Years ago I sat in a hospice room with one of my parishioners in Baltimore. At that time, signing into hospice care meant imminent death; as you know, that is no longer the case. In fact, a relative of one of our church members is a graduate of hospice! Back to my lovely Baltimore parishioner, Ann King. She was very active in our church so we knew each other well. Out of the blue she said to me, “David, I want you to know that I’m not afraid of death.” She paused and then continued, “I am very much afraid of how I may die, but I’m not afraid of whatever is next.” I thought that was both poignant and profound. All I could manage in terms of words were, “I understand.”
Incidentally, do you have any idea of who in the Western World least fears death? The correct answer is: those who have the strongest belief in a non-hellish hereafter.
Death is one of the many experiences that many people fear, but death is by no means the only experience many fear. And add to the list, things. It isn’t just experiences that people may fear.
My own observations of what many people are afraid of: being wrong, committing a fashion faux pas, swimming out of one’s bathing suit, being caught believing that a tweet is a sound a bird makes, knowing that right this second is the latest you can possibly wait to have that conversation about the birds and the bees with your child.
Fear, really, is nothing to laugh at. It can paralyze, but sometimes we poke a little fun to ease the discomfort–never, however, laughing at the person who is plagued with the unwanted fear.
Some of the most common fears appear to be fears of: demons and ghosts, cockroaches and spiders and snakes, heights, water and tunnels and bridges, enclosed spaces, needles, social rejection, failure, and public speaking. Some folks may be quite comfortable speaking socially and informally, but when the speaking becomes public speaking, fear grips them in the form of suspicion over whether the words they speak will be correct or incorrect, sensible or senseless since their hearers, they believe, listen to them only to be able to judge them. One of my former colleagues at Wilmington University who taught speech, as I did for many years until I opted for Humanities courses only, used to love telling his students at the first meeting of every new course that some people–according to solid evidence–fear public speaking more than death. He was a great teacher so I want to be clear that I’m not criticizing his practice, but I began to think about what students who had significant fear about public speaking might think when they heard that bit of info. Could it not exacerbate one’s fear to know how powerfully and routinely some people dread it?
One researcher built a top ten “fears list” based on how often there were Internet searches on these items and experiences as fears. This is what he came up with, and let me encourage not to fear that your deepest self will be revealed to the NSA on the basis of what you search for on the Internet: flying, heights, clowns, intimacy, death, rejection, people, snakes, failure, and driving.
In 2005, the Gallup people conducted a survey involving exclusively 13 to 15 year olds. The surveyors asked the young teens one simple question. It was completely open ended, no suggestions for possible answers mentioned. The subjects could say whatever they wanted in giving their answers. The top ten fears were, in order: terrorist attacks, spiders, death, being a failure, war in general, criminal or gang violence, being alone, the future, and nuclear war specifically. That’s a heavy load for young folk, huh?
There are pages and pages of information about names for every imaginable phobia. Working with tens today, here are ten of the more frequently acknowledged phobias. Some of these were mentioned in previous lists I gave you today.
- Acrophobia, a generalized fear of all heights so it’s not the same as aerophobia, which is a fear of flying in planes, helicopters, air balloons, and, I’m sure, spacecraft. A common symptom for this phobia is dizziness; the higher you go, the more dizzy you become.
- Claustrophobia, a fear of enclosed spaces or of not having enough personal space in any kind of crowded situation. I think I have a touch of this so I told the technician in Baltimore that she could not put me all the way in the MRI tube; parson my overly technical word choices. I explained that I could manage as long as my head or face weren’t in there, and I thought that since they were looking for causes of leg pain that thankfully don’t exist any more. She smiled and nodded sympathetically while she proceeded to put me all the way into that contraption. In a panic, I reached out, grabbed the top edge and pulled myself out. She started screaming at me about breaking the machine. I yelled right back at her for trying to pull one over on me and walked out. Then she ran out to my car screaming about my not paying my copay. Thank goodness for open MRI machines! The pains dissipated after a couple of rounds of physical therapy. The fear, though; the phobia did not go away, and I realize that someone else has a phobia that I may not understand, but that creates exactly the same kind of fear in her or him.
- Nyctophobia is the fear of darkness.
- Ophidiophobia is the fear of snakes, and those who read the book of Genesis literally may have a redoubled phobia over snakes or serpents. Those plagued with this phobia aren’t only afraid at the physical sight of a snake, but also conversation about snakes or pictures of snakes.
- Arachnophobia, the fear of spiders. As you now know, this is one of the more widely experienced phobias. Little Miss Muffat was an arachnophobic.
- Trypanophobia is the fear of injections and the larger needles for drawing blood.
- Astraphobia, the fear of thunder and/or lightening. Adults as well as children who are astraphobics tend to protect themselves from thunder and lightening by getting into rooms where they can neither see nor hear these effects of storms.
- Nosophobia is the irrational fear of developing a specific disease. Hypochondria is a generalized fear of illness that may, as you know, present itself through a fear that the person is ill or about to become ill.
- Mysophobia is the fear of germs. Purell anyone?
- Triskaidekaphobia, a fear not of the number 10, but the so-called unlucky number 13. Triskaidekaphobia may be related to hexakosioihexekontahexaphobia or fear of the numerologically symbol of abject evil in the book of Revelation, 666.
I add one to the list that is thankfully, not one of the top ten: Ecclesiophobia, a fear of church. (I made that one up–for fun, kinda sorta!)
Some fear is healthy fear. What we’re going for, I think, is no unnecessary fear and no incapacitating fear.
The fact is, there are some things we should fear, things that are actually threatening to our lives or to our well being otherwise. There are some things we should not fear and some things that we cannot help fearing given our instincts, our experiences, our emotional makeup. Taking advice from Scripture or other sources advocating against fear across the board and implying as we do that fear is never justified or necessary is doing ourselves and others to whom we may speak a great disservice. It’s like telling people if they’re strong enough they should not grieve loved ones who pass out of this world. Giving such advice or trying to live by it ourselves is mind bending in the worst possible way, and it does great emotional harm to people who try to live accordingly.
Paul is trying to encourage his protege, Timothy, to press on with sharing the news about Jesus’ message, even in an emotionally hostile situation when he says, “…God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline….” He is not telling Timothy to rid himself of fear when an enemy shows up at his door, weapon in hand. In that situation, the best spiritual advice available is: “Get help, or get out!”
Deborah Battersby wrote:
…fear is something we’ve all experienced and most of us would label as a negative or uncomfortable emotion. In reality, it generally comes to protect or alert us to potential danger. It heightens our sensory awareness of everything that’s around us so we can be poised to protect ourselves from anything threatening or harmful.
At end of our Gathering, we will be singing hymn words by Paul Gerhardt, translated into English by the founder of the Methodist movement, John Wesley. When we sing it, let’s do so not assuming Herr Gerhardt was trying to tell us to live without fear altogether, but rather that he’s telling us in the face of fear to be courageous and smart and proactive as best we can.
Give to the winds thy fears;
hope and be undismayed.
God hears thy sighs and counts thy tears,
God shall lift up thy head.
Through waves and clouds and storms,
God gently clears the way;
wait thou God’s time; so shall this night
soon end in joyous day.
Leave to God’s sovereign sway
to choose and to command;
so shalt thou, wondering, own that way,
how wise, how strong this hand.
Let us in life, in death,
thy steadfast truth declare,
and publish with our latest breath
thy love and guardian care.
There are reasons to be afraid. Those 13 to 15 year olds taking the Gallup poll hit on some of them: terrorism, gang violence, and nuclear war. Smart kids.
There’s a current survey of the cities in the United States where citizens are most afraid. Thankfully, for now the northeast and the mid-Atlantic are spared, but that shouldn’t make us less concerned about the safety of the citizens of these ten cities–starting with number ten and moving up to number one, the city in our country where citizens are most afraid.
10. Beaumont-Port Arthur, Texas
9. Visalia-Porterville, California
8. Modesto, California
7. Fayetteville, North Carolina
6. Memphis, Tennessee
5. Rockford, Illinois
4. Mobile, Alabama
3. Yakima, Washington
2. McAllen-Edinburg-Mission, Texas
1. Stockton, California
Should we have a special delivery message sent to the mayor of each of these cities to share with her or his constituents, telling them that they shouldn’t be afraid? Uhm, right.
St. Thomas Aquinas wrote about the “vice of fearlessness,” the vice of fearlessness. Scott Bader-Saye upon analyzing the thinking of Aquinas on this issue presents a three-point list of ways people can achieve fearlessness, and not a one is good.
- “The security of detachment,” which refers to the process of training oneself to love nothing enough to fear its loss. Rather than living with the fear of being hurt, persons build walls and protect their hearts from all potential pain.
- “The bliss of ignorance,” recklessly ignoring danger or threat. Think Evel Knievel.
- “The pursuit of invulnerability,” aiming to become so powerful that threats are either insignificant or impossible. If one becomes powerful enough, she or he can literally destroy all present as well as potential threats.
Eleanor Roosevelt once said that danger “lies in refusing to face the fear.”
Courage lies not in a lack of fear, but in acting–without endangering ourselves, if possible–to alleviate the threat or to take some action making it is no longer a threat. And I don’t mean just changing your attitude toward the threat.