Melinda Johnson is the author of Letters to Saint Lydia and The Other Side of the Bonfire, and an avid supporter of the Orthodox writing community. Melinda earned a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature, with minors in Education and Journalism, from the University of Richmond, and a Master of Arts in English Literature from The College of William and Mary. She lives with her family in the Pacific Northwest.
Fear is a bad decision-maker. It’s powerful, plausible, and thoroughly unreliable. It’s as likely to lead you straight into the fire as it is to save your life. Fear is as physical and blinding as hunger – necessary for your survival in rare, simple instances, destructive in all others.
The most dangerous thing about fear is the relief we experience when we give in to it. This relief feels like the solution to a problem, like a miraculous escape. It tastes so good, we can’t believe it’s not good for us. But the more we give in to fear, the more we experience this relief, the more the relief becomes an end in itself. The fear grows stronger as we give in to it more frequently, and the relief becomes more and more powerful, more and more necessary. Soon, the relief is the good for which we strive in every instance. Actual good is no longer our objective. But in the clutches of that flooding relief, we don’t notice the absence of good. We think we have achieved it – done the only possible thing, the only rational thing, the one thing that would save ourselves and our loved ones from the abyss.
Fear masquerades as “best practices” in many fields in our society. It presents as good nutrition, good parenting, good teaching, good relationship choices, good medical advice. The masquerade is possible because this is a fallen world. The reason fear is so difficult to combat is that there are many fearful evils in our world. Bad things happen to good people. We can’t understand why. We can’t cope. We long to prevent this evil from touching us and everyone we care about. And whenever someone questions our fear, we point at all the evils in the world. See, we say? If you aren’t scared, you must not be paying attention. Fear is the only smart response to reality.
But like all addictions, fear removes every shred of evidence that doesn’t support its power. It seems like such a natural response in this fallen world that we think it actually IS the good decision-maker it pretends to be.
So how can you tell if you are making a good decision or buckling under the weight of your anxiety?
There are three ways to know.
First, fear is selfishness that presents itself as unselfishness. For example, your fear makes you prevent your child from engaging in some activity that most ordinary children participate in every day. It’s not immoral. It’s not life-threatening. It’s just something you weren’t prepared for or haven’t come to grips with yet. Your fear tells you that you are protecting your child. In fact, you are protecting yourself. You are pursuing that surge of relief you get from giving in to fear. That story about protecting your child is what you need to tell yourself to make the addiction possible.
Fear is not love. Fear is fear. Love, real love, is stronger than fear, and it will bear the suffering of fear for the sake of the loved one.
Fear is especially un-loving because not only does it deprive the child of whatever activity you couldn’t handle, but more importantly, fearful decision-making trains your child that fear is a good decision-maker. It trains your child that nothing is more important than what you are afraid of. That’s how anxiety is passed from one person to another. Anxiety is more infectious than chickenpox.
Second, fear thrives on the illusion that you can conquer death. This is the essence of the drug that is fear. If you just live in this country, eat this food, do this exercise, avoid that person, travel on this road, you will escape all the dangers in the world. We all know intellectually that, some day, we will die. But there is a pervasive message in our culture that we can actually avoid death. We can push our research and our techniques farther and farther, and eventually, we’ll get far enough. We’ll stop dying and live forever. We love this thought. We want it. We think we need it.
But do we need it? Where does Christianity come into all of this?
That’s just it.
Christianity doesn’t come into it.
The third way you know that fear is driving you is that God isn’t part of the equation. Fear leaves no room for a relationship with the actual God. Fear is a replacement for God. It’s too scary to keep serving Him. We might still pray to Him, but it has no more meaning than crossing our fingers. It’s just something we do in case it works. This is the ultimate proof that fear is a lie.
No matter how fearful we are, we can’t conquer death. We can’t escape the sorrow of our fallen world. But if we have God, we can live with death and sorrow, and we can love in spite of them.
Only one Person can overcome death, and He used death itself to do it. Maybe that’s why the announcement of His birth began with the words, “Fear not!”
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