Fear

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- Brad Nelson

One of the most persistent forces in my life is fear. It’s relentless. I swear it's like being surrounded by a pack of wolves. You beat it back on one side and it advances on you from the other. I feel it most acutely as a writer and a teacher. Whatever it is that I'm trying to say, I'm afraid I won't say it well. I'm afraid that no one else will think it's worth hearing. Or worse, I'm afraid that I don't actually have anything to say in the first place.

This is how fear works. It stays at you, wears you down, it chokes out your life, seeks to paralyze and diminish you.

Two weeks ago I got an email from a woman who had been feeling the urge to begin writing. She said, "I feel like I'm supposed to write, but it terrifies me. How do you get over the feeling that what you are writing may sound interesting to you, but to someone else it sounds obvious and anything but thought provoking? Is my fear of being judged ever something you had to overcome?" These are great questions because they hit at the heart of what it means to be human. We sense that we have it in us to be and to do so much more, but fear stands in the way.

We all have our demons to wrestle with, but it's in naming and facing our fears that we actually learn to rob them of their false power over us. Speaking of the counter-intuitive embrace of fear, Annie Dillard writes that we need to "ride the demons all the way down." Why? Because, as Parker Palmer so eloquently puts it, "they are the most reliable guides to the deeper reaches of who we are created to be." If you can begin to name and then embrace the demons then you've begun the journey to those deeper reaches.

And the journey matters because we become by doing. People who love their neighbors become people who love their neighbors precisely by making the choice to love their neighbors, especially when they don’t feel anything like love inside them. Or maybe another way to say it is that the way to face fear is to simply show up. Everyday. Its nature is to diminish you, to keep distance between you and whatever it is that’s on the other side. But when you show up day after day, you draw close to it, and the fear slowly becomes a guide.

That doesn’t make it easy by any means. Whenever someone makes the decision to overcome fear and live meaningfully, they also open themselves to risk and failure. In his book Story, Robert McKee points out that risk and meaning go hand in hand. You never get one without the other. "To live meaningfully is to be at perpetual risk." The minute you stop risking, fear wins. 

Ultimately, I think fear is rooted in the feeling that we’re inadequate. That we don’t have what it takes or we don’t measure up. So we constantly engage in the game of comparing ourselves with others to see where we rate. When I first started writing and teaching I wanted to be great. It was the same when I became a parent. Then I got knee deep in the hard work of writing, preaching, and parenting, and I realized that being great wasn't the point. Being effective was the point. That was completely disarming.

There’s only one problem. In the words of Nelson Mandela:

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, ‘Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?’ Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won't feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It's not just in some of us; it's in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”

God, I believe, wants his children to flourish, to live from the deepest places in themselves because they are not inadequate. They’re more than adequate. May you learn the counter-intuitive gift of embracing your fear and finding that it is a reliable guide on the path to liberation.

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Brad is the director of teaching and worship at Mars Hill Bible Church in Grandville, Michigan. A speaker, writer, and student at Western Theological Seminary (MDiv), he and his wife Trisha are the proud parents of two beautiful daughters, Braylen and Clara. To see more of Brad's writing check out his website bleedingoutloud.com or follow him on twitter@bradleyjnelson.