Friday, August 6, 2010

fighting fear

Fear is a natural part of life and happens to all of us. It is part of our "fight or flight" response to percieved danger. But it needs to be handled carefully. If done well it is like a fireplace blaze or campfire that serves us well. Fire keeps us warm, safe and fed - using fear warns us of dangers to avoid - like walking too close to the edge of a cliff. But out of control it is like a forest fire or house fire that is very dangerous and destructive. There is a lot of that destructive fire going on these days and we have to know how to combat it, both in ourselves and in others.

We live in a dangerous, yet fascinating world. We all respond to change differently. Some of us welcome it, some are fearful of it. With change all around we need to be sensitive to the fear that often rises in ourselves and to the fear of others. Most of this is in response to unknowns - who are these people, what will happen next, what do I do next in response to this new thing?

We need first of all to think rationally about our own fear. We need to be aware of what we are afraid of and why. And we need to reason out the best response. We can be affected by others fears so we need to filter the information we receive to strain out any false or misleading - or just unsubstantiated -stuff that may be feeding our fear. Ask yourself - can I do anything about this situation? If so, then do it. If not ,realize that and endeavor to focus on things you can work on.

When we have our own fear fire under control only then can we focus on helping others who fear. There are three basic ways in which people respond to the fears of others. In order to make it clearer, let me continue the fire analogy. The first way is to say "don't be afraid", 'there's nothing to be afraid of", etc. We toss platitudes their way and think that to "just say no" to fear is enough. This is like the well meaning person who throws water on a grease fire. It only spreads the fire. Water is great on a normal fire, but not grease (or oil). In the same way, dismissing someone's fear without knowing the cause will not help.

The second way people handle people's fears today is to stoke them, feed them, pouring gas on the fire. These are the fear pushers. You see and hear them on cable and talk radio. If I mentioned names or showed pictures you would recognize them. They don't care what people are afraid of , they just want to spread the fear, spread the fire. They don't want people to think. They present situations in the simplistic worst light, and if there isn't something currently disturbing they will go looking for it. As one political candidate said about another - "all he knows is a noun,a verb, and 9-11). They need a bogeyman to scare people and for those fear pushers 9-11 was a gold mine.

I advise a third option. Listen and learn and then fight the fear fire intelligently. Take time to understand why the person is afraid. Ask them "what are you afraid of?", and "why are you afraid?"...and then listen to their responses. As people of faith we see the example of God in scripture asking people why they were afraid - not because he didn't know, but because they needed to articulate the reasons so they could deal with the fear and press on. It's like fighting a fire....if you know it's a simple source -like wood, paper,etc -you can douse it with water and kill it. If you know it's gas, oil, or toxic or otherwise hazardous material you know that other things , like dirt, foam,etc., must be used to kill it so that it doesn't spread.

Too often we are fixers, and not listeners. Sometimes we are afraid of others' fears. Sometimes we get weary of all the "be afraid. be very afraid" chant that arises from some quarters of our society. Sometimes we grow weary of trying to help people see past the fear and embrace the new opportunities that are out there in our world. But we must persevere. Fear fire fighting is up to all of us.

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