Fear is a funny thing. It’s a facet of a much larger spectrum of human emotions that are rarely definable as only one thing at any given time. There are a lot of good meaning people out there who will tell you things, having the best of intentions towards you, about how fear is something we overcome, through courage, through determination, through God or self-confidence, casting it out, as if fear were some invading foreign body attacking us, and could be fended off through strategy or technique or prayer. Fear isn’t that.
I was married for six years, had a daughter in that time, bought a house, and did all the things you’ve heard to do, to keep your marriage “Christ-centered” and “energized”. I had watched my parents split up when I was 20 years old, and I wasn’t afraid of that happening to me, because I knew it wouldn’t. How did I know this? Because of my firmly held, and perhaps, somewhat misguided, understanding of love and fear.
When my marriage started to fall apart, and I learned my wife had been secretly seeing one of her co-workers, I did not panic, though I was deeply hurt beyond my ability to describe. I went into love-war-mode. I reminded myself of my vows, I read books about the biblical way to go about things and, most of all, I was determined not to try and operate out of fear in the situation, but out of love.
I had several reasons for being locked into this mindset, but the two primary reasons were 1) my wife was raised in a household that was predicated on a system of “love” that had to be earned, and which could be taken away if one’s behavior was deemed out-of-line. I was certain this would push her further away. And 2) I had a deep seeded faith in the notion that “perfect love casts out all fear” and that “there is no fear in love”.
In the midst of all my friends and some members of my family telling me to kick my wife out of the house and tell her it was over, I remained determined and unafraid. Even if I started to feel weak, I would redouble my efforts, knowing that I didn’t want to make choices out of fear, and didn’t want to try and manipulate her with tools of fear either. If we reconciled, I didn’t want it to be motivated by fear, but out of a place of love. All of this felt right. I felt that sense of rightness so strongly that I missed something complex about the nature of fear, love, want and loss.
Eleanor Roosevelt said, “The danger lies in refusing to face the fear, in not daring to come to grips with it. You must do the thing you think you cannot do.” See, at the time, all the ways in which I thought I wasn’t afraid was me desperately not facing the reality of what it was that I feared. I thought I was acting bravely, but the truth was I simply refused to accept that divorce was a possible outcome.
Similarly, John 12:25 (NCV) reads, “Those who love their lives will lose them, but those who hate their lives in this world will keep true life forever.” And as with most of the way I read scripture these days, what is meant, perhaps, isn’t the seemingly literal thing on the surface. The writer didn’t mean for us to hate our lives, but, rather, is commenting on the danger of holding things in our lives so precious that we cannot see a way in which we could part with them.
My wife knew this about me too, and so she subconsciously wasn’t afraid, which, if I’m being objective here, is what I was after, right? By accomplishing what I thought was a noble goal, I robbed her of the sense of loss regarding something precious. I robbed her of the way in which fear can motivate us to action. Almost two years later, I am certain that had I not shielded myself from what I feared the most, and likewise acted out of self-respect, subsequently letting her feel the weight of certain choices, my marriage would have more than likely been preserved. Nothing will ever convince me otherwise.
Fear is a funny thing. We need it. Fear is not Love’s adversary. It reminds us of what we truly love, and, though love does not invoke it, our love for others must enable us to, at times, be absent. Human beings, unfortunately, only have the ability to want things they believe they do not have enough of. We are motivated to eat by hunger, which is a sense of lacking, and only continue to eat, until that has been satisfied. We survive, because of these kinds of cycles: Hunger. Eating. Satisfaction. Repeat. To try and better surmise what I’m getting at, let me end with this revelation I had last fall.
We often consider the highest and most selfless proclamation of love for another to be: I will love you no matter what. It sounds amazing, right? I said it. You’ve probably said it. It is often referred to as “unconditional love”. We read articles about it. We crave it from others. But while walking the streets of Kent one night with my friend Austin, it hit me. This is not a selfless way of loving, in fact, it is selfish. It says, “No matter what you do, or how you feel, what you say, or whether you love me back or not: I will keep doing what I want to do.” It proclaims the “other” is irrelevant to the equation. In essence, my love becomes about my love, and no longer about the person whom I love. In my experience, I think this kind of exchange, besides being wildly unrealistic, quietly diminishes the objects of our intended affection, whether we intend it to or not. This is where I was at two years ago.
So, in your lives, feel your fear, and know it by name. Be well acquainted with it, but do not be fearful. Know where it comes from inside you, and learn how to dance. Don’t shy away or be insecure in the fear that manifests in those you care about most. I would argue, the person without fear is the person without love. Fear is what reveals “the thing I cannot do”, and must be able to do, and in so doing, perhaps know the unique and transient bliss of what it means to love.