Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Fear

I've been wanting to blog about this for some time, but I don't actually know how to begin. I'm standing here, closing in on the day when I'm out of the dorms and into an apartment, closing in on the Bar and work and a marriage.

And I'm afraid.

I've been reading Gingrich and Forstchen's Civil War trilogy, and I feel like I'm in that last charge towards the Potomac, like Xenophon's men taking that nameless spur - one more grand effort and it's done, I'm out of the storm, but oh how dreadful the charge seems, and I am afraid.

I've been thinking a lot about this, and I'm not afraid of failure. Not in the traditional sense, at any rate. It's not like I'm afraid that I won't be a good lawyer, or at any rate that I don't have the makings of a good lawer, or of a good husband, or a good father, a good Christian, or even just a good boyfriend or student. Success in the traditional performance-based kind of way has always been something that just kind of happened, or didn't happen. I value it, but not all that much. The conversation Archimedes and I had on the eve of our induction to Phi Beta Kappa encapsulates for me how I think success ought to be viewed: essentially, you do your thing, and sometimes people throw awards at you. Maybe it's because material success, in all the areas of life I've turned my hand to so far, has come with relative ease. I've never particularly valued being smart, in myself or in anyone else.

So I'm not afraid of that kind of failure. But I suppose I am afraid of failure. What I'm afraid of, really, is fear itself. I'm afraid of losing my courage. That is something I've always valued, working hard. It's been a while since I've posted anything here so for those who haven't heard any Natalie spoken in a while let me draw out the linguistic connection. There are two ways to deal with fear. The first and most common is to not diminish the overall level of fear at all, but to decrease the effect it has on one. That is courage: to be afraid and carry on anyway. Cowardice, by corollary, is to be afraid and give in to it.

I have always wanted to be brave. In a sense I have wanted little else. To be afraid, and somehow find a way to do the right thing anyway. I think that's one of the main reasons I love military history. The story of war, of fighting, is the story of men exhausted and afraid beyond all human endurance - and somehow the best of them find a way to do the right thing anyway. That is the human essence of warmaking, and why a country can be proud of its fighting men no matter the cause for which they fought. I read and I read and I know the answer, but I ask the question anyway: How do they do it?

You might say that it's perfectly natural for me to be afraid. After all, I'm moving on to a new stage of life, one that's very different from anything I've faced before. I have, one might be inclined to say, lived a fairly sheltered life. That is not it. There is such a thing as sheltered, but I think more often than people like to admit "sheltered" is simply a euphemism for "grew up in a family that did what it was supposed to." I don't think "sheltered" means "kept from hard experiences." It means "kept from being prepared for hard experiences." It has been my observation that my upbringing kept me from experiencing a number of hard things that other people my age experienced earlier in life, but it has also been my experience that my upbringing prepared me quite well to deal with those things when I got around to confronting them. Nothing about my upbringing has fostered cowardice in the least degree.

No, I'm not afraid because things are new. I'm afraid because the fear has begun to slow me down. It feels like my courage is slipping, and that's what's frightening. It isn't school; it's that it takes me forever to get any schoolwork done because I'm so paralyzed by fear - fear that I'm going to fail, on the surface, but really I'm paralyzed by the fear that I'm being paralyzed by the fear. That my courage has deserted me and I just can't do it anymore. And with it comes the crushing despair that in this, the one part of success that has any moral significance, I have failed at last.

Does this sound familiar? It should. It is the familiar voice of the Father of Lies.

It has occurred to me, as I've contemplated this tenacious assault, that I am being told a lie about courage. The lie is this: that the great thing in life is to be brave. Not true. Patently false. Courage is a virtue, to be sure, but it is not the greatest thing in life. It is bad to be a coward but cowardice does not make a man a failure.

Here is one of those delayed hard experiences that my "sheltered" upbringing has led me to confront at a relatively late age. Most other people who went to Stanford have already had the happy/unhappy experience of finding out that they are not the most exceptional anything - that no matter how smart, how creative, how fast, how empathetic, how hard-working they are, there are a great many people in the world who are smarter, more creative, faster, more empathetic, and harder workers - and some are all of those things. Now it's my turn for this place to bring me face to face - I mean really face to face - with the realization that I am not perfectly brave.

Before you get on my case about low self-esteem, I am not calling myself a coward. I am brave, I realize that; I might even admit in a moment of candor to considering myself exceptionally brave. But there are things before which my courage fails, and I am face to face with one of those things now.

Stanford can teach you that you aren't the best; except for a very few of its students it teaches us all that critical life lesson. Now here is the twist at the end of the story, the thing that Stanford cannot teach you: why that's okay. It's okay that I am not perfectly brave because I have Jesus. Particularly, I am about to argue, because Jesus loves me. This is the second way to deal with fear.

Courage is all very well but it accepts, and is subject to in some degree, the presence of fear. The brave man has found a way to be terrified out of his wits and still do what he must. It is not the opposite of fear, the thing that makes things less frightening, that drives fear out. Courage is merely the opposite of cowardice. The opposite of fear is love.

On a human level Thayet has been a shining example of this. She loves me (and I love her, very deeply, but that's not germane to this illustration). And when I am around her I am less afraid. Please take my word that I am not braver around her; that is an entirely different phenomenon. I am less afraid. The world is simply less scary around her; the lie begins to lose its power. And why? Because she surprises me with roses and strawberries and wine before a midterm? Because of the way she looks at me, or speaks to me, or even prays for me? Nonsense. Those are just ways in which she loves me, examples of the ferocity of her love.

Now this is hardly news, but I think I better understand something about it. After all, it is written that Jesus has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of sophrosune. And yet, here I am - afraid. How can this be? In Christian circles we often ask God to make his promises "real" to us. Here is a proposition: my spirit is not afraid. The spirit I have been given is a grand and noble one, of power and love and mental solidity, the spirit of a king in the highest sense of that word. But I am not just an immortal. I am also, thanks be to God, an animal. And animals are subject to fear.

If this be so, then perhaps it is to translate fearlessness into animal terms that God has provided those that love us. People like my family and Thayet and knights who love me and communicate the love of God to me in ways that touch my animal self, as Steven Pressfield has Dienekes call it, "the factory of fear."

It is written that perfect love drives out fear. It is true with Thayet. It is true with my family. It is true with my closest friends. Love, not courage, is the opposite of and antidote to fear. And that is why it is okay if I am not perfectly brave. Not because nobody is perfectly brave. Because I am loved, and by Jesus most and best of all.

And the result of this? I have said that love drives out fear, but what does it leave in its place? The following thought came to me when I was reading with my Bible study the book of Hebrews. It is parrhesia, which the Scriptures tell us we have through faith in Christ. This parrhesia was claimed by the Athenians as a peculiar right of Athenian citizens. It is often translated "freedom of speech," and I suppose it is freedom of speech in the grand old sense which we imbue that constitutional right sometimes on national holidays or when filled with a particular pride of country. Parrhesia is boldness, openness, frankness - it is the right of a man, whatever his station, to hold his head high and look any other man in the eye, whatever his station, and speak his mind openly as to an equal. That, I think, is what love leaves in the wake of its crusade against fear. It is love, and not courage, that lets a man hold his head high, look straight in the eye of any season of life or the devil himself, and say truthfully, "I am not afraid."

3 comments:

Tyler said...

It is always reassuring to me, for the sanity of the world, to see those who are faithful discuss fear and its effects. Here I don;t mean to be condescending in any way shape or form, nor do I think I am interested in forging some common bond between our admitedly very different world views. Its simply that Fear is a very powerful thing, one which pervades human existence in general, and the young man's existence in particular. You and I fear different things I am sure. I fear death in a way which your faith precludes, but the very fact that we both admit to an emotion ascociated with weakness, failure, inaction and ruin, bodes-- I think very well.
It is a peculiar lie about the state of courage, as you elude to, that somehow it is the paramount tennet of faith. Courage to do that which is hard is laudable, but courage to do that which is impossible is foolhardy. In watching the news and seeing the many ills of this current world I am struck by the insistence that meeting challenges with stoic resolution is somehow courageous. That bullheadedness is equal to bravery, and that to waver in one's conviction is to be unfaithful. By that same logic it is courageous to become a suicide bomber, and while that requires steely nerves and conviction like I couldn't dream of, I do not believe that it is essentially an act of bravery. Nor do I believe that bravery is such complete faith in God that one abandons environmental policy because Jesus will provide completely for the world's well being until the end of days (as Falwell recently said in reaction against an Inconveninet Truth). I had, I think at one time given up hope that people of a religious bent were being taught, to acknowledge fear in any way shape or form. And knowing that for the man who is both rational and faithful, like yourself, that fear and its effects are not items to be dismissed. That to waver in your courage, is not to waver in your faith. At any rate, I would not deign to think that I understand the inter-relationship between your fear and your faith, only that one exists and that fear is acknowledged, healthy and manifests reasonably. Beyond that, I wish you good luck in the terrifying experiences ahead, may you meet them with prudent courage and bravery tempered by reason. And may whatever the end result be happy for you.

Gavan said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Gavan said...

Thank you for your honesty.

I often fear my own inadequacy. But when I realize the love that God and others show to me, I realize that there is nothing for me to be afraid of.

One of the most powerful things I see in people I admire is that they don't seem to experience fear. Mother Theresa was once asked if she was ever afraid, and she said "no". When asked how she could not be afraid of anything, she responded that when you realize the love of God, then there is no room for fear.