Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about fear. Not the irrational fears that stem from any one of many neuroses, but the debilitating fears that seem to creep into your very bones and take control of every thought and every action you once believed you had the choice to make.
When I was a little girl, I didn’t know about that latter category of fear. The types of things I thought were frightening – an accidental viewing of Legends of the Fall or a recurring nightmare featuring a locked room, snakes, my mom, and a handful of keys – these types of things were forgotten after the sanctuary of a hug or the gratitude that comes immediately after you wake-up, clammy and covered in sweat, but safe. No, that latter category of fear didn’t enter into my life until much later. I succeeded in Peter Pan-ing my way through life until the day those planes hit the towers. That is when I first understood that someone I’d never heard of or seen, someone that didn’t know anything about me, hated me on principle and actively wished for bad things to happen to me and mine. This reality became even more clear in March 2003 when my beloved country went to war and it dawned on me that people I knew intimately, that I loved, could die. And your blood runs cold and there is no sanctuary and you are not safe. We don’t understand what it means to be a grown up until we learn this type of fear – the type of fear that encompasses hatred and violence and indifference. It is a void that it seems no light can fill. And what a cruel welcome to the world that is.
So then you are at a loss. How do you combat the sort of despair that accompanies the trappings of adulthood? (This is a genuine question that I could never verbalize.) There is no easy answer to this question. Life is hard and it is most definitely scary. The way I feel at this moment, there actually may not be any answer to that question, the thought of which literally just sent me into a panic. When I started writing this, I had hoped I would follow my standard format (which is very much like an episode of Full House), but I’m not quite sure I can get to the place where my hope for the future and faith in humanity serve as stalwart answers to every question. I’m not sure I can get to the place where those core beliefs seem anything but futile. I suppose what I’ll do instead is talk about why that is.
I believe children are magical creatures (see here, or here). This is not a new topic for me. Recently, I watched a sermon given by Robin Meyers called ‘The Inconvenient Wisdom of Children’. In typical Robin fashion, he was addressing the youth in the congregation while really addressing us all. Towards the end of his homily, as he was speaking about communion and sacraments, he said this (please note: I did not get permission to use this, it is not a perfect transcription, and emphasis is my own):
Something that is in the world of our experience but carries us into the world of the sacred, the holy, the everlasting. We all have to eat of course, to live, but we also have to love and be loved in order for life to be worth living. And sometimes, for some reason, I think you guys get this better than your parents do. Let’s talk about your parents for a moment. Right in front of them. They’re busy. They have a lot to worry about. They have careers. They have to make money. They have to try to save enough for you to go to college. But just remember, when it comes to what really matters, Jesus took a child and said, ‘This is what it is all about.’ See, no advanced degrees, no status, no desire to exercise authority. But in the pecking order of the world the last of these, as you must become the least of these he said to his disciples, the servants of all. Okay, well, after church, you may need to explain all of this to your parents. Tell them why you have always been front and center in the kingdom. Be patient. They may not get it at first. It’s been a long time since they were kids. They may have forgotten how to imagine and how to be amazed. But you will be able to show them the way because they love you and so did Jesus.
Regardless of any spiritual or religious beliefs you may or may not have, it must be acknowledged that the core sentiments in these remarks are true. It pains me that today, children are learning to understand the meaning of that omnipresent fear before their childhoods are over. They don’t get those carefree days I cherish the memory of so dearly because it is edged out by an adult’s understanding of the world too soon. It seems we have become a society that has, in the course of winning, lost sight of our purpose. We have done this without even realizing it. We have gone so far down the rabbit hole that instead of shielding our children from the fears and harsh truths of the world, we attempt to teach them to cope with it. In turn they are forced to sacrifice those memories of carelessness and joie de vivre that sustain us in our darkest days before they have even been acquired.
And so, how will they explain the things to us? The things that offer hope for the future and a light in the darkness?
From this low point, things do not get much better. You see, it doesn’t take much more than a scroll through a Facebook or Twitter feed to realize that as a society we are failing to teach our children and young people how to cope with the outpourings of fear (i.e. tragedy and violence and hatred). We have created a world that steals their innocence, a crisis magnified by the fact that we provide them with no understanding of how to combat that loss. In the wake of any national event, remotely contentious or not, I am easily horrified by the things we shamelessly say to one another. We do not come to the table willing to talk with one another. We do not come to the table at all. Instead, we post what we think to be innocuous quips and memes that justify our opinions and perspectives. They bolster our sense of indignant righteousness. We score cheap points that make us feel better but do not actually address the issue at hand. Our selfish emotions overrule history and fact. We forget that we are brothers and sisters. Without thought, we drive the wedge even deeper. That is how we are teaching our children to cope.
This summer, I had the privilege of hearing John Lewis, a personal hero of mine, speak at the National Book Festival. He was talking about a book he had written about his life, and when he spoke about the time he and other members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee spent studying together, I was brought to tears. Before they took action, they came together and studied. For a year, they met for the sole purpose of learning. They armed themselves with knowledge and truths, and when the fear that leads to chaos and violence and hatred would have gripped any normal human being like a vice, they held fast. They knew their course of action in those moments, for they had taught themselves to cope. During his talk, he said:
And we would be sitting-in, or standing-in at a theater. Or going on a freedom ride. And we would be beaten. We would be jailed. But we didn’t strike back, because many of us grew to accept non-violence as a way of living, as a way of life. It is better to love than to hate. We wanted to build a beloved community. We wanted to be reconciled.
They had the will to come together, to learn to accept non-violence as the path forward. As their coping mechanism against the harsh realities of adulthood. They wanted to be reconciled more than they wanted to be right. John Lewis is old, as are his compatriots. It is unfortunate that we hear less from them than media pundits and personalities more invested in special interests than the national interest.
That is where I am today. Despite it all, I am grateful for the good people in my life who remind me of why I want to come to the table. During this season of advent, I ask that you do the same. Perhaps in the New Year we can study together.