Sunday, January 24, 2010

Fear and Faith

Thoughts on Fear and Faith

I have known fear in many of its forms. When I was a very small child I had a recurring nightmare of being pursued across mountain ridges by a huge bear. I never did get caught but I woke up terrified night after night. I usually found comfort in the flyleaf of one of my children’s books that was illustrated with a row of beautiful angels. I had picked out one of them as my own special friend and guardian. Maybe she was watching over me in 1993 when a wildfire devoured my California home. For some inexplicable reason, the terror I experienced seeing the wind-driven flames approach across the canyon morphed into a cool-headed response that saved my life, though with nothing but the clothes I was wearing and the family pets.

Two of my close friends would not heed my warnings and tried to race against time in an effort to save some of their earthly goods. They did not fare so well. Both were caught in the fast moving flames and were horribly burned. I had to help evacuate them in a military helicopter, only to watch one of them die a day later and the other suffer through an agonizing years-long recovery that was worse than death many times over. I experienced a whole new kind of fear and pain when, out of despair at his disfigurement and the unending and unendurable agony of his treatments, my surviving friend, to whose hospital bedside I had devoted six full months of my life, twice tried to commit suicide.

These experiences may pale in comparison to what has recently transpired in Haiti, and, in fact, to what is happening to millions of people around the world every day. Yet nothing I have experienced in my life was more difficult for me than the persistent and gnawing fear of impending foreclosure and financial ruin that followed on the heels of that 1993 wildfire.

I was lucky to survive the fire and its catastrophic aftermath, but even luckier that my mind and my heart escaped untainted by those terrible experiences. I have known many people for whom fear is a constant and ongoing impediment to their happiness. Some of them, at times of stress, actually become stupid, immobilized by their fear and anxiety like a deer caught in the headlights. Others have suffered the destruction of every one of their loving relationships because they could not stem the toxic influences of fear, doubt, and suspicion. Still others even now live boring, unfulfilled, and unhappy lives because they have been too afraid to take the calculated risks that accompany nearly every opportunity in life.

I was lucky, because in that time of my darkest hour I found an antidote to the destructive power of fear: a reasoned faith that, for me, even today makes order from the chaos of life’s ups and downs. My faith is certainly not of the religious or dogmatic kind. In fact, it might just be an invented mythology or a psychological trick. But it has worked for me. In the midst of that terrible time, I made a conscious decision to believe that everything happens for a purpose, and that everything happening to me was specifically and intentionally designed to facilitate the advancement of my soul, the strengthening of my character, and the sharpening of the tools with which I felt I was meant to do good works in the world. This may all sound very narcissistically high-minded, but for me it was a matter of survival. Without that powerful belief in my own life’s purpose I would almost certainly have succumbed to fear, despair, and depression.

Very rarely now does a day go by without some inkling of fear triggering those memories of harder times, reminding me that I’ve actually got it pretty easy. So I say that I am lucky, because for me, fear has been a pathway to faith that everything, no matter how difficult, will always work out for the best. And, in my experience, it has—and does.

And for that I am grateful.

--Peter Alexander (1/21/10)