From the Dean: Re-discovering Courage in a Time of Fear

June 29, 2017

Column by Mark Markuly, Ph.D., Dean of the School of Theology and Ministry

The scent of fear is heavy in the air, and there are plenty of triggers causing it. Some of us fear the potential catastrophe unleashed by aggressive actions by North Korea, and others the escalation of Middle East tensions set in motion by the U.S.-Saudi Arabia arms deal. When we hear about actions like the recent Supreme Court decision to bar people from several Muslim nations, many of us fear America is re-establishing another chapter of the xenophobia that has blighted the nation’s history. Some of us feel fear at the impending injustices that will come with roll backs of civil rights legal protections for LGBTQ and other vulnerable populations, and others quake at the environmental apocalypse that will result in a retreat from common sense steps to respond to the global effort to lower green house gases. For those of us following world health issues, the first budget proposed by the Trump Administration, which includes severe cut backs in the budget of the Center for Disease Control, are anxious that a lack of vigilance in our fight against infectious diseases will result in pandemics wiping out millions of people. And, of course, the Congressional Budget Office’s scoring of the U.S Senate’s health care bill terrifies many Americans that after talking about it for 70 years, the forward movement the U.S made in providing health care insurance to most Americans may end with 22 million people getting swept back off the rolls. We live in a scary world that’s getting scarier.

Fear has become so omnipresent, in fact, that Lapham’s Quarterly devoted its summer 2017 issue to the subject. The quarterly picks four issues a year and scours history in search of insight on that issue from the best minds to tackle the subject. “Fear itself these days is America’s top-selling consumer product,” says Lewis Lapham in the opening essay. “(Fear is) available 24-7 as mobile app with color-coded pop-ups in all shades of the paranoid rainbow. Ready to hand at the touch of screen, the turn of a phrase, the nudge of a tweet. Popularly priced at conveniently located checkpoints on drugstore and supermarket shelves, at airports and tanning salons.” Fear sells, but it seems technology has produced endless emerging markets.

As Lampham notes in his article, Lyndon Johnson’s famous “Daisy Ad” in the 1964 presidential election is generally considered the first political fear advertisement, showing a young girl in a field pulling the petals from a daisy, as the gentle voice of her counting gets overdubbed by a male voiceover counting down to the detonation of a nuclear bomb. “These are the stakes” of the 1964 presidential election pitting Johnson against the Republican, Barry Goldwater, the voice of Johnson says against the backdrop of the image of a mushroom cloud. “To make a world in which all of God’s children can live or to go into the dark. We must either love each other or we must die.”

But, the ad did not sell love, it hawked fear, and it worked. Johnson won the election, and the effectiveness of the Daisy Ad prompted political strategists to explore greater sophistication in manipulating fear for every future election cycle. Simultaneously, the advertising industry realized that fear mongering is an effective tool for influencing consumer choices, influencing our buying decisions for everything from automobiles and home alarm systems to sterilizing wipes (to destroy the bacteria that might kill our children) and all kinds of medications for every conceivable ailment. The media education site, Alternet, has surfaced one of the earliest examples of using fear to promote product sales – television commercials for Listerine. It is not intuitive that one of the first attempts to boost sales by making Americans afraid had to do with the avoidance of bad breath, the dreaded “halitosis” condition that can destroy our marriages and condemn eligible, attractive singles to a lifetime of loneliness. Or, so the ads would have us believe.

As Lapham notes, fear has reached such high levels that it now has us “herded” into a “lockdown” of shoebox-sized worldviews and political talk tracks. We now see the bogeyman not just under our beds, but in each other’s life choices, actions and public policy preferences. In the process, many of us have lost the ability to understand an important distinction made by Sigmund Freud between “real fear” and “neurotic fear.” When you start fearing everything and everyone, it becomes increasingly difficult to identify the true risks from the manufactured ones.

Beginning in 2006, some scholars and journalists have attempted to do an autopsy on the causes and consequences of our national fear quotient. Two worthwhile efforts are Peter Stearns’, American Fear: The Causes and Consequences of High Anxiety, and Barry Glassner’s, The Culture of Fear: Why Americans Are Afraid of the Wrong Things: Crime, Drugs, Minorities, Teen Moms, Killer Kids, Mutant Microbes, Plane Crashes, Road Rage, & So Much More. Meanwhile, some have attempted to offer spiritual antidotes for dealing with cultures of rampant fear. Pope John Paul II’s, Fear Not: Thoughts on Living in Today’s World in 2010, and Vietnamese Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hahn’s, Fear: Essential Wisdom for Getting Through the Storm in 2014 are just two of the more popular texts.  

Fear is nothing new. Unfortunately, we live in an era in which our natural mechanisms for fear are endlessly manipulated, emotionally imprisoning many of us. Perhaps it is time to remember the most quoted phrase of Franklin Roosevelt’s 12-year presidential term: “…let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.” It was a bold and seemingly irrational statement, since he gave the speech in 1933, the height of the Great Depression when it looked like the wheels were coming off the world’s economic wagons, and the politics of many nations had turned to fascism, totalitarianism, and fear of the “other,” resulting in one of the most infamous genocides in human history – the Holocaust.

Much of our fear today is reasoned and justified, and it is just as paralyzing as the fear that crippled people in the Great Depression. But, beyond getting our attention, fear does little to help us. “How does one kill fear,” Joseph Conrad once asked, “How do you shoot a specter through the heart, slash off its spectral head, take it by its spectral throat?” Conrad saw fear for what it really is – a ghost. It drives us to react with fight or flight, and neither of these strategies helps us solve complex problems, particularly in a such a divided nation. When it comes to the challenges facing our country, there is no place to flee, and if we choose to fight, “we the people” end up fighting ourselves in the end. So, it is no real surprise that at the conclusion of each political term and each election cycle we are getting no closer to permanent solutions to our problems.

If we listen to the ancients and the sages in our religious traditions, the only way to kill the specter of fear is with a virtue – a virtue that fascinates most of us but has never been more misunderstood – courage. Over the past 70 years as political and consumer researchers have developed greater abilities in manipulating the parts of our brain that elicit fear, other cultural forces have simultaneously distorted the meaning and identifying markers of courage. At the hands of this distortion, virtue has become synonymous primarily with expressions of anger and violence. The courageous person beats up or kills the bad guys to save the day. Unfortunately, our culture keeps upping the ante on what is actually saved. When Bruce Willis brandished his New York cop bravado in the 1988 movie, Die Hard, he courageously saved a handful of people in a building taken over by terrorists. By the time the movie franchise gets to Live Free and Die Hard in 2007, Willis’ character, Detective John McClane, is saving the entire United States from a financial disaster created by a disgruntled former cyber genius at the National Security Agency. However, by 2013, and the film, A Good Day to Die Hard, McClane and his son spend the interminable action scenes preventing terrorists from getting weapons grade uranium that would hurl the world into a nuclear disaster. This upgrade in the accomplishments of courageous action are now common place. In the Star Trek genre, the crew of the enterprise has gone from saving individuals to an entire people, to a world, to the galaxy to the universe. It is no accident the “superhero” movie genre is now the most popular and biggest money makers in cinema. Nor is it surprising that violence is the primary tool of their courageous action, whether the brave person is punching, kicking, head-butting, stabbing, shooting, saber-lighting, phasering, incinerating or just plain blowing up the bad guys.

Unfortunately, when it comes to courage this is exactly backward. Courage is about the smallest things in our lives, and glorifying the virtue in a hail of blood and bullets masks its essential nature and makes it unrecognizable in our daily existence.   Courage is not about beating people up, shooting them, or silencing them. It is a virtue that helps us overcome adversity in all of its forms, and is woven into our lives in subtle ways. Courage grows incrementally, in small heroic actions over a lifetime, creating habits of mind and heart that allow us to tackle bigger fear-inducing challenges. When people respond courageously to the most dangerous situations, as did Ricky Best and Taliesen Meche on a Portland train when they lost their lives defending two Muslim women from the threat of Jeremy Christian, virtually all of them say they just did what came naturally. The brave are brave in little ways their whole life before they become courageous in big ways.

We see courage in the parent who works three minimum wage jobs to feed her children; the mother who struggles unnoticed with the health care and insurance industries to get adequate care for her quadriplegic child; the student with a learning challenge who keeps trying to learn. Courage is seen not primarily in the military veteran who engaged in combat, but the one who returns from the horrors of war and settles into a “normal” life of raising a family and earning a living, while quietly struggling with the demons of what we now have identified as post traumatic stress syndrome or moral injury due to the things he saw or did that violated the depths of his own humanity and those around him. Courage is displayed every time someone attempts to do something good, fails miserably and gets up off the floor and tries again. Most courage is boring, prosaic, barely noticed, and yet it is the duct tape that holds our dysfunctional world together, just like it always has.

The world’s most courageous people are standing next to us at the bus stop, or in line at the grocery story. They have made courage a habit and they act courageously because it is who they are. They have survived bankruptcies, the death of children, cancer, degenerative illnesses that leave them in chronic pain, natural disasters, the loss of businesses and jobs. They have gone through nasty divorces and hidden the acrimony from their children, and have struggled back to life from addiction, and have surrendered their lives to serving others. Since 9/11, we often make a big deal about the service of those in the military, as we should, but this is only a small fraction of those who have courageously given their life for others. We have teachers, counselors, social workers, community developers, and of course, ministers, perhaps the most overworked and underpaid of them all. Others have loved toughly those who are not easily lovable, and have remained faithful in relationships. Courageous people do not wear capes and tights. They are our parents, children, friends and co-workers, and most of them don’t think of themselves as anything close to brave.

The best way for us to begin to reduce our fear and to heighten our courage is to realize how much bravery is around us and to celebrate it, encourage it, and practice it until it becomes part of the fiber of our own being and our communities. Jim Donovan (1916-1970) was one such person. An American lawyer assigned to defend Soviet spy Rudolf Abel during the height of the Cold War, Donovan launched a vigorous defense and was vilified by many Americans as a near traitor. He later became a hero in the nation, however, for negotiating the trade of Abel for American U-2 pilot Gary Powers, and still later 9,703 Cuban prisoners after the Bay of Pigs invasion. Whether praised or cursed, Donovan had the capacity to do the right thing whether anyone was noticing or not, a skill shaped over a lifetime by small courageous acts, as he documented in a 1964 book, Strangers on a Bridge, and Stephen Spielberg brought to life so well in his recent film about Donovan, Bridge of Spies.  

Benjamin Israeli once said that “courage is fire and bullying is smoke.” When things have become the worst in life, the tinder of the human condition becomes driest and most susceptible to catching fire. Franklin Roosevelt knew this in the heart of the Great Depression. As it has happened in the past, so shall it happen in the future because courage is a very dependable and infectious virtue. Michelle Obama put it this way: “Don’t ever underestimate the importance you can have because history has shown us that courage can be contagious and hope can take on a life of its own.” The seeds of our renewal as a culture and a world are already planted, and the best way to overcome our fear and get to business is to recognize its presence among us and trust that it is growing and will eventually swallow the fear around us.