Saturday, June 1, 2013

The Power of Fear

(My sermon from Friday, May 31, 2013)

Which emotion do you think is the most critical to human survival?  Love, trust, happiness? How about fear?

As defined in the Medical Dictionary: fear is “the unpleasant emotional state consisting of psychological and physiological responses to a real external threat or danger, including alertness, tension, and mobilization of the alarm reaction.”[i]  And that alarm reaction is, of course, what enables us to then make critical decisions that often prevent harm.  Fear lets us know when to flea a dangerous situation.  It’s how we know what risks not to take. 
But fear isn’t just about our reactions to the real threats that we see and experience.  Fear also includes our reactions to the perceived dangers we imagine.  This is where the concept of anxiety comes from. “Anxiety reflects a combination of biochemical changes in the body, an individual’s personal history and memory, as well as social situation. As far as we know, anxiety is a uniquely human experience. Other animals clearly know fear, but human anxiety involves an ability to use memory and imagination to move backward and forward in time. The range of anxiety each human experiences varies, but anxiety in and of itself is something that every person experiences.”[ii] 

I tend to think that we Jews know a thing or two about fear and anxiety, whether real or imagined, because the truth is that we Jews have been worrying and fearing for a really long time.  

Do you know what the most repeated commandment is in the Hebrew Bible?  Al tirah – do not fear.  God or God speaking through someone else says some form of this phrase over 120 times in the TaNaKh.  The command “not to fear” becomes a poignant trope throughout our most ancient Jewish text, as it is employed at every point of danger and every point of destiny along our ancestor’s path of wandering from Egypt to the Promised Land.

And the truth is: whether real or imagined or anything in between, fears in our lives today often, not always, but often sit at this same crossroads between danger and destiny.  Our anxieties often sit in contradistinction to our own advancement.   And so, I can’t help but feel the poignancy and relevance of the command “Al tirah” for us still today.  After all, we live in an age that sociologists claim is governed by the culture of fear.  In his book with the same title, Sociologist Barry Glassner writes:  “There has never been another era in modern history, even during wartime or the Great Depression, when so many people have feared so much. Three out of four Americans say they feel more fearful today than they did twenty years ago.” [iii]  The truth is: fear, when experienced in proportion, functions as a healthy guide for people and societies vis a vis survival. It helps us avoid dangerous, destructive, overly risky scenarios.  But when fear is hyper-emphasized, it often distorts reality, at a minimum holding people and societies back, if not causing them to regress somewhat or entirely.[iv]  

This is not a modern phenomenon.  It is the main factor at play in the Torah portion, Shelach L’cha.  In it, our ancestors actually reach the border of the Promised Land only two years into their journey. Twelve scouts from among their leaders enter into the land to assess the situation.  All report that the land is indeed good, but it is also heavily fortified by its inhabitants.  Ten of the spies emphasize the size of these inhabitants, calling them giants and reporting that the Israelites must have looked like grasshoppers in the giant’s eyes.  With this, the entire people begins to panic.  Two of the scouts- Joshua and Caleb, announce that despite the obstacles, the people should still move forward.  They will be safe because God is with them, the land is indeed good, and twice, they cry out:  “Al Tira-u - Do not fear!”  But it is too late – the people are overcome with worry of the perceived danger that they may face, and they beg to return to Egypt.  And as you might imagine, that response does not go over so well.  The entire generation, save Joshua and Caleb, are condemned to wander the desert for the rest of their lives – none of these people who actually stood at the border will ever see the Promised Land again. 

When that generation of our ancestors encountered their moment of danger and destiny, their fear caused them to forget that God had been and would continue to be with them, that their perceived dangers were no more real than any monster that exists in dreams but disappears in the morning’s light.  Their anxiety so clouded their vision that they completely lost sight of their destiny. 

In the case of Shelach L'cha, those ten scouts who disseminated the frightful message serve as what Glassner calls “Peddlers of Fear” – individuals and groups that energize and promulgate messages of fear for their own benefit.  In a modern context, the top two “Peddlers of Fear” in our world today are the media and politicians.  But at a certain point, we can’t just place responsibility on the ten scouts, on MSNBC or Fox, on the DNC or GOP.  At some point, just like each of our ancestors, we each become accountable for our own responses and actions.  So we need to ask ourselves, have we become our own peddlers of fear in those liminal spaces in- between danger and destiny?   What are those moments, those times of “stuck-ness” when we, like our ancestors, need to quiet the voice of “I can’t” and heed the command “Al tirah?”
We all know about these in-between moments when we find ourselves standing on the border in-between, when the future’s call of potential whispers from the distance, but the loud beckoning of the status quo or the past reverberates powerfully.  We may experience this in different ways:

·         In our relationships that putter on: in our marriages, with our parents, with our siblings, with our children, or with our friends - relationships that we know could be more, that we know we need more from. But the thought of entering in to that conversation, of taking that first step toward change, also presents the risk of cracking the relationship open and potentially damaging or even losing it.
     In our jobs or courses of study where we've been safe, that have sustained us, but where we know we could do more and be better. Where the thought of asking for a change or promotion, or the possibility of stepping away from it and into a different path seems at once appealing and at the same moment terrifying.
     In our personal behaviors where we so deeply desire to be known and appreciated, but again and again choose to put up walls and defenses that keep others at a distance for fear of being vulnerable and thereby potentially wounded.

So how can we tell the difference between the real fears – the  ones that can actually avert legitimate danger – verses the anxieties that seem real but prove only to hold us back – that in reality are distractions, avoidances, those vaporous ghosts that diminish and eventually disappear once that first bold step is taken? 

Modern psychology and mindfulness teachings offer many tips, but personally I like a more traditional process, as taught by Rabbi Alan Lew, of blessed memory.  The first time our ancestors hear the command “Do not fear”, it is in response to what appears to be a very dangerous situation. Trapped, with the waves of the Sea of Reeds lapping at their feet and the massive Egyptian army rapidly closing in on their backs, the Israelites cry out in terror, “Was it for want of graves in Egypt that you brought us to die in the wilderness?”  Moses and then God respond to the Israelites with the following statements, beginning with the command Al tira-u – do not fear. It is the first time the Israelites hear this, and it is also the first time they are confronted with the reality that destiny doesn't come easily.  The command is then followed by 4 verbs, presented in rapid sequence, that distill the process of moving beyond fear. First:  hityatzvu – gather yourselves. In the context of the story: unify, get together, feel less alone.  But as a teaching for us as individuals – collect yourself, get yourself together, take that first deep breath.  An interesting thing about hityatzvu: it comes from an ancient near eastern word that means “to build”[v]– thus if in preparing to build a structure, one must first gather the proper tools and materials in order to do so, in this situation, one must collect the appropriate emotional tools with which to handle the situation – think:  perspective, analysis, optimism, cool headedness.   Second: Re-u - See.  See clearly.  Look around you to see what is really happening.  Not the fears of your mind that run rampant, but what is actually real. See with open eyes the danger, the promise, and everything in between.  Third: tacharishoon – be still.  Different from hityatzvu, that first deep breath, this stillness implies a more empowered and focused stance.  This is place from which decisions are made – not before.  And decisions about facing fear cannot be made in a place of hyperactivity. Even if the world around is full of turmoil, the self can find a place of stillness.  And then, if you find that what you initially so feared is nothing more than a peddler selling his wares of worry, then it is time for the 4th step – yisa-u – get going.  Step forward, bravely, boldly, collected, and eyes set firmly toward what awaits you.[vi] 

Because at the end of the day, the difference between danger and destiny ultimately comes down to just one step.  A step of faith into the beckoning promise of the future in spite of an awareness that the potential of the unknown can be scary, sometimes scarier than the known trouble and struggle of the present and past.   

Because fear may indeed be the most important emotional resource we have when it comes to survival, but when it comes to really thriving, to true actualiziation and optimization, we must remember the powerful, still relevant call to our ancestors and to us: “Al tirah” – then and now, “Do not fear.”

[ii] ibid/  anxiety
[iii] Glassner, Barry. The Culture of Fear: Why Americans Are Afraid of the Wrong Things. New York: Basic Books, 1999.
[iv] Zbigniew, Brzezinski, “Terrorized by ‘War on Teror’: How a Three-word Mantra Has Undermined America” The Washington Post, March 25, 2007
[v] as taught by Rabbi David Ingber
[vi] I first learned about it from a teaching by Rabbi Alan Lew of blessed memory in his powerful book on Jewish meditation – Be Still and Get Going.