Sermon: Walking the Path of Fear (audio and text)

READINGS

Lost by David Wagoner http://blog.bestamericanpoetry.com/the_best_american_poetry/2009/09/lost-by-david-wagoner.html
From The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion
“I think about swimming with him into the cave at Portuguese Bend, about the swell of clear water, the way it changed, the swiftness and power it gained as it narrowed through the rocks at the base of the point. The tide had to be just right. We had to be in the water at the very moment the tide was right. We could only have done this a half dozen times at most during the two years we lived there, but it is what I remember. Each time we did it I was afraid of missing the swell, hanging back, timing it wrong. John never was. You had to feel the swell change. You had to go with the change. He told me that.”

SERMON

I had the oddest experience about a month or so ago. I woke in the middle of the night out of a dead sleep, sat up on the side of the bed and had no idea where I was. The dark was so deep that my eyes were useless to me and nothing seemed familiar. I rose cautiously and began to feel my way around.

In my confused mind, still partly wrapped in sleep, a kind of fear verging on panic began to arise. What place is this? How am I going to get out of here? Gradually, though, I seized onto something – it might have been a chair, a dresser, I don’t remember exactly what – but I was able to make a connection – Oh, this is our bedroom! The panic subsided and wearily I made my way back under the covers.

Fear is funny that way, isn’t it? How we can get so easily frightened sometimes by the silliest thing. We even like to play with each other that way: waiting around a corner and jumping out when a friend happens by: BOO!

Psychologists remind us that at its root the fear response is actually a good thing. It’s what we rely on to get out of physical danger. Our muscles need to be primed for action, so the blood quickly gets pumping. The thinking part of our brain essentially shuts down, since we may not have time to weigh the proper response, and instead the body’s old fight, flight, or freeze response kicks in. I’ll bet we’ve all had moments where we’ve been grateful for such a response that saved us from some minor peril.

Of course, there are times when some of us like to have fun with that fear response. There is, after all, a kind of exhilaration that we feel in the moment when fear strikes. To me, that helps explain the popularity of the horror film genre. The first time the zombie pops out, it scares the bejesus out of us. But with each subsequent scare the intensity of the fright diminishes, but we still feel the rush of the quick hit of adrenaline. I have to say that such films are not my taste, but I get how they can be a draw.

But as a rule, fear is not a state in which we want to spend much time. It’s exhausting and disorienting. We don’t think clearly or respond compassionately when we’re afraid. We just want to find safety, whatever in the moment we might take that to be.

The truth is many of us don’t even really like to admit to scary experiences. We’d rather dismiss or deny them. In fact, we feel a little embarrassed by them. Even then, though, we don’t forget the emotional intensity around what happened.

Depending on the circumstances, that intensity can become the source of an internal narrative, a story that we tell ourselves that justifies our response, and the idea – “I was right to be scared” – somehow gets attached to the memory of that event. Even if overblown, exaggerated, or flat out fabricated, the memory is retained, and its intensity gives it the feeling of truth, whether it is in fact true or not.

In time, that memory can become one of the building blocks that we use in creating our world view. The problem is that the learning that we take from our experiences of fear is notoriously unreliable. That’s because, again, it comes from a time when we weren’t thinking straight, when our judgment was skewed, and yet at the same time we experienced intense emotion.

It can take a real effort of will to seek out and find the actual truth in the situation, like waking up from a nightmare with our pulse racing and needing to calm ourselves back down again: “It’s OK. It was just a dream.”

In our day to day lives, though, we may not immediately recognize when fear experiences are triggering us. In the moment, we may not be able to surface that fear, examine it and challenge it. After all, through most of our lives we come to rely on our emotional responses. If something doesn’t feel right, there must be a good reason for it, even if we can’t specifically say what that reason is.

It becomes even harder if we’re challenged. A fear-based experience is not something we can really cite in an argument with someone. It may even be something we don’t especially want to fess up to, but that doesn’t mean that in some way we still don’t cling to it as truth.

There is probably no better example of this than all the forms of prejudice – race, ethnicity, gender expression – that float through our culture. I think of that song, “You’ve Got to be Taught” from the musical “South Pacific.” The Unitarian lyricist Oscar Hammerstein suspected that his song written in 1949 on the source of racial prejudice would be controversial, and he was right.
“You’ve got to be taught to hate and fear,
You’ve got to be taught from year to year.
It’s got to be drummed in your dear little ear
You’ve got to be carefully taught.”

Because Hammerstein was pointing to one of the most intensely felt, fear-based fabrications that we live with. Racism, the song says, is not grounded in anything real. It is merely the accumulation of slights and hurts that we experience, together with misapprehensions and lies that we’re told about other people. I’m tempted, though to tweak Hammerstein’s lyrics just a little and argue that we are taught by our communities and loved ones not so much to fear as through fear.

Often, the fears that drive our prejudice are grounded not so much in our experience as in the experience of those who surround us. We take on the fears that are, in a sense, in the water of our upbringing. We experience their fears, then learn to adopt them, fit them into our world view, and justify them to ourselves. I don’t believe it’s a conscious process, but it can be powerful all the same.

And it is this brings me to reflect on the state of our politics and our nation today. I cannot remember a time in my own lifetime when so much in our public dialog was so driven by fear. The polls all confirm it: there isn’t any particular issue that’s roiling the electorate. It’s just broad suspicion that settles on random targets – immigrants one day, transgender people the next, and so on – but mostly, under it all, is a yearning for safety.

So, maybe we shouldn’t be surprised that this should be the year where the most obvious signals of fearful thinking are not only lighting up but being celebrated wherever we look – name-calling, belittling, narcissism. It is tempting to tag Donald Trump as the cause of all this, and he certainly is its poster boy, but he succeeds really by poking this miasma of anxiety, rather than by inventing it.

There is much cause for concern in this toxic electoral season. But in a sense, the greatest danger is that we might somehow forget what politics actually can make possible. It is something that our nation was invited to see some 83 years ago when an incoming president of the United States remarked, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself – nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”

“In every dark hour of our national life,” Franklin Delano Roosevelt told his people, “a leadership of frankness and vigor has met with that understanding and support of the people themselves which is essential to victory.”

In that terrible time, Roosevelt pointed to what was not only a political truth but also a spiritual fact: that people of inherent worth have the capacity to act together in a way that sacrifices none and benefits all, that our strength as a nation will be found in affirming common dignity as a common cause.

Not long ago, the Quaker writer Parker Palmer told of his own experience getting lost while on a 10-day solitary retreat. He had been out hiking on a poorly marked mountain trail when he suddenly realized he had missed a turn-off. He started back down hill, but couldn’t see it. As the sky started to darken, he panicked and began to run. “Just the right thing to do when you have no idea where you’re going, don’t you think?” he said, with some irony.

After a bit, thankfully, he stopped for a moment, settled down and let the fear subside. Palmer said he sat for a moment and remembered a few lines from the poem by David Wagoner that you heard earlier:
Stand still.
The trees ahead and bushes behind you are not lost.
Wherever you are is called Here.
And you must treat it as a powerful stranger.
Stand still,
The forest knows where you are.
You must let it find you.

And so he stood still, and listened. “I could not tell you what I was listening to,” he said, “except that it was something both in me and around me.”

After a few minutes he turned and walked slowly up hill, and began looking to his left. Before long, there it was, the trail that he’d missed.

Stand still. In the jumble of conflicting forces and feelings erupting in our lives, scrambling, scurrying, ducking and dodging, it is where we must begin if we are to come to terms with what drives our fear.

Fear, after all, narrows our view, and from such a perspective, there is so much we cannot see. When we broaden our view, so much more comes into focus. It is just such wisdom that I think Nancy discovered in that dark time during her first marriage.

The Buddhist teacher Pema Chodrun speaks of the opening that comes from confronting the fears that we carry. “Finding the courage to go to places that scare us cannot happen without compassionate inquiry into the workings of the ego,” she says. “So we ask ourselves, ‘What do I do when I feel I can’t handle what’s going on? Where do I look for strength and in what do I place my trust.’”

It’s a scary place to be, she says, so we treat it gently. Rather than go after the walls and barriers that hold us back with a sledgehammer, she says, “we pay attention to them. With gentleness and honesty, we move closer to those walls. We touch them and smell them and get to know them well.”

The way out, then, is merely taking the first step, befriending ourselves and looking for the path that will lead us back to wholeness.

The poet William Stafford offers similar advice in his poem, “For My Young Friends Who Are Afraid.” Fear, he counsels, is a country to be crossed. “What you fear will not go away: it will take you into yourself and bless you and keep you. That’s the world, and we all live there.”

Joan Didion discovered that in the year following the death of her husband, John Gregory Dunne. It was a time when she says her grief led her to what she calls “magical thinking,” when we somehow persuade ourselves that if we just hope hard enough or do things in just the right way we can remake the world the way we want it to be.

It is a road that fear can take us on, too. When things seem too painful to confront directly, we find a way of persuading ourselves that they’re not really a problem. What such thinking really does, of course, is dig us in deeper and make it that much harder to free ourselves.

Fear looms up like that swift and powerful current in the tidal pool that Didion describes – something that can either dash us against the rocks or propel us into our future.

Each time she and her husband swam in the pool, she says, “I was afraid of missing the swell, hanging back, timing it wrong.”

John, she says, never was. Well, whether he never was or never let his own fear hold him back, he showed her the way. And, at the close of a year of magical thinking, memory of that experience invited Didion into a more clear-thinking path to her future.

“You had to feel the swell change,” that impulse toward health and wholeness rising in her heart.

“You had to go with the change.”