The measure

Originally Posted on September 26, 2011

What’s life like on the other side of fear? What does it take to get there? It’s an interesting thought: is there a life without fear? It’s worth some consideration.

Fear is a necessary instinct. Without it, we’d likely get ourselves into all sorts of life-threatening situations. Fear is linked to our survival instinct and is not a bad thing in and of itself. Fear turns into a problem when someone becomes defined by it, as in, “so and so is a fearful person.” There are certainly plenty of things for which to be fearful, and South Africa is notorious for such things. Crime, rape, murder, we have it all in spades. Incidence of violent crime is supposedly on the decline, but not so much that you sometimes can’t help but feel the dread hanging in the air when you’re around certain folks.

I have always felt for such people, and I do so now more than ever. It is a terrible thing to live in such a splendid and rich land as ours and feel as though you are a prisoner in your own house, at times. Every sort of high wall, security device, rent-a-cops and large, snarling dogs do little to help some folks relax when the sun goes down. The fear that they will be burgled or worse ever sits on their minds.

Returning to our analyses of fear: what would be the antithesis of it? Some might say courage, but that is probably not true. While it takes some courage to make a conscious choice to not be governed by fear, courage is not in itself the opposite of fear. In fact, there is a fair amount of fear in courage. Courage is the conscious decision to embark upon an action or course of actions that will have adverse consequences upon that person, but he or she has elected to do so anyway because it is something that must be done. William Wilberforce is a prime example of a person of courage. For 26 years he led an unpopular cause to abolish the slave trade that had been so lucrative and pivotal in the building and establishment of the British Empire. He suffered all sorts of public ostracism, but he stuck to his convictions and was eventually vindicated. I am certain that he feared for his welfare and those of his family and associates. Nevertheless, his convictions were backed up by courage to not wilt before the barrage of criticism and antagonism that swam his way for so many years.

So courage is not in itself the opposite of fear, but it could be one of its antidotes. The other is realization. A whole category of fears can be put to the sword through the simple realization that comes by way of a singularly life-changing experience that makes one realize that the thing feared is not all it was cracked up to be. An example of this would be the person who overcomes his or her fear of heights by bungee jumping off a bridge. After the experience, that individual realizes his or her fear of heights might have been largely unfounded and no longer experiences vertigo when they stand at the edge of a building.

That is perhaps a simplistic explanation, but it is a good one. I was once a very fearful person. I was afraid of failure, of being alone, of never figuring out who I would become when I finally grew up. I was afraid of being a parent, of letting others down and of not having enough money. I was afraid of being wrong, of being found to be a hypocrite, of not measuring up. I managed to carry on with life despite these fears constantly jangling around inside my head. I felt like a perpetual failure.

Then Janie died. Suddenly, I was alone. At least that is what I thought it was. I had lost my spouse, and I was alone. But then I began to realize that “alone” is not all I thought it was. I wasn’t utterly alone at all: everyone who knew me or Janie stepped up and reminded me that there was, in fact, a very large community of well meaning people that would do just about anything within their power to help. I began to see that what I had been afraid of earlier was the thought of what I believed it meant to be alone. In the end, I was not alone in the way I had feared I would be. I had lost my spouse, so I no longer had the person I belonged to. I’m not saying it’s not so bad to lose your spouse after all. That is not what I am saying at all. Nevertheless, I now realize that so long as you know at least one other person, you are not truly alone. In times of need, people show their true worth. I have seen it time and again. I have lost my spouse, but I am not alone.

As for failure, I came to realize that this was tied to certain things in my past that I had never properly grieved. In 1996, I was expelled from a Christian college back in the States. I should say it more charitably: I was asked not to return. I hadn’t measured up to the code of conduct. I had let myself and my parents down. The shame of that event deeply scarred me, and I came to see myself as a gigantic failure. I did not want this to happen again, but having no notion of what it was I wanted to be when I eventually grew up, I simply did nothing. Like the proverbial deer in the headlights, I just stood there, paralyzed. I became a passenger in my own life and allowed events to unfold, making excuses for the bad things that “happened to me.” What Janie’s death revealed to me was that there is a worse thing than failure: not giving it a shot. Janie saved me from a life of pointlessness. The risk we took in each other bore fruit, and not only in the shape of Seanie and Sophie. She encouraged me to go back to college and finally get a degree, and she grew to become a confident young woman who was assured of her ability in her chosen field. I had a part to play in that. I did not utterly fail when it comes to Janie. Firstly, she chose me over all others. Secondly, despite my many failings, despite the fact that I wasn’t always the greatest or kindest husband to her, she loved me. It wasn’t just that charitable, long suffering love either. She believed in me and was just beginning to see me come into my own when she died. I now realize that my fear of failure was just a self-fulfilling prophecy that needed to be put to the sword. It has died now. I just don’t care anymore, I’ll give anything a shot. Except bungee jumping. That stuff is for crazy people…

As for the fear of being a parent… well, that’s tied to the fear of failure. I know better now. I cannot fail as a parent so long as I love my children and treat them with honour. I don’t always do the greatest job, but I am 100 times the parent I was just three months ago. That’s not a prideful statement, either. Being thrust into the breach will teach you a thing or two on the fly. I’m learning. And I’m loving it.

When it comes to money, the realization I have is that there are worse things than not having money. I have plenty of it right now, yet I sometimes still I get that sense of anxiety. Then I remember: so what? I have my mom and dad Spence who will do anything to make sure we’re okay. My parents would drop everything and fly out here to care for us if something were to happen to me and I couldn’t make ends meet. Our friends out here would rush to our side. In the end, so long as you have a community of people who love you, you’re not likely to suffer too terribly. It will be uncomfortable and humbling, but in the end, there are worse things.

As for the fear of being wrong, for being a hypocrite or not measuring up, those things too have been diminished. The cure to the fear of being wrong is humility. I was wrong to take Janie for granted, but I did. Everyone does. Everyone is wrong some of the time. Being wrong does not make one bad or evil or whatever, it just makes them human. I now realize that if I don’t want to be wrong, I need to admit that the possibility is there and that if I don’t want to be humiliated, I better stop pretending I’m an expert at everything. I’m one of those trivia nerds that loves useless bits of information that I can drop like a name check during social gatherings. That comes from insecurity, which in itself stems from the fear of rejection. The fear of being found out to be a hypocrite or not measuring up are all tied to this same fear of rejection. No one likes to be put out in the cold by being found out to have had their measure taken and been found wanting.

Well, I had my measure taken when Janie died. I was found wanting.

So I live on the other side of those fears. I am not ashamed because I saw so little before. I see clearer now. I don’t see everything, and that is the humility that came from this realization turning the light on in the darkened room for me to see that there were, in fact, no goblins in the closet. I had constructed fantasies of fear in my head that robbed me of my life and relationships to Janie, others and, most importantly, God.

I know better now. Nothing catches God unawares, and I am in the palm of his hand. If I am to suffer privation or humiliation, then it is what it is. There are worse things. The apostle Paul wrote in his letter to the Philippian church said that he knew the secret of being content in every situation, whether he was riding high on the hog or facedown in the slop. (Philippians 4:12) He certainly wasn’t always this way. Once he started getting beaten up for the gospel he preached, once he started being thrown out of homes and synagogues, once he was tossed in jail a few times, then a certain amount of meat was added to the skeleton of his faith.

Before Janie died, I didn’t have a clue what it meant to hurt. Now I do. There’s that saying: pain makes you real. I understand that now. I understand what Paul was saying to the church in Philippi better now. He’d been there. He’d seen the bottom, and once you’ve been there everything else is pretty tame in comparison.

He’d also seen God’s faithfulness in action when it seemed every last bit of hope had been extinguished. I too have seen some of that, not to the extent he did of course, but I have seen something of that. What I have now is not courage. It is not even faith, really, but something else. Perhaps it’s trust: trust that bottoming out happens to all of us at one point or another, and it is up to us to discover what we’re made of, what God put in us from before we took our first breaths. Faith isn’t really faith unless it’s tested. Mine has been tested and found wanting. Nevertheless, it has grown during this time, and that is the result of knowing what the bottom feels like, and realizing how much less bottom-like everything above it is. And then you have the little, daily miracles that come along the way to restore your faith in God and others. You see that people really are good, and they are good because God said so when he made them. You see that humanity at large has a bad rap, that the moral depravity that is shoved daily in our faces through the media or overly dogmatic preachers is not the whole story. People can be good: they come along side in your time of need. It’s not always the case universally. This is part of the broken state of the universe. Were that everyone who has gone through this kind of crushing had the network I do. Still, God is the same God to those who have and those who don’t. I give thanks for the good things I don’t deserve and pray for the opportunity to pay it back in kind when it’s my turn to comfort.

I’m not brave. I’m not courageous. I have been to the bottom, but I’m not there any longer. I’m also not soaring over the mountaintops. That day might come. Then again, it might not. What I do know is that today is a gift. So I leave that with you at the start of this new week. What are you afraid of? Are you right to fear it or are you just this side of a realization?

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