Fear is legitimate. It can mean there is actual danger and risk, or that we’re in a situation that reminds us (triggering) of a time we were in actual danger, or that someone we love is in actual danger. Fear is an important part of our human experience. If there’s an intruder at your door, you’re either going to fight them or you’re going to hide to keep yourself and your family safe. When there’s a virus spreading you’re going to take shelter in a similar attempt to find safety.
In the Christian world we sometimes view all fear as bad, even though fear serves an important role in keeping us safe. But sometimes fear tries to take up residence. It can cause us to anticipate danger, ruminating endlessly on the possibilities. It can cause us to fixate on our past pain, over-analyze, and ultimately hold us back. It can cause us to judge others for their decisions when we don’t agree with them. When fear moves into this other space it becomes anxiety. It can get stuck in our nervous systems like a squatter, and in the process it can actually begin to rewire your brain to expect danger around every corner. When we live in this form of anxiety it’s difficult to make thoughtful and rational decisions.
So much has happened to us collectively during COVID. It’s like a collective trauma that has left us all reeling. Trauma is an experience that overloads your system’s ability to respond. It’s typically a very painful, unexpected experience. Right now, these experiences can come in many forms, like a serious illness, loss of a loved one, loss of a job, loss of social life, loss of access to what brings you joy, loss of support for childcare and education. Trauma is a blow to your system. We can’t deny that. And now more than ever, we have all seen how vulnerable we are.
As the world opens back up, we are at a crucial point. We are faced with a decision on whether or not to step back out- “to get back on the horse,” as they say. As we do that, we can allow our brains to stay in a state of hyper-vigilance, or we can find some way of letting go of what we can’t control, and instead go forth in peace and wisdom. Anxiety tells us to fear and react while wisdom tells us to pause and respond. We can’t control every germ molecule, other’s behaviors, who opens up or stays closed, who gets sick, who dies. We can’t control our economy, how many customers decide to return to our businesses, whether our family members go forth in fear or peace. We can’t control our child’s choices to respect us as their new teacher, whether they go back to school in August, whether that vacation ever happens. In trying to control all these variables, we’re all trying to find some sense of stability in a scary season of life. We’re restless and powerless.
In response to this it’s natural that we want to regain a sense of control over our lives: We want the data (reading the news), we want to band together (convincing others to do what we’re doing), we want to be healthy (disinfecting everything or isolating). Yet there’s a fine line between living in fear and responding in wisdom. The only way to move forward in wisdom is to remember what’s most important – the eternal. St Augustine once said that our souls will continue to be restless until they find rest in something eternal. When all around is sinking sand, we need to cling to something firm. Even though we can’t control our current circumstances, we can control our response.
Here are some things to reflect on in your search for wisdom in this season:
- Define what your anxiety and fear keep convincing you to try to control.
- Practice letting go of those anxieties. Again, in the words of Augustine, “You stir man to take pleasure in praising you, because you have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.”
- Define what is within your control.
- Then pause and from that place of peace, respond to the world around you.
On Christ, the solid Rock, I stand;
All other ground is sinking sand,
All other ground is sinking sand.