Sunday, August 10, 2008

August 10, 2008 - Keeping Fear in Perspective

My sermon this morning – first one after my vacation – is about the story from Matthew 14:22-33 of Jesus walking on the water. One of the things I focus on is fear – which, oddly enough, is the disciples’ first reaction when they see Jesus coming towards them across the waves. “It is a ghost!” they cry out.

Here’s an excerpt:

Fear is a primal emotion. It’s one of the most compelling motivators of human behavior. Seven years out from the events of September 11th, 2001, we’re just beginning, as a nation, to appreciate how frightened we’ve been, these past years: and how that fear has affected our behavior.

Remember how it was, back then – how suddenly and how disturbingly those images of burning skyscrapers affected us? Remember how we felt so certain there was going to be another terrorist attack, within days if not weeks? Remember how the news media ran scary stories about the power of Al Qaeda – how it was a worldwide network, closely controlled by Osama bin Laden, who was in command of dozens, even hundreds, of undercover “sleeper” operatives, living beside us in our towns and cities, waiting to wreak havoc?

Any American of Middle Eastern, or even East Indian, origin can tell you about how our national fear impacted their lives. There was, for example, the family who owned a gas station in southern Ocean County, who became the subject of vicious rumors that they had terrorist connections. Suddenly, their business dropped off to almost nothing. It didn’t matter that this family wasn’t even Muslim (being Muslim, of course, doesn’t make you a terrorist). They were Christians from Egypt, and had been so for many generations. When their customers looked at them, it was as though they had seen a ghost.

This week’s news has brought a possible explanation for the anthrax scare that followed the 9/11 attacks. Everybody was so rock-solid certain, back then, this had to be the work of Al Qaeda, or maybe Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda working together. Now, the FBI claims to have chemical evidence that the anthrax spores in those letters originated not in the Middle East at all, but in a U.S. Army laboratory. They think the perpetrator was that mentally-disturbed American scientist named Bruce Ivins, a man who had no connection to Middle Eastern terrorism. Ivins, as you probably know, recently took his own life – so the case may never be proven – but it’s looking more and more likely that the ghost we thought we all saw, back in 1991, was no ghost at all.

Fear will do that to us. It’s that sort of deep-down, primal emotion. When fear walks in the front door, reason frequently climbs out the back window. Fear, the psychologists tell us, comes from a primitive part of our brain, a part that’s less about logical reasoning and more about quick, emotional response. Fear is like an emotional fire alarm. If our early ancestors saw a saber-toothed tiger cross their path, fear would set their feet to running before their brain even had time to figure out whether fight or flight was the better option.

Fear is a good and useful thing in situations like that, but when it comes to more complex sorts of problems, it’s much less useful. In fact, fear can be a hindrance. Fear can actually block our reasoning capacities for a time. It can lead us to say and do things we’ll later regret. This is just as true for nations as it is for individuals: when we respond in knee-jerk fashion, out of unreasoning fear, we often make big mistakes.

Getting cancer is a scary experience, no doubt about it. I would never be one to suggest that we deny or belittle our natural fear. It’s real. It’s part of the cancer experience – a big part.

Yet, our fear is something we can and should try to manage, just as we try to manage any other side effect. After some time living with cancer, we may even be able to say to our fear, when it does show up again, “Hello, old friend,” then make sure we keep our distance. We can acknowledge our fear, but that doesn’t mean we have to hand it the key to our house.


Wendy S. Harpham, MD said...

Dear Pastor,
Dr. David Spiegel, author of Living Beyond Limits (and the Stanford researcher who did the study years ago that suggested breast cancer patients who participated in support groups did better and lived longer) talks about the value of "detoxifying fear of dying and death."

As a physician-survivor, I have benefitted from looking at and talking about my greatest fears. The key is doing in with people who can support you during the process.

With hope, Wendy

Carlos ("Carl") said...

Thanks for pointing out Dr. Spiegel's book, Wendy. I looked it up, and it's out of print, but I've requested a copy from our local library.