WHEN IT COMES TO FEAR, WE ARE ALL EXPERTS. Although some people may manage it better than others, no one is immune to the difficult and potentially debilitating emotions fear can stir up when we are confronted with dangers and worries, whether real or imagined.
Every time life hands us something new or difficult or just plain scary, fear seems to be waiting in the wings, ready to pounce on our serenity. Try as we might to ward it off on our own, there really is only one thing that can keep us from cowering in the darkness when we should be dancing in the light, and that is faith in God.
We’ve all seen that kind of fear-defying faith in action, perhaps without even recognizing it. It’s the relative who goes through a devastating personal loss but believes without hesitation that God’s plan is unfolding as it should. It’s the coworker who leaves behind the security of a full-time job to start the business of his dreams. It’s anyone who gets up in the morning and stares down the challenges of another day with trust that God is in control.
These brave souls, the ones who banish fear and live by faith, have managed to hear the whisper of the Spirit above the din of the world. They have taken the words of Scripture to heart: “Do not be afraid.”
So often, we are more focused on our fears about what we do not want to happen than on considering what we would like to happen with God’s help. Faith and a positive attitude are healthier for our bodies, more encouraging for those around us, and even more productive. Plus, a still mind can more easily receive God’s inspirations of what to do next. If we have faith in these possibilities—even if it’s faith as small as a “mustard seed”—the most challenging circumstances can turn around if it’s part of God’s will. With God, all things are possible. “Do not worry about tomorrow; tomorrow will take care of itself...” —Matthew 6:34
Walking by Faith
In her beautiful and powerful book, Wish You Were Here: Travels Through Loss and Hope, author Amy Welborn chronicles her trip to Sicily with three of her five children after the sudden death of her husband, Michael Dubruiel.
In one poignant scene, Amy captures her feelings upon seeing the body of her husband in the casket at the funeral home for the first time and realizing that although it “echoed his presence,” it was not him. Many of us might imagine that to be a terrifying moment, but for Amy it was the moment when her fear disappeared:
“I felt that he had gone ahead, had cut through the layers of ambiguity and paradox, of irony, of confusion and darkness, and even though it looked like he was lying there perfectly still, he was actually moving, pointing, just like he always had, telling me God Alone [is the answer], and this cold heaviness was not the end. He had gone ahead, and because he'd done that first, I knew I could go too.
“And just like that, standing there, I wasn't afraid, not for him, and for the first time ever in my entire life—I wasn't afraid for myself, either.”
What Amy discovered—and what helped her move from a place of fear to a willingness to embrace life even with all its sorrow—grows out of a life of deep faith. We find the same kind of relationship between faith and trust, faith and surrender when we look at the lives of great holy men and women of our time and the saints throughout the ages. Faith really can move mountains.
Jesuit Father Walter J. Ciszek, who was captured by the Russian army during World War II and convicted of being a “Vatican spy,” spent 23 grueling years in Soviet prisons and the labor camps of Siberia. In his book He Leadeth Me, Father Ciszek talks about reaching a point of utter despair and eventually having a “conversion experience” that caused him finally, once and for all, to surrender himself completely into God’s hands, no matter what kind of torture or terrors he might face.
“I chose consciously and willingly to abandon myself to God’s will, to let go completely of every last reservation. I knew I was crossing a boundary I had always hesitated and feared to cross before. Yet this time I chose to cross it—and the result was a feeling not of fear but of liberation, not of danger or of despair but a fresh new wave of confidence and happiness,” writes Father Ciszek, whose cause for canonization is currently under investigation. “
…God is in all things, sustains all things, directs all things. To discern this in every situation and circumstance, to see his will in all things, was to accept each circumstance and situation and let oneself be borne along in perfect confidence and trust. Nothing could separate me from him, because he was in all things. No danger could threaten me, no fear could shake me, except the fear of losing sight of him,” he wrote.
It’s fair to say that none of us will be put to the test of a quarter-century in a Soviet gulag, but that doesn’t mean our struggles, our crosses, our fears aren’t overwhelming to us. Sometimes those little fears can be the worst to face because we feel guilt on top of the fear, knowing that others suffer more and yet we are the ones losing hope. If we’re not careful, we can end up doing the one thing Father Ciszek did fear—losing sight of God—and, as a result, encountering a despair so deep and wide that it can be hard to see our way clear of it.
So what can you do to strengthen your foundation of faith against the seemingly inevitable onslaught of fear? The answer can be found in prayer, our lifeline to God, the thing that keeps us in constant contact with the only One who can direct our lives away from fear and toward hope.
Establish some daily prayer practices to build and expand your connection to the divine. Say a morning offering as you get out of bed and face a new day. Weave prayer into the more frustrating moments of your life—the drive to work, the chores at home. Reflect each night on the events of your day and give thanks for the good things, even if you had many hardships as well. Gratitude has a way of offsetting fear.
Start to pay attention to the people around you. So often we are so focused on our own struggles that we don’t even notice the people in our midst who may be quietly crying out in fear—the friend whose inattention isn’t due to rudeness but rather her own marital struggles, the child who acts out in a desperate plea for more love and attention, the boss who seems uncaring and mean but is, in reality, insecure and afraid. Everyone is facing a struggle of some sort. When we begin to realize that, we focus less on our own fear and more on our common humanity.
“Let nothing disturb you. Let nothing make you afraid. All things pass away. God never changes. Patience obtains everything. God alone is enough.”
—St. Teresa of Avila
Obstacles into Stepping Stones
Children, especially very young children, can get caught up in a downward spiral of fear that is based more on their own thinking than on any real dangers. Remember monsters under the bed? It’s easy for us adults to get caught up in a grownup version of that. Yes, there will be times when fear is the only logical response—a terminal diagnosis, a tornado touching down, a toddler lost in a crowded mall. These and so many other scenarios are very real threats that naturally trigger fear, which is a good thing. Fear can be a protection as well as a burden. It’s the less tangible fears that can needlessly weigh us down—starting a new job, moving to a new town, speaking in front of an audience. While those things may have “scary” elements to them, the fear they create is mostly a response of our own making. We start to imagine potential bad outcomes and work ourselves into a place of fear-based panic. Pop psychology refers to this as “awfulizing,” but what it comes down to is an unwillingness to get out of our own way and put our trust in God. If your child was panicking in fear over something that didn’t have the potential to harm him, you’d probably sit down, talk to him soothingly, and remind him that monsters don’t live under the bed. Start to take that same approach with your own life. There are no monsters under the bed— not unless you put them there. Begin to view the minor things that make you fearful as opportunities for growth. You can take the edge off fear when you look at it as a challenge. When Samantha S. was young, her family had to move across the country for her father’s job. Moving can be an intimidating prospect for children, who panic at the thought of leaving behind the comfort of their neighborhood school and the familiarity of their friends. And parents can sometimes feed into those fears by letting children see their own worries or by talking about possible concerns in front of them. Samantha’s father took a very different approach, however, one that didn’t leave a lot of room for fear. He talked about the adventure of the move, the excitement of a new city, and the many things Samantha and her siblings would get to do in their new hometown. For Samantha, the move was never something to fear but something to anticipate, and her father’s lessons have had a lasting impact. To this day she exudes that same curious and adventurous spirit as she flies off to ski the slopes of Austria or cruise the Amazon, never letting fear limit her potential for new experiences.It’s all in how you look at things. Sometimes fear is just opportunity in disguise. One first-grade teacher in upstate New York uses a novel approach when helping her students face things that scare or upset them. She asks them whether that thing—the playground snub, the spilled juice, the forgotten homework folder—will matter ten years from now. Try it with your own fears and worries. Ten years from now, 50 years from now, 100 years from now, will all the things that rob you of your joy and serenity matter all that much? Chances are, unless you’re facing a life threatening situation, the answer is no. Remember that reality every time you’re about to let your latest fear keep you locked in a place of uncertainty and panic. Then turn around, take a deep breath, say a prayer, and do the very thing you fear most.
“Security is mostly a superstition. It does not exist in nature. Life is either a daring adventureor nothing.” —Helen Keller
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