21 May 2020

When fear is a gift // a guest post

Judy Maurer is this week's writer. She is a recorded minister in the Sierra-Cascades Yearly Meeting of Friends.

The college brochure said the campus was on a bluff overlooking the Rock River. It didn’t mention that just to the north of campus, also overlooking the bluff, was a steel foundry. Beyond that was a massive complex for the making of engines. The foundry belched clouds of sulphur across the campus every Wednesday afternoon. A friend who was allergic to eggs had to shut herself up in her room.

On other days, it was a nice campus, with classrooms and the library at one end and the dorms at the other end. Linking the two ends was one street of frat houses, largely unpopular and unpopulated. The college was innovative and international, and the town was small and leafy-green Wisconsin. Fresh from my senior year in high school in Barcelona, I was still deep in reverse culture-shock in the days when people didn’t recognize the problem. I thought I was the only one to feel so crazy. I only felt normal in my Spanish lit classes. I took as many as I could, and ended up with an accidental major in Spanish.

Even as a new arrival on campus, I recognized the signs of danger. With the college classrooms, library and student union on one end of the campus, the walk from the library to my dorm late at night tended to be a solitary one. It was a long, dark, lonely walk. Walking home from visiting a friend off-campus was dark, too - all those large, lovely trees hid the street lights, and townspeople tended to close up shop and stay home after around 9:00 pm.

That first year, I would refuse to walk alone after 9:00 pm or so, early hours for a college student. My female friends would tell me not to be silly. I was very shy in other ways, not tending to bother others. But in this I was resolute. I would not visit them late, nor leave a party alone. I remember my friends’ impatient reponses. My fear was unpopular; it was regarded as stupidity, and bending to it was a sign of weakness.

By my third year, it had all changed. A wave of rapes had hit campus. One of my friends escaped an armed rapist. A male friend of mine was inconsolable when his date had gotten angry with him, had stormed out, walked home alone and was raped. It was terrible.

But I was not one of the victims. I had listened to my fear. Sometimes, fear is good.

I remember this now because I have, like many, endured social media messages denigrating those who are cautious about covid-19. Here’s one that sent me over the edge: In a discussion about whether restrictions are unconstitutional, a friend of a friend wrote, “I totally respect your right to live in fear and stay home as long as you feel it’s necessary.” The underlying message -- “I am so much better than you because you are giving in to your fear.”

Sometimes, fear is good. Sometimes when fear whispers to you, all you need to do is obey. It’s your gut saying, “there is something very wrong here.”

We tend to think of Jesus as being totally fearless. If he ever felt fear when going up before the Sanhedrin or Pilate, he didn’t give into it. He knew the result would be an excruciating death, but he continued toward it.

However, there’s one passage that tends to be skipped over. It’s right after he raised Lazarus from the dead. That really caught people’s attention, and his increased popularity was a direct affront to the leadership. After the first century equivalent of a zoom meeting of the chief priests and Pharisees, “from that day on they planned to put him to death.”

Here’s Jesus’ response:

“Jesus therefore no longer walked about openly among the Jews, but went from there to a town called Ephraim in the region near the wilderness; and he remained there with the disciples.”John 11:54

If you want to be like Jesus, pay attention to your fear, and do not walk openly about.

There are other types of fear, of course. When I was eight months pregnant, the bulk of the baby who is now 36 and living in London, was weighing on me so much that I couldn’t sleep well. We lived on a busy street, and each time a motorcycle went by I woke up, alert to the danger of… of what? I didn’t know. I only knew I woke up in terror. When a motorcycle came up behind my car as I was driving, I’d grip the steering wheel tightly until it would catch up with me and pass me, and I’d be able to breath again. I thought I was crazy.

Then my mother came to visit, and she happened to say to me, “Do you remember when Paul would come out and visit us on his motorcycle?” Paul was an old family friend I should never have been left alone with. But I was left alone with him, at the age of three.

I thought, “I remember, Mom. I remember.” When I heard his motorcycle coming, I knew to be afraid, and that fear stayed implanted in my brain, long after he was no longer a threat. My brain enlarged its alert state to include all motorcycles coming up behind me, ever and always. It was my body remembering.

I've learned that this strange, unrelated fear is common among assault and other trauma survivors. It makes you feel crazy, but you’re not. It’s merely an evolutionary mismatch. If an early human witnessed a lion attack, all the details of the lion attack would be warnings of the next one -- the lion’s roar, the quiet sound of the switch of the tail, for example. These days, all the things that happen at the same time as a trauma are not harbingers of the next one -- we just feel like they are.

If an old Beatles song was playing on the radio when you witnessed a knife fight and someone you love got hurt, then for the next forty years, your brain will tell you to be extra vigilant when you hear “when I get old and losing my hair, many years from now...” Just a few bars from that harmless song will make you feel very afraid. It can be paralyzing, or cause you to explode in anger.

The good news is that these days, science can explain these reactions. Here’s the classic read on the subject: Bessel A. van der Kolk’s The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma. There are also good ways, such as EMDR, to help the body store traumatic memories so that they no longer have that sort of hold over you.

Therefore, this kind of fear -- a trigger from PTSD -- is another reason not to denigrate those who are afraid. Many of us have earned our fear the hard way.

There’s also a fear that comes from a sense of helplessness and uncertainty. Familiar ways of understanding things are gone, and it’s downright scary. That is a mindless kind of fear. Jesus healed a man who came to him who was living naked among the tombs, without any restraints -- he could break off any shackles put on him. “Night and day among the tombs and on the mountains he was always howling and bruising himself with stones.” Mark 5:5 This must have been a rather frightening thing for newcomers -- a mad man was living naked near the city, and was so strong he couldn’t be restrained. Townspeople had probably grown used to it.

Then Jesus healed him, and the unclean spirits went into a herd of pigs, who raced to the cliff and died. When the townspeople saw him sitting there “in his right mind and clothed,” what was their response? Gratefulness? Awe? Nope. Fear. Mark 5:15: “and they were afraid.”

They were afraid of the man only when he was in his right mind and wearing clothes? That’s what the scripture says. But what comes next is worse. They didn’t make very good decisions. Mark 5:17: “Then they began to beg Jesus to leave their neighborhood.” They could have had Jesus among them -- healing, teaching, inspiring, loving. But no, they responded to their mindless fear of something they didn’t understand by begging Jesus to leave.

I have done that, too. In the beginning of the pandemic, I was in a grocery store when suddenly I was very afraid of all that could happen. I let the darkness into my mind, all the “what if’s” gripped me, and I could no longer think clearly. I was seized with a desire to protect my family - by buying out the store. It would not have been a good decision! Fortunately for my bank account, I recognized the moment. I let myself breathe, counting the breaths in and out. When I got home, I sat in a comfortable chair, read the Bible, and then sat in prayer, repeating a favorite scripture, over and over.

After 20 minutes or so, I felt a deep connection with God envelop me. I felt restored to myself. In Mark 5, the person who was not afraid of Jesus, and who made the best decision, was the one who had been closest to Jesus -- the man who Jesus had healed. As Jesus gets back into the boat, he begs Jesus to let him come along. But Jesus tells him “Go home to your friends, and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and what mercy he has shown you.”

Many times as the darkness begins to grip me, and my mind seems trapped in a circle of “what if?”, prayer and meditation connect me to God and restore my soul. It’s just like Psalm 40:2-4 describes:

He drew me up from the desolate pit,
    out of the miry bog,
and set my feet upon a rock,
    making my steps secure.
He put a new song in my mouth,
    a song of praise to our God.
Many will see and fear,
    and put their trust in the Lord.

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