At one time I described myself as fearless.
In the way pop culture defines it. I love adventure. I’m a risk-taker. I don’t worry obsessively. I sleep well, mostly. But then I have these memories.
I was five. I heard a thunk upstairs. I froze with fear convinced kidnappers had conked my babysitter on the head and now were in search of me. Scrunched against the concrete wall, I pulled my t-shirt over my bare legs and cowered. The unfinished basement cold and echoey like a tomb. As I made myself small, my fear swelled. Tears runneled down my cheeks. Panicked, I bolted up the stairs and out into the sunny summer morning. Safe. For now.
That event occupied only ten terrifying minutes. Yet, that vivid memory has haunted me for decades. Why?
The easy answer is that in the early 1960s the news was still choked with horror stories about the kidnapping and murder of the Lindbergh baby. Adolf Coors, the heir to Coors Brewing Company, too had been kidnapped and murdered. I convinced myself I was next. I had reason to fear.
But as I’ve retold that story over the years, it seems there was something more.
Memories Carry a Message
Memories that stick like spider webs usually have a message. During that time I also had a recurring dream about being kidnapped and thrown off a cliff. Always alone. Never rescued. What was I afraid of? Kidnappers sure. But something more?
Eventually I outgrew that. I moved on, not yet noticing the shadow of fear that followed me into adulthood taking other shapes.
Listen to Your Fear; It Knows Something You Don’t
But I did notice in my pastoral conversations and counseling how many people were driven by fear. Stranger danger was coined as a sad children’s ditty. 9/11 conflagrated fear into terror. The word fear peppered our language more than the other f word. Anxiety and worry climbed to the national mental health crisis ladder. 19 million people are diagnosed with phobias.
[box] As a care giver, I studied fear in order to help. I enlisted in the conquer your fear campaign. But soon determined that telling people to simply overcome their fear did little good. Efforts to master fear, get over fear, or face fear were doomed because they treated fear as the problem. But fear was not the problem. Fear was a symptom. Fear was the finger pointing to the problem. [/box]
This is obvious enough when fear fingers a charging bear or run-away car. Run! Physically God designed an amazingly complex, faster than lighting early warning system. The fight, flight, or freeze response. That’s why I raced out of that basement that day.
But when the stimulus is not material but psychological or emotional, what’s fear pointing to then? And how do you escape it?
What’s Your Story?
Our stories reveal our fears. In my pastoral conversations, I began asking people to tell me their stories so we could pinpoint where their fear originated. What messages lay in their memories? In most cases there was a deeper issue fear was signaling.
One man who had been abused by his father feared being abused again. What he couldn’t grasp was why he kept distance even from safe people. Why he couldn’t establish any close relationships. Then we listened closer to his fear.
“My dad loved me,” he said, eyes like BBs. “But he still hurt me. I’m afraid I’ll end up just like him.”
There it was! Not only could he not trust others; he couldn’t trust himself.
Listening to rather than conquering his fear led him to identify and name the deeper issue. The trauma behind the fear.
Name a persistent story in your life. It probably carries a message. Dig into it, especially with someone who doesn’t settle for surface answers.
Listen to Your Fear; God May Be Speaking Through It.
Have you ever noticed how helping others is the circuitous path God steals down to heal us when we have blocked off the main road?
“Eugene, what’s your story?” the Father seemed to ask. I began to listen to my own fears.
What was I really afraid of in that basement? Why was I so uncomfortable and even afraid of being alone? It was more than extroversion.
One of my earliest memories was as a two-year-old being left “alone” in the hospital after I had fallen down our basement stairs and suffered a brain injury. Back then parents were not allowed to stay with their hospitalized children. I watched my parents walk out of the room as I stood wailing, gripping the steel railed crib. They abandoned me. Or that’s what I felt. And of course that feeling was later accentuated by my farther’s death when I was eleven and my mother’s emotional disappearance as she delt with her grief and worked several jobs in order for us to survive.
Fear was standing in front of me waving a red flag yelling, “Look. There’s something here you need to address!”
The word abandonment niggled into my consciousness. Was that the name of the deeper trauma?
Yes. Soon I made another connection. My paralyzing people pleasing and pathetic need for acceptance was a shield against abandonment.
“Fear not. I am with you,” God said. (Isaiah 41:10) But was God simply commanding me to conquer my fear? It sounded like it.
I dug into all one hundred-seventy “fear nots” in the Bible. I saw something different. God was not commanding the characters in those stories to stop fearing or else. Through their fear God was drawing close to them as they faced powerful enemies, dark nights, deep depression, doubt, frustration, hunger, and desolation. In their trouble, God spoke not demands but comfort. “I am with you. I will fight for you.” God spoke this comfort as a father sitting on the edge of his child’s bed during a terrifying thunder storm. He pulls the sheets up tight and whispers, “Fear not. I’m here. We’re in this together.”
This truth travelled with me into my past. I remembered being a drug depressed teenager and hearing God say through a camp preacher, “God will be a Father to you who will never leave or forsake you.” It was those words that provoked me to scribble my name on the adoption papers accepting God’s offer to make me a fatherless son. God spoke into my need for acceptance and fear of abandonment to promise me I am not abandoned, but loved. To this day God is with me!
What fear is God speaking truth to you through?
Attempts to conquer fear work no magic. In essence they kill, or at best, ignore the messenger.
If I fear kidnappers, childish remedies may satisfy. For a time. When I realize the real fear is of long-term aloneness, not feeling worthy of unconditional love, I can get help with that. As a matter of fact, naming my fear abandonment in the presence of my counselor gave me such relief it felt as freeing as running out into the sun that day when I was five. But more permanent.
Today I’m not free from fear. Because of listening to my fear, I’m free from believing I was and am abandoned. And I’m listening to my fear to hear what other messages of healing God has for me.