Halloween is coming early this year, and the fear industry is geared up to produce the resources needed to keep our most survival-oriented human emotion in high gear. But, the fear industry bringing us an early Halloween this October is not employed by authors like Stephen King or R.L. Stine (originator of Goosebumps), or those who bring us films made for nightmares, like The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Seed of Chucky or the five dismembering Saw movies. Rather, our extended Fright Night comes courtesy of the presidential election cycle. The fear in the air this fall doesn’t come from ghosts or goblins, or unexplained bumps in the night, but our own imaginations, trapped in an endless wondering about what kind of nation we will forge for the next four years.
I know people, including my own daughter, who are even having trouble getting to sleep. An Associate Press poll in July found 81% of Americans would feel afraid following the election of either presidential candidate, and a USA survey prior to Labor Day found that 80% of Trump supporters and 62% of Clinton supporters would be “scared” if the other candidate won the Oval Office. (See: http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/politics/elections/2016/09/01/suffolk-poll-hillary-clinton-donald-trump-fear/89577824/.) On September 23, Michele Goldberg interviewed therapists and wrote an interesting non-scientific column about the specific fears women are struggling with this year, during what she calls the “national nervous breakdown that is the 2016 election.” (See: http://www.slate.com/articles/double_x/doublex/2016/09/trump_induced_anxiety_is_a_real_thing.html) However, going into an election booth and voting our fears is perhaps the most unenlightened way to fulfill our obligations as a citizen.
In every election cycle, some politicians manipulate citizens to vote their fears, not their values and hopes for their lives and the world. But, this is just a macrocosm experience of what happens on a regular basis in our individual lives. In our families, our workplace, our schools, and even our faith communities, there are people who try to elicit fear in others to get from them what they want or need. Sometimes this effort at manipulating fear is as simple as a threatening body posture or the raising of one’s voice, or an angry stare. But, whether efforts to create fear in others are writ small or large, they are having a deleterious cumulative effect. Our contemporary world is leaving more and more of us wrapped up in little balls of anxiety. According to the website, fearof.net, 15-20% of the U.S. population will struggle with a phobia over the course of their lives. Almost 9% of American adults wrestle with “at least one specific fear,” including 25 million who are terrified to board a plane. (See: http://www.fearof.net/phobia-statistics-and-surprising-facts-about-our-biggest-fears/.)
The injection of terror into our individual or common life rarely produces positive results, because fear is usually a debilitating emotion. At chronic levels, it can even destroy our health, by forming ulcers, driving up our blood pressure, inducing heart disease, perhaps even contributing to cancer. So that’s the bad news about fear. But, it has also played an important role in the human condition.
Fear gets our attention like no other emotion, and evolution couldn’t have given us a better friend in a hostile world. Like most species in the wild, we need fear to survive. Once it gets our attention, fear forces us to decide: do we flee or do we fight? Fear can save us from getting eaten by a lion, and can make us reticent to touch a potentially dangerous creature, like a snake or a black widow spider, or to walk out on a platform with a rickety foundation. The emotion also serves some useful functions in our maturation, teaching us to keep our hands away from a hot stove or to avoid activities that might get us in trouble. On the most basic biological level, fear elevates our heart rate, makes our senses more aware, and disrupts our digestive system so we can use the blood for the more protective purposes of running or defending ourselves. On the neurological level, this emotion activates the central parts of our brain that process information quicker than our more reflective thinking capacities, so we can make a quick decision and act upon it. The problem is – the hasty decision has a higher probability of inaccuracy.
The symptoms of fear are not particularly pleasant, and with the exception of extreme sports fanatics, most of us avoid situations that rack our bodies in the discomfort of terror. So, it is ironic that humans not only use fear for their own purposes, but seem to have a fascination with it. We have always entertained ourselves by scaring the bejesus out of each other and have put our technologies in service to this somewhat ghoulish pastime. Horace Walpole published the first Gothic novel, The Castle of Otranto in 1765, and just about 50 years later three writers – Shelley, Mary Wollenstonecraft, and John Polidori held a ghost story writing party while renting a home in Geneva that produced the novel Frankenstein. By the end of the century, Bram Stoker popularized the evil species of vampires with the novel, Dracula, which was published in 1897 - just two years after what is generally considered the first “moving picture,” Auguste and Louis Lumiere’s La Sortie de l'Usine Lumière à Lyon (Workers Leaving the Lumiere Factory in Lyon; see: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M920yuiqtjY), and a year after the production of the first horror film, Le Manoir du Diable (The House of the Devil), in France (see: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uGKz-JYRmXo).
But, you can’t blame literature and film for seeking to learn how to manipulate the emotion of fear in humans—they were just jumping on the bandwagon. In what has to be one of the great ironies of its existence, religion has played a large role in making the manipulation of fear a habit in the human condition. The British atheist Bertrand Russell caught on to this in a famous lecture in 1927 entitled, “Why I am not a Christian,” and asserted that “religion is based primarily and mainly upon fear,” a fear of the mysterious, defeat, but most of all, death. (See: https://users.drew.edu/~jlenz/whynot.html.)
He only got half the story, of course. Religious faith, properly understood and practiced, and deep spiritual grounding, is the great antidote to fear. But, you can learn a lot from your critics and some of Russell’s observations about religion and fear have undeniably validity. The metaphors and images in sacred texts often conjure terrifying images. Consider the Christian tradition’s wrinkle on it: Matthew 13:50 speaks of angels at the last judgment throwing the evil “into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth,” and in an image worthy of a Wes Craven horror film, Revelation 21:8 describes different groups of sinners getting hurled into a “lake that burns with fire and sulfur.” Meanwhile, 1 Peter 5:8 could traumatize children with its warning that the devil prowls “like a roaring lion … looking for someone to devour.” Such metaphors and images blossomed in the Middle Ages into terrifying fictions of the afterlife. Dante’s Inferno, and Christian artwork that often graced the walls of houses of prayer surely disturbed the faithful as they prayed. Giotto’s, The Devil and the Damned and Luca Signorelli’s, The Damned Cast into Hell, are just two examples of artwork that shaped the fearfulness that is often found in the Christian imagination, and inspired Bertrand Russell’s critique of religion. Sadly, over the centuries, religious leaders too often used these images and related reflections to scare people away from certain types of behaviors. In the process, they created cultures of fear in many church circles. Mental health research even finds a strong link between religion and specific fear obsessions, such as doomsday and death phobias. (See: https://www.verywell.com/religion-and-phobias-2671697)
Because religious belief and practice promises the ultimate sense of stability (in this life and the next), religiously-motivated cultures of fear can have disastrous unintended effects. Lacking a deep understanding of a faith tradition, people in those cultures can develop hypersensitive triggers of anxiety to ideas, people, or activities that challenge their fragile, fear-laden inner world of meaning. Fear of the “religious other” has perhaps loomed largest in these reactions. In the U.S., Jews, Quakers, Baptists, Mennonites, and Catholics have all been marginalized by malformed people of faith, and the recent rise of Islamophobia is just one more chapter in this sad pattern of religiously-informed fearfulness.
Pope Francis is well aware of this side of religion, and much of his time in the papal office has been used to confront the specters of fear (in and out of religion) and offer pathways to courage. His endorsement of a “risky” faith willing to go the peripheries and to engage the world and its sufferings, makes some people, even some of his own bishops, uneasy. Some of them are “afraid” that he is lowering the walls separating the sacred from the profane, going “soft on sin,” minimizing the potential consequences of our brokenness and inadequacies, and inadvertently leading the gullible to destructive behaviors. But, Francis sees clearly that the Spirit of God does not thrive in cultures of fear, because such communities breed self-righteousness, prejudice, bigotry, and narcissism. Francis wants churches to become a spiritual farm for planting, nurturing and harvesting a mature and fearless religious faith, something he learned from his experience in Argentina’s civil war. This is also part of his Jesuit heritage, a 500-year-old religious tradition that has tried to figure out in each generation how to do smart and honest religious formation and faith-informed interdisciplinary education. The intended goal is to build powerplants of courage so they can face the terrors found in life or death, and can become contributors to building a new kind of world, rather than just fearful reactors.
People of faith have reflected on conquering fear through the centuries and have discovered other insights that are important. The Christian philosopher Soren Kierkegaard wrote a famous essay called Fear and Trembling, and came to an unobvious conclusion that fear is deeply intertwined with pride. Overcoming fear for Kierkegaard requires a deeper cultivation of humility as well as courage. The Jewish philosopher, Martha Nussbaum, sees the same connections and calls fear the most “narcissistic emotion” in her book, The New Religious Intolerance: Overcoming the Politics of Fear in an Anxious Age. Nussbaum comes to the conclusion that two practices are required to overcome fear. One is the development of “rigorous critical thinking,” the kind of thinking that goes looking for the “mote” in my eye before it goes looking for the problems in someone else’s eye. Part of the way we do this is by developing a “curious and sympathetic imagination … ‘inner eyes’ that give us the capacity for seeing the world through the eyes of someone coming from another religious, cultural or racial heritage.
We become a braver person by overcoming our fears—walking through them one-by-one, sweating it out through our terror, whether it is standing up to a bully, riding a roller coaster, or sharing our real feelings with someone. In time, we become desensitized to the symptoms of fear, and we can face an increasing number of challenges. Ultimately, we develop brave hearts and can experience a bigger world and become comfortable in it. Kennedy Odede, an African man from a slum in Nairobi, and Jessica Posner, a privileged white American, who fell in love across their racial, national, and cultural divides, made a remarkable journey of this kind together. In Find Me Unafraid: Love, Loss, and Hope in an African Slum, they describe the personal journey that led to their founding of the Kibera School for Girls, a school in one of the poorest and harshest environments on the earth that is attended by hope-filled, brilliant young girls brimming with confidence and intellectual and moral energy, even though they grew up and still live in one of the most underprivileged neighborhoods on earth.
Our world is in many ways a terrifying place, and it doesn’t serve us well to pretend that it is not. But, fear erects invisible walls to our ability to grow as human beings. The courageous know this, and can walk through such walls when the circumstances demand it. Most people who do something heroic say afterwards that their action was an instinct, that they just did what anyone would do. Not true. They walked through their fears over a life time, and made the exercise of courage a daily affair. They became the kind of brave hearts our loved ones, our friends or our community might one day need us to be. When we have hearts so brave, Fright Nights don’t scare us, even if they last for an entire fall election cycle.