Turn on your television or flip open the newspaper on any given day, and you will find yourself accosted by all the reports of events, people, races, and religions we should mistrust and fear. You will be assaulted by the indignity of people, candidates, and governments using fear as a strategy. This isn’t by coincidence. It’s a well- organized system of control. You see, people living in fear are easier to control. This post September 11 culture we live in is the perfect breeding ground for fear and paranoia mongering.
Frank Furedi, a former professor of sociology, tells us that today's culture of fear did not begin with the collapse of the World Trade Center. Long before September 11, he argues, public panics were widespread -- on everything from genetically-modified crops to mobile phones, from global warming to foot-and-mouth disease. Furedi argues that perceptions of risk, ideas about safety and controversies over health, the environment and technology have little to do with science or empirical evidence. Rather, they are shaped by cultural assumptions about human vulnerability.
It is not news that we live in fear; we always have. Life has its risks and fear is sometimes a very appropriate response. As self-conscious beings, we carry a basic fear of abandonment and loss. That is because we know we will die. That is because we learn, some of us much too early, that in our lifetime we will experience abandonment and loss. Our fear is a response to the reality of engagement with life. To the reality of our loving others. Fear is sometimes the price we pay for being alive.
At the same time as fear is the price, our fear also seeks to protect us from having to pay such a price; to protect us from loss, from pain, from harm. In the name of protection, fear tells us to stay away; don't touch; to build defenses; to attack before we ourselves are attacked; to shut down; to deny; to avoid; to numb ourselves from feeling our feelings. How many of us have ever ignored physical symptoms of disease in the hopes that it would just go away? And in the fear that it would not? How many of us drink or drug or eat our difficulties away? Because we just don't want to know. How many of us, are frightened at the thought of weapons of mass destruction? How many of us shut the doors of our souls? Out of fear, whether we recognize it as such or not. Fear tells us that it's better to be safe than sorry.
Our fear seeks to protect us and keep us safe, which is good and necessary. But fear cannot protect us from fear. Fear does not, ultimately, protect us, or keep us safe. Fear causes us to become rigid and it closes our minds and hearts, which only gives rise to more fear.
The opposite of fear is not fearlessness. The opposite of fear is love. Fear separates us; love connects us. Fear does not protect us, love does, because love allows us to live with a certain acknowledgment of our vulnerability. Love allows us to live with the fact that we cannot be perfectly safe, and thereby we take some risk and survive it. Fear will never go away because on some level it is an appropriate response to the losses and chances of life. But we cannot be ruled by fear, not if we want to live.
Yet we live in a society saturated with fear both on the personal and national level. We Americans are no strangers to fear. Our governments, our media, elements of our culture have, in certain time periods, fed on fear and used it to manipulate and control the public. It is not something new. Return to that place of your childhood. Think of the people, weapons, gods and movements you were taught to fear. Franklin Roosevelt, in his 1933 first inaugural address, recognizing the power of fear, uttered those famous words: The only thing we have to fear is fear itself. The whole sentence is even better and it goes like this: So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself -- nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.
In January of 1941 he laid out what he called the four essential human freedoms. The first is freedom of speech and expression -- everywhere in the world. The second is freedom of every person to worship God in his (and I add "her") own way -- everywhere in the world. The third is freedom from want -- which, translated into world terms, means economic understandings which will secure to every nation a healthy peacetime life for its inhabitants -- everywhere in the world. The fourth is freedom from fear, which, translated into world terms, means a world-wide reduction of armaments to such a point and in such a thorough manner that no nation will be in a position to commit an act of physical aggression against any neighbor -- anywhere in the world.
We are no strangers to fear and while there have been, and are, times in our history when we have succumbed to it, there have also been times when we have had leaders who have taught us how to counter it. The years following WWII were not one of the latter periods. During those years we experienced the fear of communism and that fear manifested itself in the McCarthy hearings, the Cuban missile crisis, the Vietnam War, covert operations in Central America, the growth of the political power of the Christian right and the nuclear arms race. The years since 9/11 have been particularly fearful ones, having provided us with a new enemy -- terrorism, which has left us almost consumed by anxiety for our safety. We go so far as to elect our leaders based upon the perceptions of who will keep us safe and in our anxiety we do not see that those perceptions are illusions.
Think about what we do and do not fear. And why. National fears play into personal fears for our safety. Michael Moore pointed out in his film Bowling for Columbine, we fear for our security, so we carry more guns and behave more violently than almost any other peoples in the world. We fear for our economic security, which results in a hostility to immigrants despite the fact that it's a myth that immigrants take jobs away or consume an undue share of public services without paying any taxes. Where does this come from? Our fears have been shaped and defined by the age of information which throws boatloads of specialized, unanalyzed and undigested facts at us all the time; by ever-increasing technology which puts all of this information at our fingertips all the time whether we want it there or not;
by our government which uses fear to get votes for its own policies; by the media which seemingly loves to stir up fear with exaggerations and half-truths;
by fundamentalist religions which look gleefully to an apocalyptic end of the world;
by our educational system, through omission, which has not taught our children to adequately think for themselves, look beyond themselves, and to question.
And by our own complicity in all of this.
Christian theologian Walter Brueggeman has said that it is in the interests of those who profit in wealth and power from war, or other human misery, (and throughout history there have always been those who profit from such), it is in their interests to cultivate a culture of fear and keep the public anxious about its own safety and focused solely on its own private interests, thereby distracted from larger issues, leaving them free to continue to profit, saying "If you don't do what I say, terrible things will happen. Trust me, I know best how to keep you safe. How dare you question my actions?"
How then, do we counter this culture of fear? Mary Oliver was quoted saying Instructions for living a life. Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it.
The Reverend David Gage gives us instructions on what to pay attention to:
- Pay attention to the wider world and we will see how much the rhetoric of exaggeration and catastrophizing permeates society, government, and media, stoking the fires of fear. Counter it with education and keeping ourselves informed with a larger perspective and an open mind. Question, for example, why threats to our safety are more important than threats to our civil liberties. Question our leaders when they would use the rhetoric of fear.
- Pay attention to the meaning we chose to make in our lives, and the purposes for which we chose to live. Ethics matter, both personally and nationally. Counter fear by living according to principles of morality. Question the consequences of the choices we make, individually and collectively.
- Pay attention and we will find our own personal fears, often wearing the masks of protectors. Identify them and look at them. Counter them by uncovering the ways in which we are blinded by that which we believe will protect us. Question whether it does.
- Pay attention to our own histories. Recall a time when we broke through fear. Counter our anxiety by recovering our sense of competence. Remember our sense of confidence and know that we can live with some ambiguity. We can live with some vulnerability. We can live with some risk of loss.
- Pay attention to other people. See how they handle adversity and fear. Counter our fear through inspiration from others. Question ourselves when we perceive that we have become rigid and closed.
- Pay attention to our faith, whether it is in ourselves, in other people, in spirit, in nature, and on. Counter fear through connections to something and someone larger than oneself. Open our hearts. Open our minds. Simply love as our Unitarian Universalists values call us to do.
Fear exists as part of our human condition and it is a realistic response to the reality of engagement with life. Nevertheless, we cannot live as a servant of fear because that only grows more fear, less engagement, diminished connections. It overshadows the presence of love in our lives and that does not help us.
Fear is the root of the problem. The only thing which will improve our present condition is the taming of our fear. We must act on courage. Courage to think differently, speak loudly, and challenge directly the systems which we know to be unjust. We choose to counter fear with love. Choice is one of Viktor Frankl’s big ideas. He speaks of being in the concentration camps and having everything taken away except one thing:
He writes, the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way. And there were always choices to make. Every day, every hour, offered the opportunity to make a decision, a decision which determined whether you would or would not submit to those powers which threatened to rob you of your very self, your inner freedom….
He goes on, The way in which a man accepts his fate and all the suffering it entails, the way in which he takes up his cross, gives him ample opportunity – even under the most difficult circumstances – to add a deeper meaning to his life. It may remain brave, dignified and unselfish. Or in the bitter fight for self-preservation he may forget his human dignity and become no more than an animal. Here lies the chance for a man either to make use of or to forego the opportunities of attaining the values that a difficult situation may afford him.
May we counter our culture of fear. May we cultivate love; may we cultivate peace; may we cultivate joy. May we live generously and strongly, singing our song of praise and thanks for all that is our life. May it be so.
Love vs Fear, a sermon delivered by The Rev CJ McGregor at 1stUUPB Feb 7, 2016.