Transforming Fear into Beauty
On the individual level as well as the collective whole, existential–“the state of existing, being; continuance in being or life . . .”–and spiritual fears seem to almost cripple many persons today. The political unrest and uncertainty of our leadership structure with a seemingly unethical and a lack of compassion and empathy for all the citizenry is invisible to the least of these. The political norm of our day appears to be intimidation from the “in-group” over those considered to a part of the “out-group.” If you are not of a particular political and socioeconomic class, skin pigmentation is hued with too much color, you are in the out-group and must be intimidated and marginalized. Howard Thurman wrote:
The threat of violence within a framework of well-nigh limitless power is a weapon by which the weak are held in check. Artificial limitations are placed upon them, restricting freedom of movement, of employment, and of participation in the common life. These limitations are given formal or informal expression in general or specific policies of separateness or segregation. These policies tend to freeze the social stratus of the insecure. . . Every member of the controllers’ group is in a sense a special deputy, authorized by the mores to enforce the pattern. The anticipation of possible violence makes it very difficult for any escape from the pattern to be effective. (Taken from Jesus and The Disinherited, pp. 41,42; 1976).
A very dear friend shared with a few of us an aspect of his narrative that illustrates Thurman’s point. His mom, seven months pregnant, was arrested for whipping a little white boy for calling her “nigger.” After being released, the Sheriff of this small town said to her in essence for to ‘stay’ in her place going forward. This type of threat from the in-group onto everyone considered to be a part of out-group continues today, both in actually and largely psychologically.
Our communities of faith from all denominations are designed to help individuals manage their anxieties is limited at best. Most pastoral and religious leaders are not properly educated or had enough clinical training to effectively deal with the psychic/spiritual/moral injuries of those under their spiritual care. Therefore, the psychological and relational interplay between individuals and family systems are experiencing unprecedented levels of stress, melancholy, and medical trepidation.
This is not to say that some of our religious and faith institutions are not helping to hold and contain the levels of anxiety/fear that many people are feeling today; it is to say, however, that many individual that attend faith communities continue to leave services to re-enter a community, (workplace, home, larger society) where the “birth pangs” remain operative and strong.
Unspoken fear prevails and grips our minds until the bull’s horn finds our guts! This existential fear–my question about my ability to be free internally enough to live an authentic life–creates a deep sense of dread in us feelings that we unconsciously project onto and into another organism without the benefit, in most cases, of critical self-reflection. We suffer from a fear of the “unknown” beyond our reasonable knowledge to understand these visible and invisible forces all around us that cripples our minds, our bodies, and our spirits. Moreover, our fear, with respect to the unknown, is also rooted in our attachment to material things. We have become so dependent on our smart phones and mobile devices, for instance, especially us Westerners, to include our children, that our investment in developing and nurturing human relationship seems to becoming a thing of the pass. The seemingly whole psychological premise of American society is based on what we possess.
Hence, our fear squeezes us on what we might lose, employment, income, presumed power, health-physically primary. As a result, this fear is transformed into other emotional energies such as anger, anxiety, dread, despair, depression, jealousy/envy, fret and a deep sense of melancholy that eat at our core center. We have no inner calm or peace. We, the social order, seek to legislate laws to attempt to intimidate and control the people to manage their behavior through this mode of action. We do need laws; we also need caring others as well.
By definition, fear is viewed as “a distressing emotion aroused by impending danger, evil, or pain . . . whether the threat is real or imagined; the feeling or condition of being afraid.” Synonyms are foreboding, apprehension, consternation, dismay, dread, terror, fright, panic, horror, trepidation and qualm. Unknown is defined as “not within the range of one’s knowledge, experience, or understanding; strange; unfamiliar . . . obscure.”
In Mark 4:35-41, we note that there is trouble and seemingly impending danger (the boat capsizing) and everyone potentially loss at sea. Yet, Jesus sleeps peacefully as the waves toss violently against the boat. From the terror of spirit and panic of emotions, someone cries out in dismay: “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” . . . “Peace! Be still!” . . . “Why are you afraid?”
Matthew 24:2-8 points to the disciples’ interest in signs of Jesus’ coming back to earth and the end of the age as Jesus reflects on the dismantling of the Temple, “Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.” Yet the key text in his conversation with his disciples in not so much that the end of time will be coming soon; rather, he explains to them that everything that they are bearing witness to is necessary and must happen . . . because: “all this is but the beginning of the birth pangs.”
Both texts point to a common theme of fear embedded into the human spirit and the psyche. The events in question provide an opportunity for Jesus, from a non-anxious presence, to model for those near and dearest to him how to contemplate relaxation amidst the chaos. In short, to simply relax. Jesus’ invitation is not a passive from, but rather an invitation to turn to their inner lives and center down; to center themselves in an emotional place of calm as best they can.
The question, “why are you afraid?” from my perspective presupposes that Jesus understood that external factors, in this case the storm on the sea, do contribute to an internal conditioning that could foster anxiety, worry, and fear in our daily interactions and responses. These outer or external factors can foster an emotional and a psychological interplay which can also become hard-wired into our brain’s neurotransmitters and subsequently become a part of our personal journey throughout this life.
I contend that in America, we have become accustomed that our pursuit of happiness involving having things. With the constant threat of not being able to maintain a level of comfort that we have been afforded, even over the past five years, we unconsciously and at times consciously, fear the loss of our means to keep what we have or gain even more. Moreover, working to survive to pay for what we have or wish to maintain provides no real sense of self-worth, especially if one is employed in any industry. The existential question that we are asking without asking is: “who am I?” And, “what am I?” Hence, this punishing demon, fear of the unknown, refuses to release us and holds us captive to its potentially debilitating power. Jesus calmly reminds us, however, “all this is but the beginning of the birth pangs.”
“Three brief points that can help use with this “Fear of the Unknown.” Acceptance of Mystery; Consciousness of Personal Self-Care; and, Mindfulness Meditation.
Acceptance of Mystery. Transforming fear into beauty may first mean that our psychological/emotional ability and capacity to accept and appreciate mystery, namely our own, is critical. This comes through being interested in and curious about our own personal narratives that has informed our personal journey in this life. If we look with our ‘third’ eye, we will notice that we have encountered and moved through multi levels of fears that confronted our lives. Attending school for the first time; meeting a new friend; visiting with a doctor for the first time–a dentist; finding the courage to talk to that person in high school that seemingly made my heartbeat skip a beat; receiving major health news; learning that I am an adopted child; meeting a biological parent for the first time; becoming a parent, a spouse/partner; and, countless other examples of transforming existential fears into meaning and purpose for our lives.
When it comes to dealing the social or outer ills of our day, the expression made by the Christ, “. . . all this is but the beginning of the birth pangs,” he is saying to us that everything that we observe, encounter, confront, defend again that stimulate an inner response and an outer reaction, is necessary and normal. The term ‘pangs‘ means “a sudden feelings of mental or emotional distress or longing; a sudden, brief, sharp pain or physical sensation; spasm; hunger pangs.” (1495-1505); origin uncertain. Thus, as we continue to live, the mystery of living life will always bring with it pain and suffering. It’s not that we have “sinned” a particular sin; rather, it is a necessary element of life in which we are all subjected to. “Why am I suffering with my fears?” “What have I done to desire this that is happening to me?”
The more that we are able to accept our self-facts, that life is mysterious and is sometimes filled with misery that stimulate worry, the more we are able to calm the outer storms that create this terror penetrate our spirits and our minds and our hearts. This is not easy and does require discipline and conscious intentional effort. Life is a mystery. When we allow ourselves to embrace this fact openly, our anxiety about and with living decreases. It can never be fully gone. We are, after all, human beings. Accepting my mystery is the starting place. I must be interested in and curious about my personal narrative while simultaneously living in an indifferent world. Daily, individuals share with me aspects of their personal narratives and I bear witness to them transforming their inner fears into inner beauty. This level of transformation allows them to then manage the outer world with a greater sense of confidence and comfort. Accept your life’s mystery.
Consciousness of Personal Self-Care is a notion of self-care that I am referring to is holistic in scope. How do we care for our bodies? Fear is an emotion; and, like all other emotions, is pure inner energy. This energy requires management not control. When those who are in the power position, especially political and religious leader, these leaders are unconsciously able to introject (put into the subjects under their rule or influence) onto their followers who may be vulnerable to their charisma, any idea that could activate the neurological transmitters in the brain that arouses fear.
Fear is a necessary emotion that has helped human beings and animal survive from the beginning of time. Yet, too much fear that can become chronic in our physical and psychological and biological systems can deeply interfere with the overall quality of our lives. This is a reason why personal self-care is essential to our spiritual, emotional, relational, and physical well-being. This is also why we must understand how the methods of deceit and propaganda are tools to influence those that have unconsciously (to a degree we all have) internalized and interiorized “fear as a measure of protection.” (Thurman, Jesus And the Disinherited, p.40). If a political leader suggests that particular individuals or groups of individuals because of his or her race, ethnicity, religious identity, or socioeconomic status is “less than,” and needs to be carefully observed, for instance, then these persons or groups of persons must be able to think and reflect with critical ears and eyes to avoid internalizing the leader’s influencing attitude.
The negative projected energies from our political and social leader’s attitudes and sense of being, can negatively impact my innermost sense of self–my body. Without a sense of personal self-care, the energy of fear turns into an almost all consuming force of energy that eats at my core center. Personal self-care must include a consciousness about my body. This means developing a plan for physical rest, simply stated, getting enough sleep. Further, developing a diet that right for my body and blood type and not necessarily for weigh loss. Drinking a sufficient amount of water each day. Regular visits to our primary care physicians. Developing an exercise program without over doing it that is fit for you. Investing in getting foot and full body massages at least on a monthly basis. Yes all these cost and they are ways of investing into your well-being that cares for the inner and the outer aspect of your being. To manage our fears, caring for our bodies is essential.
Mindfulness Meditation is a spiritual discipline and a unique form of prayer. There are different models of mindfulness. Jon Cabot Zinn is one that has have developed this into an act form and science of caring for one’s emotional and spiritual well-being. A central aspect of mindfulness (I encourage you to do your research about the positive effective and techniques) is breathing. Some form of this is practiced in Yoga. Buddhist practice this form of prayer daily and long.
I see it as an extension to my inner spiritual life, a way to help calm and relax my anxieties which are always rooted in some form of fear. Studies have demonstrated that sitting still for as short as 3 minutes while closing your eyes and listening to your breathing as you breathe in and out through your nose reduces levels of cortisone in the brain. Too much cortisone created high levels of anxiety. Hence, the fight/flight principle. Being still is allowing the Creator to be with us, the created. “Be still, and know that I am God,” says the Psalmist in Psalm 46:10. This stillness allows use to break free from the outer distractions that would keep our anxiety level beyond adequate levels.
In closing, fear of the unknown can overwhelm us in a variety of ways and from a variety of sources, friend and foe alike. The mystery of life helps to simulate what is a biological component of being human–we are neurologically wire to experience fear as we are other human emotions. Trauma through factors like social intimidation; personal childhood violations within and without one’s family system; other institutions such as political or religious entities can and often do contribute to the levels of elevated anxiety and fear.
As we become more conscious about the things that we become attached to, in hope of discovering some resemblance of inner peace and calm, it is, in my opinion, then, that we move to a deeper sense of transforming our fears into moment to moment living with inner peace rather than inner chaos. By this, we are now able to be more active and moral agents of engaging in our world to lift up and transforms the lives of others who might be gripped by the “pangs” of fear.
Taking reasonable and good care of our bodies through exercise, changing our diets to healthy consumptions, and mindfulness prayer and meditation are ways of transforming the negative energy that fear can produce into healthy means of managing this powerful human emotion. Transforming fear into beauty, in all of its components, is a daily practice that requires awareness and consciousness when this emotion is seeking to control my mind and my body and my spirit.