Independence Day

Independence Day

It’s fourth of July weekend, a time when Americans remember and celebrate gaining our independence from the British Empire and our 240 year journey to create a more perfect union.
This got me thinking about independence and about our freedom.
The obvious aspects of freedom that we appreciate (and perhaps sometimes take for granted) include our freedom to practice the religion of our choosing (or not), our freedom of speech, our freedom to choose our elected officials (God help us), the freedom of the press and its oversight role on government and our society (impartially, in theory), and the rights that are laid out to individuals in the Bill of Rights that cannot be usurped by government. We are blessed to live in a place where these freedoms are valued.

But does the fact that we have these freedoms make us free?

Many long for financial independence so that they are not dependent on others or the State.
Some desire freedom from a bad relationship and look forward to being free from the drama, pain, or the controlling or abusive ways of a partner.
Some families want only to be free from the pain and suffering of addiction or mental illness.

But I would like to talk about something else that ties many more of us down…fear. I’m not talking about the fears we commonly think about…fear of heights, or roller coasters, or flying, or public speaking, or lions and tigers and bears (oh my), or spiders and snakes, or for that matter, anything that can cause us bodily harm.
The fears I’m focused on are things like:
The fear of rejection, the fear of embarrassment, the fear of being alone, the fear of being vulnerable to another, the fear of criticism, the fear of being hurt, dissapointed, rejected or abandoned, the fear of change (choosing the comfort of the unpleasant known over the scary unknown), or the fear of failure.
These are things that, generally speaking, will not cause physical injury, but one would never know this from our reaction to them.
I think we all have these fears. It’s just a matter of whether we are aware of them and to what degree they exert control over our lives. Our reactions can range from the twinge that we feel when we think about going to one of these scary places to one that absolutely paralyzes us!

Love is a difficult thing to describe. If you ask 10 people to tell you what love is, you will get 10 different answers. Some people talk about what love isn’t in an attempt to better understand what love is. (Think St. Paul’s letter to the Corinthians read at many Christian wedding ceremonies…love is not jealous or boastful; it is not arrogant or rude…) Most of us think that love is most unlike hate. That is: hate is the opposite of love. If love is an intensely strong positive emotion then hate is an equally powerful negative emotion. One is pulling and attracting, the other is pushing and repelling.

Others have said that apathy is the emotion that is most unlike love. Love being a strong emotion and apathy being an absence of emotion…indifference, uncaring, having no regard whatsoever.

There is a third emotion used sometimes to describe what love isn’t. That is fear. Since we are on the subject of fear, I would like to concentrate on this one.

When we are beset by fear, we are inwardly focused. We are concerned for our own well-being. We are overwhelmed by our own desire to protect ourselves with one of 3 possible “F” reactions…fight (aggression (which can include passive aggression), flight (run like hell!), or freeze (also known as the “oh f-ck!” response…think deer in the headlights just before impact)

With these descriptions, it’s easy to see why some folks would call fear the opposite of love. Love is an outward emotion, it connects us to others, it reaches out, it is concerned primarily for the welfare of the beloved. Self often takes a back seat to love. Fear, on the other hand, is overwhelmingly concerned with self interest.

When I was young, I was scared to death of public speaking. I don’t know if my memory is correct, but as I recall it, I was able to avoid ANY speaking in front of a group for my entire childhood. That ended when I was 18 and headed off to college. A religious studies teacher gave us an assignment to read a passage from a religious text that meant something to us. At the time, I was only familiar with the Bible, so that’s where I went for a passage. As the day approached for me to read it in front of the class, I became more and more panicked. My stomach was in knots. I was filled with anxiety and dread. I thought about skipping the rest of the classes in the semester. Stress induced hormones coursed through my veins for the days leading up to the reading. Life was not enjoyable, in fact, it was a living hell. I did not think of much else besides the reading assignment for almost a week.

It also means that I wasn’t there for anyone who may have needed me that week. It means that I wasn’t fully present for anyone including myself that week. It means that this fearful week of my life and all the others like it before and since have been lived in slavery under the master of fear.

Of course, I got through the reading and I lived to tell about it. It was also a turning point in my life. Shortly after this experience, I made it my mission to overcome this fear and to get comfortable speaking in public. I looked for opportunities to do it. One thing I did was volunteer to call Bingo at my church. Although I was very nervous at first, I really came to enjoy it. I would tease the blue haired ladies and they would flirt with me. Over time, I became quite good at it and the players would look forward to me calling the games on Friday nights. Since then, I have spoken to rooms filled with 50, 100, 500 and 1000 people. I have testified at NYC Council and New York State Assembly hearings. I have been interviewed on many television and radio stations in association with my work. I always felt the fear in the form of butterflies, but not to the level of being paralyzed and not to the level where it greatly diminished my life by preventing me from being in the moment. I was actually able to use the butterflies to deliver increased energy to the presentation or discussion. Bravery is not so much the lack of fear, but rather feeling the fear and moving forward anyway.

This is a small example of the task before all of us. We must look our fears in the eye and deal with them directly. We like to think of ourselves as brave people, but we usually do this by denying our fears. I know I do. The real act of courage is owning our fears and doing the difficult work to reduce them to manageable levels. I don’t know if we can ever eliminate them completely.

So, my Independence Day resolution is to ratchet up my work on becoming aware of when fear is restricting my life and my love. I’ve got one down and many, many to go. Facing these fears and dealing with them directly will, over time, reduce their power over me. This is adult work. It is hard. It is nasty and messy. It is not for the faint of heart. But I hear the view is worth the climb! Increased freedom!

Facing our fears is actually a revolution. Our ancestors faced physical death to gain independence. For us, it means crawling around in our dark places. It means we will undermine our own carefully groomed self perceptions. It means we will see that not all of our motives are as pure and loving as we like to think they are.

If we are truly honest, I believe we will find that we are more selfish, more manipulative, more controlling, more close minded, more fearful, more hurt, more damaged, more insecure, and more needy than we are comfortable thinking about. At least this is the case with me.

Given that it is such difficult work, I would suggest it is not for everyone. If someone has a fairly happy and decent life and doesn’t want to make a lot of waves in it, they will probably be better leaving well enough alone.

For those that do choose to undertake the task, I think we need to go in with an unwavering determination. I think we need to go in with compassion and love. This exercise should not add to the list of defects our internal critic and judge provide to us regularly.  I think we need to be brave and be willing to directly face anything we find, no matter how ugly we perceive it to be.

Rousseau said, ”Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains. I would agree. The only question is whether we have the courage to break free of the emotional chains that bind us and prevent us from loving ourselves and others fully.

If you don’t ever ride a roller coaster, I don’t see that as a major life problem. But those fears that diminish our life or the lives of the people we say that we love, are a problem worthy of our attention and energy.

Our founding fathers worked and fought for their freedom and that’s exactly what we have to do. Only difference is, most of our battles are fought within.

Happy Independence Day!

Other thoughts on Fear

Then you will know the truth and the truth shall set you free! John 8:32

Move, but don’t move the way fear makes you move– Rumi

On this path, let your heart be your guide, for the body is hesitant and full of fear– Rumi

Crawling in my skin
These wounds, they will not heal
Fear is how I fall
Confusing what is real

There’s something inside me that pulls beneath the surface
Consuming, confusing
This lack of self control I fear is never ending
Controlling
I can’t seem
To find myself again
My walls are closing in
(Without a sense of confidence I’m convinced
That there’s just too much pressure to take)
I’ve felt this way before
So insecure

Crawling in my skin
These wounds, they will not heal
Fear is how I fall
Confusing what is real

Discomfort, endlessly has pulled itself upon me
Distracting, reacting
Against my will I stand beside my own reflection
It’s haunting how I can’t seem

To find myself again
My walls are closing in
(Without a sense of confidence I’m convinced
That there’s just too much pressure to take)
I’ve felt this way before
So insecure

Crawling in my skin
These wounds, they will not heal
Fear is how I fall
Confusing what is real

Crawling in my skin
These wounds, they will not heal
Fear is how I fall
Confusing, confusing what is real

There’s something inside me that pulls beneath the surface
Consuming (confusing what is real)
This lack of self control I fear is never ending
Controlling (confusing what is real)

Linkin Park