Vanquishing fear

For God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control. – 2 Timothy 1:7

The All-Father wove the skein of your life a long time ago. Go and hide in a hole if you wish, but you won’t live one instant longer. Your fate is fixed. Fear profits a man nothing. – Herger the Joyous, The 13th Warrior

Nine years ago, I stood in a terminal in Phoenix, Arizona, unable to board a connecting flight that was supposed to take me to visit family in Oregon. I was so gripped by fear that I was near hysteria, and a worried gate agent wanted to call an ambulance. Embarrassed, I told her, no, I was fine, but I was really far from it. I ended up renting a car that day and driving all the way home to Austin, Texas. That was the first of many long trips by car to visit people.

My fear of flying started about a year after my mom died from cancer. In my grief, I started to isolate myself and avoid any sort of discomfort. Not coincidentally, I found that I began to have irrational fears, which manifested most obviously in a fear of flying. It started with fear of turbulence, then fear of boarding, then fear of airports. It got so bad, I couldn’t even look at a plane in the sky without getting clammy with terror. Intellectually, I knew that my chances of being hurt or killed while driving were far greater than any chance of being killed in an air disaster. I even knew that my chances of being killed by falling out of bed at night were greater than being killed flying in a commercial airliner. But this did nothing to calm my anxiety. That’s why it’s called an irrational fear.

Fear is a hell of a thing, and so is its cousin, worry. In terms of the Christian faith, we know where fear and worry come from. They attack us when we abandon our trust in God and allow the Enemy to take control. In terms of biology, it’s equally simple. Fear and worry come from the over-enjoyment of security in the form of avoidance and from too much comfort. These two perspectives are complementary, by the way. We were meant to engage the world, not avoid it.

I knew deep down that it was wrong to let fear rule my life, partly because I despise weakness, but also because it showed a terrible lack of trust in God. So, after one final grueling drive from Texas to Canada last spring, I realized it was time to conquer my fear. My next trip would be by air.

My husband and I were going to fly with our baby daughter from Seattle to Austin. I was anxious the night before our flight, and even more so in the morning. Thankfully, the drive to the airport was interrupted when we were pulled over by a state trooper for speeding. That meant we had very little time to get from the ticket counter to the plane, and I had no time for dithering. We were up in the air before I even had time to reconsider.

It was a bumpy ride from the start; the turbulence was putting my nerves even more on edge. But instead of growing more fearful, a peculiar thing happened. I started to get angry. I couldn’t run from the fear, so, cornered, I turned and faced my adversary. I was going to sit there and feel every sensation in that plane; I was going to dare this stupid thing to kill me. So, I just let go and felt every single bump and jolt. I focused intensely on how it felt. And then, suddenly, there was a sense of utter peace. I turned and smiled at my husband, and told him the fear was gone. It was gone! Confronted head-on, the fear simply vanished.

I flew six more times that summer, all without anxiety. No worrying the night before, no cold sweat at the ticket counter, no sense of mounting panic as I boarded. There was only sweet, sweet victory.

While I don’t share the pagan view that our fates are fixed, I do believe Herger was right that hiding from danger — real or perceived — won’t extend our lives by even one second. Whatever is going to happen is largely out of our hands. We might as well go forth boldly.

5 thoughts on “Vanquishing fear

  1. My husband and I were watching Saving Private Ryan the other night, and *** spoiler alert *** the part that was most disturbing was the cowardice of Corporal Upham. In the battle at the end, he hesitates going up the stairs to come to the aid of his squad mates, and they die horrible deaths. He might have prevented that. And then his captain is killed by the German soldier he persuaded the captain to free. Having to live with all that for the rest of one’s life must be a form of hell worse than just about anything else.

  2. Sarah, I enjoy reading your blog, but I would like to make a request, because I think you are the best person for the job. Jerry Coyne’s new book, Faith Versus Fact: Why Science and Religion Are Incompatible, needs a good deconstructing. Besides, adding another arch nemesis to the dung heap might help…sort of like composting garbage.

  3. Just from the title, I can tell this guy is either an historical ignoramus or a charlatan. And the book’s endorsements read like a list of who’s who in New Atheism — it’s doubtful the book is anything more than a rehash of all the same tired arguments that get perpetuated by these guys.

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