Monday, September 21, 2009

Fear and Trembling

As someone who has battled anxiety my whole life, I've often wondered what Evagrius was thinking when he failed to put "fear" at the top of his sin list--the famous "eight evil thoughts" of the Praktikos that eventually morphed into the "seven deadly sins" of Medieval times. Fear in all its forms, from mild anxiety to abject terror, can be paralyzing. Love for others is displaced by the overriding need to preserve the self at all costs. As Christians, we are pretty well worthless when we are cringing in fear. Aren't we?

Even after writing a book on the virtues (By Way of Grace) and spending a lot of time on the cardinal virtue of fortitude, including Aquinas's insistence that true courage can only be displayed by those who are sincerely afraid, I remained privately ambivalent. It seemed to me that every fearful response to life (and for me, these happen far too frequently) is simply more evidence of incorrigible self-centeredness--never mind if that response is eventually overcome through tooth-grinding will power. When things get remotely scary, my first thought is for myself and my short list of beloveds. . . never mind Christ's many assurances in the Gospels that God is aware of every hair upon our heads, and that his providence is infinite and unassailable.

No surprise, then, that the perilous descent from Half Dome, shown in the photograph above, was the very stuff of nightmares for me. When my siblings decided to make the climb during our annual family backpack, I stayed noncommital--but inside, knew I'd never do it. How foolish, I told myself, to risk death just to say we'd met some silly challenge. We have families, careers, obligations. Half Dome is for marathoners, I told myself--or at the very least, physically fit twenty-somethings. I'm a grandmother, for heaven's sake.

Yet much to my surprise, I found myself rolling out of the tent at 5:30 a.m. on Half Dome day. How could I let my own siblings go off on this lunatic quest without me? I'm the oldest, I kept telling myself. I owe it to Mom to ride herd on this silly group.

In the end, with some moments of serious trepidation along the way, I made it to the top, and the high was almost enough to offset the awful view of the descent. Almost, but not quite. As I stood trembling at the top of the cables, however, it came to me, the reason Evagrius must have left "fear" off his list of evil thoughts: the instinct toward self-preservation is not a sin but a perfectly rational response to danger; it is spiritually healthy. We were made in the image of a loving creator God, who put us here for a purpose. We're not meant to throw away our lives, or to waste them in foolhardy pursuits. In this light, casual disregard for health and safety may be a bigger sin than automatic fearfulness in the face of danger.

On the other hand, we cannot cling to life at the expense of other people. We cannot hoard our days in anxious miserliness, or habor the illusion that somehow, if we are only careful enough, we can escape pain, suffering, physical death. As fragile human beings, these are our legacy. In this sense, we are doomed to someday experience that which we most fear.

What came to me at the top of the cables was this: all of human existence, if only we can take it in, is fraught with peril. Yet we are meant to walk in joy and hope. How do we reconcile these two realities? I don't know that I can put it into words. But as I put my hands on the steel chords and my boots against the granite, I felt it: a surge of pure happiness in the midst of my quakings, and the calm assurance of being loved and cared for and most of all, preserved, despite the ever-present danger.


Chris and Debi Lorenc said...


I took my own sigh of relief when you made your turn towards "...the instinct toward self-preservation is not a sin but a perfectly rational response to danger; it is spiritually healthy."

I know how differently I can hear "be not afraid." I'm never sure how differently it is meant.


Captain and Crew said...

After reading the first half of the New Testament, I realize that I fear dissapointing the Lord, the Almighty, more than I fear dissapointing any man or woman on this Earth.

Anxiety, depression, fear are all normal human responses to grief, sin, and the injustices of this world. My choice is to be other-worldly in my spirit. To fear the Lord. It doesn't take away the grief, but He gives me a way through it. I cling to Him. And He looks at these wrongs and says, "Yes, I died for this too. It is covered."