Friday, November 5, 2010

Conquering and Acquiring Fears

One of my professors at Yale Divinity School, the late Paul Holmer, once asked our class, “Over the past year, what fears have you conquered and what fears have you acquired?” Such a question isn’t easy to answer and requires some real, honest self-examination. The class was silent for what seemed like an eternity and it dawned on us that this wasn’t a rhetorical question. Dr. Holmer expected an answer!

Then, a courageous middle-aged woman raised her hand and said, “I have conquered my fear of being alone after my husband’s death and I’ve mostly conquered my fear of spiders. But I have become increasingly fearful of cancer and of my children getting hurt.” We all admired her honesty, but she was the lone respondent to the question. The rest of us were too afraid to venture an answer.

What were we afraid of? I can’t answer for others, but I was afraid of revealing too much about myself in this group of peers. If I was honest about my fears, how would they judge me? Once we give a name to our fears and voice them, some can seem silly. For example, many of us are afraid of insects—especially spiders—but might not like to admit this publicly. Yet, a fear of spiders is a rational fear. Poisonous spiders like the Brown Recluse can genuinely hurt us. Snakes are also in this same category of “rational fears.” A healthy fear of snakes and other creatures that can harm us is a good thing to have when you’re on the trail.

Dr. Holmer’s question contains an assumption that expresses another truth about fear: we are always in the process of conquering some fears and acquiring others. How are fears conquered? The first thing to do in conquering a fear is to face it. As long as a fear lurks in the darkness of our subconscious, it will elude us and restrict us. As long as we deny or repress a fear, it will have power over us. To rob a fear of its power, we must bring it into the light of consciousness. This allows us to name the fear and to take responsibility for it.

While facing a fear won't make it magically disappear, it is the first step in overcoming it.

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