My New Year’s Resolution this year was to try and live out the commandment that appears so often in the Bible: “Be Not Afraid.” Personal circumstances meant that I had much need of this encouragement and I bounced into the New Year assuming that since I had decided not to be afraid, it would be easy.
How wrong I was.
Not only did circumstances in my personal life require courage, but my New Year’s Resolution was also severely tested by the recent spate of terror attacks in the UK. Each one left my country and my heart grieving. The outpouring of support, solidarity and stoicism on the streets and on social media was heartening. The overwhelming acts of kindness and bravery in the face of such evil was beautiful. Love, indeed, triumphs. But. But. For every thought that I had that I was still going to go into London, still use the Underground, still continue with my daily life, there was the little niggling thought that lay beneath. I was afraid. I was really, really afraid.
In reflecting deeply on this, I have realized that I have sometimes lived my faith like an atheist. I truly believe and hold dear everything that the Catholic Church teaches. But when it comes to my fears, especially when they are very deeply rooted, I have almost no faith that “all will be well.” How can it be, when bad things continually happen? Isn’t it just naive to hope that you will somehow escape the bad stuff?! How can praying somehow save us from inevitable suffering?
In the last six months of trying to prayerfully put into practice my New Year’s Resolution, I’ve been taught a lot. Here, I’d like to share the main points of how I’ve learned to face extreme fear and come out the other side in one piece.
1. Discover The Roots of Extreme Fear
In my efforts to try and fix my fears, I delved deep to try and find where they began. I realized that my extreme fears in the face of terrorism and physical injury were two-fold. The first was the fear that if something awful happened to me or a loved one, I wouldn’t be able to cope. The second root of my fear is fear of death itself.
The fear of not coping was very real. How would life go on if I lost a loved one? How would life continue if I had witnessed something horrendous? How could I expect any comfort in a life destroyed by violence when I was helpless to support the tragically regular occurrences of people whose lives were destroyed in the very ways I feared? But at least I had identified the roots of my fears, and that was a start.
2. Fear of Not Coping: You Cannot Live By “What-Ifs”
I realized that you cannot live by “what-ifs”: what if this bad thing happens, what if I can’t cope, what if it’s awful and horrendous? “What-ifs” may seem a logical, probable, sensible and even precautionary thing to think about. But the bottom line is, “what-ifs” are not reality. They are not even things that are going to happen. They are merely things that might happen. We do not deal in “mights.” We deal in reality! By all means, be prudent and careful and prepare for troubled times, but do not give your fears any more head-space than that. Christ can only meet us in reality, not in fantasy. When you deal in “what-ifs,” you also can’t foresee what graces will be given to you if and when you meet with tragedy. We are not very good at predicting miracles. Our human minds cannot contemplate or understand that God can bring something very good out of something very evil. We find that thought scandalous, shocking, disrespectful. It’s not. What I know now is that God is not stupid. He is not limited by what others do. He is infinitely creative and responsive, and – no matter how wicked the trauma – He will always know how to bring something real and beautiful out of it. We just need to learn to trust that.
3. Fear of Death: Praying Night Prayer and How To Remember What We Are Really Here For
My second root of fear was a fear of death. The fear of the unknown, of my life being taken too soon, of pain, of what happens after death. How could I even begin to chip away at the enormity of those fears? But God began to show me that my life was not my own. At first, that seemed dreadfully unfair. How dare He take away my autonomy? How could He just use me? But God showed me that when He was in control of my life, I was at peace, no matter what happened. I began to pray Night Prayer faithfully, every night. I drew enormous comfort from the gentle way it winds down our day, and points us to the safety of our sleep, and better still, the hope of Heaven at the end of our life.
I had not thought before the the end of my life could be looked forward to with anticipation and joy. Had I not been believing in God’s goodness and mercy? Had I not believed that God was preparing a place for me? Life is full of wonderful things, but we are not just here to enjoy them. We are here to know God, to discover Him, to serve Him and to praise Him. We are here to know Him. And so, no matter what happens, we can remember that He has our lives in His hands, and He knows when the end of that life will be. When you pray Night Prayer regularly, you start to see the movement of a Father in the life of the world. The Father who gently rebukes, but offers mercy, the Father who loves us and is waiting for us to come home. When we start to understand Heaven more, we can start to long for it, and place our trust in God’s plan for our lives.
4. Where Our Treasure is, There Also is Our Trust
Fear shows us where our treasure is. What is the priority of our life? What drives us? Where is our passion? What are we most afraid to lose? Fear clearly pinpoints these factors in our lives in a good and bad way. In loving anyone, we become vulnerable, because we cannot control whether or not we lose them. So what kind of trust do we have in God? Do we trust with a primeval trust? A trust that goes beyond the very people we love the most, placing ourselves instead into the hands of God? When He is our treasure, we know we can stand firm, not matter what. Wherever you are when you face extreme fear, whether on public transport, facing someone you are afraid of, or hearing bad news on the radio, you can pray this simple prayer: “Jesus, I trust in You.” It places control of the situation right back into God’s hands, which, let’s face it, are a far better place to be than in our own. It reminds us of our priority in life, and Who we should really be seeking. It does Christ the honor of knowing that you – despite your very real, human fears – are trying to live beyond yourself and seek Him before your own life. He understands that, and He will always honor your trust, never being outdone in generosity.
5. When You Are Weak, You Are Strong.
I thought that becoming brave and more courageous was about me becoming tougher, harder, stronger, faster, quicker. Maybe yes, in a physical fight. But this is not a physical fight. Fears in response to a terrorist attack will not go away if I work out more or lift weights. For a while, my ego got in the way in my hunt for courage. In my attempt to force my heart to feel stronger, I became bitter, hard-hearted. God showed me that I would not gain anything by forcing strength to happen myself. In fact, He wanted to work in me, and that would be the only way I would overcome my extreme fears. The weaker I was, the more God could work in me. In God, then, I found my strength. God can’t fight for us if we’re busy thrashing around ourselves. “I will do the fighting for you, you need only stand still”.
6. Life is Good, But Not in the Way This Phrase Often Gets Used.
The phrase “life is good!” has a beach vacation, easy-going kind of vibe to it, but I actually discovered the truth of it during the most painful of circumstances. Even though I was suffering very badly, I found so much joy in my situation. The suffering itself showed me that life really was intrinsically very good, simply by virtue of being life, and being a gift from God. Not matter how deep the depth of pain, nothing could dent the truth of this. I think it is important to remember this in the face of great fear. We may fear what might be, but we can always trust that nothing can destroy how true and good life is, not even death.
“For I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:38-39)
7. Prayer, Too Simple a Response?
When we feel fear, we forget that we can do something about it. Fear grows, obstructing everything rational in our lives. I’d like to quote from this excellent article by Carrie Gress. She writes: “The human response to any crisis is often to try to think of something huge, dynamic, and sweeping to fix a given problem. These sorts of solutions are more often than not simply elusive, so when we can’t find them or can’t make them work as we wish, despair and hopelessness set in.
“But Our Lady, who knows us through and through, is well aware of this weakness in human nature; she knows we want to reach for the stars, but when we can’t, we just reach for the remote—or some other mind-numbing reality. But she has given us a simple but powerful weapon in the Rosary. Instead of reaching for the stars, we just have to reach for some small stones – just like David did in the battle against Goliath.”
Feeling fear? Pray. It is never too simple a response, especially in situations beyond our control.
8. Finally, Perfect Love Drives Out Fear
I’m still working on this one, but I strongly believe that “perfect love drives out fear” is a radical answer to extreme fear. Fear is linked to a lack of control. Very often, we cannot control the things that make us afraid. We cannot control the terrorist, we cannot control the lone wolf attacker, we cannot control the bully in our personal lives, the argumentative co-worker. But we can control our response to them. It is very important that we do what is prudent to stay safe from them if we need to, but at the same time, acknowledging our lack of control is very healing. It allows us to do as Christ commands us: to love our enemies. Perfect love for them is not weak, wishy-washy or naive. It is a recognition of God’s own love for us, an acknowledgement that all life is created equal, and that God has everything under control, despite evil’s best efforts. Finally, perfect love is the expectant hope that God’s mercy will break into the perpetrator’s lives and bring them to conversion. It is the one thing that sets us free, to live in freedom without fear.