Why Conquering Your Fears Won’t Make You Fearless

Reading Time: 6 minutes

 

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.

My brother on his throne.

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?

Listen!

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.

11 thoughts on “Why Conquering Your Fears Won’t Make You Fearless”

  1. Georgie Ann KETTIG

    certainly a good description, Eugene!,… it takes me back to my emerging years into young “adulthood”, through college days and beyond,… “alienation” was a very big “philosophical” theme being used to describe the emerging condition(s) of industrialized “modern man”,… apparently the “intellectuals” (especially Europeans) loved it, and were promoting it as a new “zeitgeist” to help us young-but-maturing Americans “lose our way” even faster than is fairly normal these days,… oh, my!,… “poison thoughts” being planted directly and intentionally into our receptive and still plastic developing mental spaces,…

    during this time, an innocent student study visit to Europe (cut short because I had had enough), put me in touch with a very devastating, post WWII, spirit of angst and depression, and yes, “alienation”, that was pervasive throughout these poor cities and countries that had actually had wars fought in their midst and on their soil, and had brought them so much personal loss and fear ~ I realized (a process that took awhile) that not only was there “loss and fear and depression” still residing there in the ’60s, but also repressed angers and so on,… as a young ingenue Americaine, it was actually “heavier emotionally” than I could handle, and even though I cut my visit short, it took a long time for me to recover, and to be able to put all this into perspective,…

    but that level of “fear” had penetrated/invaded me, and I realized that I was a vulnerable “human being”, in essence,… also, in France, I had encountered the fabulous cathedrals that had endured for centuries, standing as a testament to, and proclaiming, “the glory and the enduring power of God”,… so, for the rest of my life, I have been seeking God to be the cure for the (normal) fear(s) that accompany our flawed and vulnerable “human condition”,… “being human” will always (to me) be an “it is what it is” condition,… we will always be “needing a savior” to be rescuing us from the vulnerabilities of “our flesh condition”, which is temporary and ultimately perishes, (and somewhere, it “knows” and fears this)… BUT our “spirit” is eternal and will be preserved along with God’s Spirit ~ this is what gives us “hope and strength” to carry on through “the trials of life”, as we know it in this “human condition”,…

    so, the intellectual college concept of philosophical “alienation”, (although used to tempt me to mentally join the devil in his actual condition of “alienation from God”), didn’t work on me,… ultimately, they didn’t “catch this fish”, (yay!), although they tried,… the Bible tells us that “Perfect love casts out fear”,… what God offers us is “Spirit and Life”,… He understands very well that we need Him to help us get through everything that tempts and threatens our very vulnerable, and comparatively blind, “flesh” condition in this life,… the “flesh” is vulnerable and always will be, but if “God (Spirit) is for us, who can be against us?”,… “What a friend we have in Jesus!”,… He will “never leave us or forsake us”, and very willingly “pastures us” through our “life experiences”, until we are “all together, once again”,… He has promised this, and I believe Him,… (-:

    1. I enjoy hearing your personal, philosophical history so much. What stories you have. It seems that different generations face a different zeitgeists foisted on us by the prevailing culture. Alienation then safety now? Thanks for engaging.

      1. Georgie Ann KETTIG

        yes, it does take a long time to “put it all together”, so that so many seeming contradictions about “life” do actually “fit together and make sense” in the grand scheme of things that is described and explained for us “in the Bible”,…

        I have always liked the Biblical quote that: “… God is not the author of confusion …” (1 Corinthians 14:33),…

        this means that we basically CAN sort out and understand “this from that” ~ that which is godly and that which is ungodly,… for awhile, as we question and mentally “process” these things that life will continually throw at us, (a very “normal” part of the learning process), I think that the overlapping of our impressionable and feeling “soul” may seem to be confusing, when coming alongside the more clear definitions that “spiritual” concepts may give us,…

        as we live longer and learn more, it becomes apparent that our “flesh and our soul” pertain more personally to “ourselves”, our personal “likes and dislikes”, the way we think about things, etc,… but, if we’re honest, we understand our relative “smallness and powerlessness” vis a vis the “Creator of the Universe”!,… ideally, this should cause us to have humility about our own perceptions, and help us to open ourselves more fully to God’s Truth, and the way He explains it,…

        obviously, this “discussion” could go on for awhile, lol,… but bottomline, when we accept that God’s teaching is Truth and Good and Eternal, and that there is an enemy that pollutes and distorts things in this earthly realm, we can begin to understand that it is this enemy that is causing the confusion,… and so, much like sorting laundry, we can begin to throw the “confusing things” into that basket that is questionable and needs further cleansing or disposal,… this leaves the God things free to shine on their own,…

        in particular, the “things of the flesh aspect of our lives”, imo, need to be understood both as a gift and also as being temporary,… this is also where the enemy would like to target us and very often finds it easy enough to do so,… in the flesh we are vulnerable, but I don’t necessarily like to think of it as being “evil”,… it is “the enemy” who is evil,… as we learn the things to shun, and to cry out to our savior to help and guide us, we make our own path straighter, and find that many “confusing” things are left on the side, as we veer away from them,…

        I think “fear” is a language that is kind of normal or instinctive for our flesh,… our flesh, in itself, doesn’t yet fully “know”/realize transcendence,… sometimes I mentally “hear” unspoken thoughts or ideas in myself, that aren’t particularly generous or helpful or even hopeful, and that I would probably never even say out loud, and they surprise me,… it seems to me to be more like a subliminal engrained “language” of lazy fatalism or even superstition, but it’s not truly my outlook,…

        as I am aging, I’ve come to understand better, the weight and needs of our flesh, that it sometimes seems like our “spirit” is dragging along,… yes, the flesh will fear, and hesitate, and even suffer, and it will deserve mercy,… and God’s Spirit will call to it and clearly encourage it to “keep keepin’ on”,… we can help it, as well, by focusing on God’s Words of Truth, Life, Light and Love,… as the song (“I Want to Walk as a Child of the Light”) says:

        “In him there is no darkness at all;
        The night and the day are both alike.
        The Lamb is the light of the city of God.
        Shine in my heart, Lord Jesus.”

  2. So well put, Eugene. Even when recognized those fears are difficult to shed. I’m still dealing with those I recognized 70 years ago. But, they are much, much less vicious now.

  3. Rachel Ohnemus

    Fear is definitely a “huge” tactic the media has put on people now. I’ve stopped watching. Isn’t fear the opposite of faith? I’ve just decided that god has always provided, protected and kept me from harm that I just believe and know that he will. That does mean to stay smart. We have to do everything that we can as well. But let god do what alone he can do. I decided when God is ready to take me he will take me and it won’t matter if it’s the coronavirus or something else but I’ve chosen to be smart and know that god is protecting me and I can’t live in a bubble.

    1. I am glad your faith is the main factor in how you are viewing this crisis, Rachel. I am not sure fear is the opposite of faith as much as it is a call to faith. Being afraid constantly tells us we need to ask God for faith.

  4. This thought occurred to me while reading your post. Instead of the ‘Fear nots’ being a commanding threat or condition, as so often taught by others, it is more the case that the Lord is saying, Fear Not, BECAUSE…It is the comfort of God when He says, Fear not, and this is why…because I am with you. Great post, Eugene! I understand your concept in a new way by reading this.

    1. Yes. I did not go that far in the blog. But I believe that is the intention of it. Because! And the phrase then becomes a formula God’s people use to remind themselves of God’s presence not to chide themselves. Then at Mount Sinai God plays a beautiful pun as his children are afraid of God in the mountain and God tells them to fear him. I will write more about that in the future.

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