Fear gets such a bad rap. So I want to just focus on the positive aspects of fear in this little piece. Fear, like pain, is a preservative. It exists to alert us to danger. Without it, we would walk straight into traffic, fires, stormy oceans – and disappear. Without fear and pain, the human race would die off very quickly indeed. There is something about hitting the half-century mark in life that brings the whole concept of fear into perspective. I remember seeing an interview once with Barbra Streisand as she turned 50. She was saying that she understood the fear that other singers – like Judy Garland – had felt on approaching the older years of life – the fear of losing one’s voice quality, physical beauty, etc. These were all things upon which they had based their identity and worth. To lose that, was to lose one’s self. (I am paraphrasing here.)
Though I think we can all relate to the fear of losing one’s abilities as we age, it is the perspective of looking backwards that has encouraged me to write this. For some reason, now I can look back on my life and say, ‘Yes I made this or that decision out of fear.’ But that in itself is not a bad thing. Some of those decisions definitely preserved me in some way – my self-esteem, my emotional or physical well-being. Some of them may have been a bit unfounded. Fear of failure (or more accurately, the fear of poverty) is probably the least justifiable fear, and I certainly made some decisions based on that fear.
Where fear becomes detrimental is when it is grossly unfounded or misplaced. I often have asked myself, ‘Will the world really stop turning (or explode) if xyz happens or not?’ Most of the time, the answer is ‘no’. What has amazed me the most about life, however, is how unpredictable it can be. I can usually envision one or two scenarios of how things will turn out, but reality often throws up something completely out of left field. Could I have foreseen that we would live 15 years in England? No. Could I have foreseen that my father would die suddenly in 2011? No. Would I have imagined that we would end up living in Germany the next year? No, definitely not. Did I fear those things happening? No – because they never entered my imagination as possibilities. We simply can’t predict accurately what will happen in the future. So building fear about the few possibilities we can imagine can be unhelpful.
In the Spring of 2012, I was helping to care for my brother-in-law and family while he was in hospice. He was living longer than expected, and I needed to fly home to my family in New Jersey. Worried that I would be leaving when I was most needed, I asked the nurse on duty if they could accurately tell me how much longer he had to live. She very kindly said, ‘I am not allowed to tell you at this hospice. However, you do what you need to do and let this situation just play itself out. Make your decision, and always know it was the right one.’ I thanked her and flew home. But her words have stayed with me as especially wise about life in general.
We make so many decisions based on partial knowledge, on a mixture of fear and ignorance. But it isn’t so much the fear that is the bad element, but the ignorance. Not knowing what will actually happen is the basis of many bad decisions, but we can only know how bad they are in hindsight. Fear just might be the saving grace that keeps them from being disastrous.
“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight.”