Afraid that I’m afraid, that is. Interesting, isn’t it, how words take on different meanings depending upon their context? Take “fear,” for example. That’s a theme that’s popped up a few times in my reading this week. I began thinking about it when my friend Katherine posted this poem. I immediately made a note to myself: that freedom from fear is love, the theme with which this poem closes. That sounds like one of those heavy, weighty, philosophical things that I would have to unpack in the back of my head for the next few days, so…I let it percolate for a while.
Fear had already surfaced as a theme last Saturday, however, as I was having lunch with Karen at our favorite local pub and bookstore, and I picked up a Batman novel to peruse over lunch. Now, Batman has been a vice, and a bit of a favorite character of mine, since childhood. I think it’s good to escape into these sorts of things every now and then, and, after reading the first chapter over lunch, I bought the book (I also bought something from Tolstoy so I didn’t feel quite as guilty).
The title of the novel is Batman: Fear Itself. While it’s admittedly difficult to find themes and metamessages in genre novels, the Batman battles one of his arch-villains, the Scarecrow, in this adventure. The Scarecrow thrives on fear, and takes sadistic pleasure in terrifying others. Batman’s ultimate challenge, of course, is to triumph over fear, though he ironically adopted his own guise to strike fear into the hearts of criminals. Some hypothesize that the character of the Scarecrow (to attempt to bring this back to something more literary) was inspired by Ichabod Crane (hence that same last names of the characters) in Irving’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. Crane’s fate, of course, is left hanging as we ponder whether or not he truly encountered the dreaded Headless Horseman, or if he was simply frightened out of his wits and fled. The innuendo of the story leads the reader to the latter. His fear led, we presume, to his emotional death.
The poem my friend posted is based on the Scriptural poem of Job, and meditates on the concept that the “fear of the Lord” that is connected both here and (not exclusively) in the Psalms to wisdom. Yet, the poem concludes, as does John in the New Testament Canon, that freedom from fear is love; or, as John phrases the concept, “There is no fear in love; instead, perfect love drives out fear, because fear involves punishment” (I John 4:18, HCSB).
So which is it?
There is a respect, a piety if you will, involved in fear, which can be implied in the original languages of the Scriptures, that is not an unhealthy thing. When I drive, I make a (half-hearted) attempt to follow speed limits to some degree because I have a fearful respect of the police cruiser that may be waiting around the corner, radar at the ready. That isn’t a bad thing. There is a fear, however, that brings death, not life, and that fear is the opposite of love. This is the terror which the Scarecrow uses in the DC Universe to bring physical death to his victims, the horror that brought the emotional death of Icabod Crane, leaving only a shattered pumpkin in its wake the following morning. Nothing good is borne of this fear, because there is no respect or wisdom, there is simply stagnation. We don’t move into the promotion at work because we’re afraid of the change, we don’t propose to the person we love because we’re afraid of one more knife in the back, we don’t embrace the Divine because we’re afraid that our reason or individuality must be checked at the door. And thus, we stop, not moving forward on the continuum of life.
Except, when we stop, we don’t sit still for long. We begin sliding backward, and that backward movement is death.
When Karen and I married, both of us had been through our share of bad relationships. We used a phrase on our wedding invitations that she coined one evening during our engagement to bring me out of my paranoid nature: “No more broken hearts.” In marrying her, I placed an unconditional trust in her: to use the gambling analogy, I went “all in.” In choosing to place that trust in her, I permitted her the opportunity, as L’Engle would say, to prove herself trustworthy. The fear wrought by my instinct for self-preservation and paranoia were defeated by my love for her. The love cast out the fear.
We live in a culture motivated and saturated by fear: fear of another terror attack, fear of failing markets, fear of being mugged on our way home from work. We install security systems in our homes and on our cars. We casually toss away freedoms in the interest of national security. What would it look like if we did not permit our fear to rule us? What changes would that bring? More to the point, what if those fears were, in fact, cast out by love? To paraphrase the 60’s song, perhaps all we need is love; or, more specifically, a perfect love. There’s fear involved there as well, however, because stepping toward love involves trust, and we don’t like to trust. Yet that is the first step, the first enormous step, toward truly loving.
I hope we can all take steps of trust. May they lead us to a perfect love.