all have some fear, whether we realize it or not, that underlies a portion of our decision making. This fear may not manifest daily (or even often), but there are any numbers of things that people are scared of: fear of death by anything from a car accident to a terrorist attack to a lightning strike to a disease; fear that we are unliked or unloved; fear that we or what we do are unworthy or unvaluable; the list could go on with a new item added by each person who reads this post. There may be people who don’t experience this constant fear in some way, shape, or form, but I think the tendency is that well more than the majority of us do.
- Everyone tries to justify their fear
There are a great many fears that statistics would seem to refute. The odds of certain events occurring are so astronomically low that constantly worrying about them doesn’t statistically make sense. But then we remember the story we heard from a friend of a friend, or an article we read one time, or a thing we think we saw but we’re not entirely sure, and the fact that something could happen brings the fear back to life. On the flip side, there are things that (maybe at least to me) seem much more feasible, where fear seems more realistic (at least in a statistical sense). No matter the likelihood of something happening or going wrong, or whatever the case may be, any probability or past occurrence of the thing serves as our justification for our fear.
- People tear down other people’s fears
How often have we voiced a fear to someone, only to hear scoffing at our worries, unsympathetic responses, and unrealistic corrections to our thinking? Our fears get compared to other bigger, more important issues happening to someone else or in some far off place. Your fears can’t be real; look at these other worse things that are happening. Get over it; pick yourself up; clean yourself off; you have nothing to worry about.
- Similarly, we tear down our own fears
We may not tear down all of our fears; remember, we work to justify ourselves. However, how many of us have said something along the lines of the previous paragraph to ourselves, wishing that we could just get over the fear that always seems present.
- Some people manage their fears better than others
There are people who live in fear, taking actions based on the fears they have. There are other people who don’t. They either acknowledge a fear, coming to terms with an unlikelihood that a thing will happen, and move on; or they use the fear to their advantage, either strengthening themselves against that fear or using it to draw focus about what to do. These two forms of action are so similar that they often can only be judged on a case by case basis, a circumstance that often leads to a more subjective than objective perception about which definition is accurate to the lifestyle.
And yet, we all (or most people) have a baseline for responses to fear that make sense and ones that don’t. I used to be a big fan of the show Monk. The show depicted a private detective who had been a police officer and suffered from OCD. Monk worked with the San Francisco police department to help solve crimes, and yet his fears often clouded his judgment or created issues that didn’t need to exist. Many people would say that Monk lived with irrational fears in an irrational quantity, and that this had a negative impact on him. Monk’s fears may be justifiable, but seeing how living in fear impacts his life leads us to an example of what living in fear can look like.
There are situations, though, where living in fear is justifiable. To state simply that “bad things happen” would be to trivialize many people’s life situations, but we know it to be true. Fears of violence, abuse, hunger, and many other things that a person can deal with habitually will lead to a life lived in fear, whether a person wants to live in fear or not. In some cases, this fear can be used to focus on positive efforts: the White Helmets serve as an example of this. In many other instances, people cannot take this sort of control of a situation, often because of a power dynamic or because of the specific situation. Would it make sense to tell people in these situations not to fear? Honestly, no; they are using their fear to draw focus, understand their situation, and survive.
For those of us who do not live in that fear, what does this mean? How does this impact us? Are we less justified in our own fears because the fears of others are bigger or more immediately present?
I’m going to make a bold statement: I don’t think the justification of our fears matters at all. I also don’t think that choosing whether to live in fear or not is the main issue. I will be honest in saying that I do not often deal well with fear. I worry about whether people will like what I make or will like me, and then fear that my fear will become a self-fulfilling prophecy. The question of whether my fear is justified in the face of bigger issues or statistics or reality isn’t what matters: my fear is real. This, I think, is where we need to start: our fear is real.
Using this as our starting point can change the way we approach our and other people’s fear. There are absolutely fears that are unreasonable, but telling someone that their fear is unreasonable will lead to an immediate shutdown of all conversation. Throwing reasons or statistics or other worse situations will have the same outcome. This is where we so often fail to actually help with fear: compassion, sympathy, and listening are tossed aside for reasons and justifications and facts. This is not to say that these are not important; on the contrary, this is where we need to build to. That, however, is the key: these are what we need to build to, not start with.
As a Christian, I know we have know reason to fear. Our ultimate battles have already been won; God holds the power over our fear. Still, I feel that slight sinking in the pit of my stomach, that tingle up my spine, that whisper in the back of my mind, and the guilt for continuing to hold fear. Speaking truth to my fear doesn’t immediately make it go away. There is a constancy and consistency that needs to be used in that approach. We should not fear approaching our fears or other’s fears; there are fears that are unnecessary, unhelpful, and, frankly, that don’t make sense, that we can help to alleviate or remove. If we want to actually create change, though, we need to understand how to approach fear.