Wednesday, September 16, 2015

The Next Thing

It's been said that there are only two ways of living in the world, two motivations that fuel every decision we make and action we take:  love and fear.  Further, these two are said to be incompatable ... mutually exclusive.  In the Christian scriptures it's written, "love casts out all fear."  The inverse appears to be true, too -- when we are overcome with fear, our ability to live our lives from a place of love is seriously undermined, if not made impossible.  The more we live in fear, the less we live in love; and the more we live lives of love, the less fear can overtake us.

It's a funny thing about fear:  it is never, never, based in reality.  Not ever.  The truth that is so hard to remember, if we've ever understood it in the first place, is that there is quite truly nothing to fear.  That seems to fly in the face of everything we know and just about every experience of fear we've ever had, but that doesn't mean it's not true.  It just means that we don't really understand the nature of fear.

Fear is never based on what is happening now.  It is always based on what we think is going to happen next.  Read those last two sentences again and let their ramifications sink in.  If this is right -- if we really are afraid of what's coming next rather than what's happening now -- then it is clear that we're really afraid of nothing, since "what is coming next," by definition, isn't real.  And if this is true, it means that there's nothing to be afraid of.

I know what you're probably thinking.  You're probably thinking of a thousand and one times that you've been afraid and you're pretty sure that you were afraid of something.  Let me play out a scenario, though, to demonstrate what I mean.  It's exagerated, to be sure, but it should make my point.  (I don't remember any longer where I first encountered this teaching, but I am grateful to whoever it was both for the illustration and the lesson.)

Let's say that you're walking through the woods, having been told that there have been a number of bear sightings recently, and you hear something rustling nearby.  You, understandably, begin to feel fear.  But you're not really afraid of that sound are you?  You're actually afraid that you're about to come fact-to-face with a bear.  You're not afraid of what's happening now (hearing a rustling sound); you're afraid of what you think is going to happen next (encountering a bear up close and personal).
So let's say a bear does come out of the underbrush.  I'd suggest that it's still not what's happening now that has you afraid.  It's not the sight of the bear that you're afraid of.  It's the idea that the bear is going to rush you.  And when it does, indeed, rush you, your fear is really about what's going to happen when it catches you. 

Here's the kicker, though.  Even if the bear does catch you, and rakes you with its claws, the thing you're afraid of in that moment is not that you're being clawed by a bear.  You don't like it, of course.  You'd really rather it not be happening.  But what you're afraid of is that it's going to happen again.  You're afraid that it's going to keep happening, and that maybe the teeth are going to get involved.  Yet in each moment, as this attack unfolds, the actual elements of the attack -- while they're happening -- is not what you're really afraid of.

See?  Fear is never based on what's happening now; it 's always based on what we think is going to happen next.  Our fear is always one step ahead of what's actually happening; one step removed from reality.

Okay.  In this illustration you could say that even if you're fear is "one ahead" of what's happening it still makes sense.  Especially once the bear begins to charge, the rest is pretty inevitable.  It's highly improbable that a bear will break from the underbrush, run up to you, and then give you a hug.  Could happen, but not too likely.  So you might argue that it's not at all unreasonable to be afraid in this situation, and that your fear would be about something real.

Luckily few of us will ever go through something so dramatic, yet even our more pedestrian experiences with fear follow this same pattern.  You're not afraid of going to your bosses office; you're afraid that she's going to tell you that you're fired.  And while she's telling you that you're fired it's not that that you're afraid of.  You're afraid of what your spouse will say when you share the bad news.  And while the two of you are talking it's the next thing that's scaring you.  We're always afraid of the thing that's coming next, not the thing that's happening now.  And that means that our fear is always directed toward something that isn't real.  (At least, not yet.)  The next thing to happen is just that -- the next thing.  It's not what's happening now, and what's happening now -- this present moment -- is the only thing that's ever really real.

Yet as I said, when you are pretty sure of what the next thing is going to be, it seems to make a lot of sense to be afraid now.  Yes, it certainly seems to make sense.  Still, if fear and love cast one another out, then it would also seem that we would want to do whatever we can do to decrease our fear so that we can increase our love.  Recognizing that our fear is always based in the yet-to-be can be quite helpful.

I remember a woman in the first congregation I served.  The doctor thought that she might very well have developed a really serious illness and had ordered some tests.  I asked her if she was afraid and, solid Mainer that she was, she replied, "Why be scared 'till there's something to be scared of?"  She didn't want to be debilitated by fear; she wanted to keep her heart open for love.  And knowing that there really is nothing to be afraid of -- until, as she said, there is something -- she was able keep her mind and her heart calm it what could have been an extremely stressful situation.  (A situation that would have been stressful for most of us.)

It can be hard to remember this, yet it can be spiritually and literally life-saving.  There's a reason fear is often called "blind," yet in times like that brear attack it would behoove us to be more clear-headed rather than less so.  The same is true when we, or someone we love, receives a serious diagnosis, or we can see a relationship falling apart, or the boss calls us in for a sit-down.  To remember that the fear we're feeling isn't about what's happening at that moment but about what we think is going to happen next can free us to more effectively prepare for whatever it is that does come next.  And it can help to keep us open ... open to love.

Pax tecum,


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