[This post is the seventh in a series called “Humans Anonymous” on the spirituality of twelve-step recovery and the insights it offers for anyone wanting to live a spiritually-centered life. The first installment can be found here; links to successive articles can be found at the end of each post.]
Having made an inventory of one’s resentments, and considered some ways in which one can find relief from them, one might think that the moral inventory process is complete. Anger and resentment, however, are not the only ways in which our bondage to self surfaces. There is another significant category, one that we tend to examine (let alone discuss with others) even less often than resentment, and yet it often underlies our resentments and has enormous potential both to harm our relationships with God and others and to rob us of the peace and joy God desires for us. It is what I sometimes like to call “the other F-word”, namely, fear.
Like anger, fear is a natural human emotion, and one that we would be in real trouble without. Fear of pain, after all, is what prevents us from putting our hand on a hot stove. There is a marked difference, though, between reasonable fear of negative consequences (what we might call prudence) and the kind of overwhelming fear that leads us to lie, cheat, steal, hoard, or lash out at others. Fear, like anger, can lead us to into behaviors that harm ourselves and those around us. Worst of all, fear can seriously hamper our ability to trust, love and serve God.
Looking back over our resentments, we can see how many were based in fear. Fear that we wouldn’t get what we wanted. Fear that we would lose something we have. Fear of things both rational and irrational, fear for others and (far more often) fear centered on self. Fear of what others will think of us, fear of being alone, or fear that our needs won’t be met. Fear that we won’t get what we deserve, or fear that we will. How often do our self-centered fears drive us to do things that harm others? How often do our fears keep us from sharing what we have? As Bill W. writes in Alcoholics Anonymous, “[Fear] was an evil and corroding thread; the fabric of our existence was shot through with it…sometimes we think fear ought to be classed with stealing. It seems to cause more trouble.”
To see how dangerous fear can be, one need look no further than the Gospels of the New Testament. Fear led Herod the Great to slaughter the infant boys of Bethlehem (Matt. 2:3, 16). Fear of losing her place as queen led Herodias to connive for the head of John the Baptist, and fear of looking bad in front of his friends led her husband (another Herod) to give it to her (Mark 6:17-29). Fear led the Gerasenes to beg Jesus to leave their neighborhood (Mark 5:14-17). Simon Peter was able to walk on water until his fear got the better of him (Matt. 14:23-33). Fear of losing their own prestige fueled the hatred of Jesus’ opponents, and fear led Pontius Pilate to have Jesus crucified even though he knew there was no case against him (John 19:1-16). It is not mere coincidence that Jesus’ most often repeated guidance to his disciples and others is “do not be afraid” or “do not fear”.
So how, then, do we come to grips with fear? Again, experience shows that pen and paper have remarkable power. We write down our fears, starting with the ones identified on our resentment inventory. Then we list the other fears, those that plague us even though they are not connected to any specific resentment. Often, people taking this step find that the toughest part is getting started; once we begin to put our fears on paper, the list-making goes very quickly. If you’re having trouble getting started, the following list might be helpful:
Fear of God Fear of Dying Fear of Insanity Fear of Insecurity Fear of Rejection Fear of Loneliness Fear of Disease Fear of Alcohol Fear of Drugs Fear of Relapse Fear of Sex Fear of Sin Fear of Self-Expression Fear of Authority Fear of Heights Fear of Unemployment Fear of Employment Fear of Parents Fear of Losing a Spouse Fear of Losing a Child Fear of Insects Fear of Police Fear of Jail Fear of Doctors/Dentists Fear of Creditors Fear of Being Found Out Fear of Gays or Lesbian People Fear of Failure Fear of Success Fear of Responsibility Fear of Physical Pain Fear of Fear Fear of Drowning Fear of Men Fear of Women Fear of Being Alone Fear of People Fear of Crying Fear of Poverty Fear of People of Other Races Fear of the Unknown Fear of Abandonment Fear of Intimacy Fear of Disapproval Fear of Confrontation Fear of Sobriety Fear of Hospitals Fear of Responsibility Fear of Feelings Fear of Getting Old Fear of Hurting Others Fear of Violence Fear of Being Alive Fear of Government Fear of Gangs Fear of Gossip Fear of Wealthy People Fear of Guns Fear of Animals Fear of Change
It might be tempting to simply go through the list above and circle those that apply to you. I would encourage you, though, to write your own list, which may of course include some of the things listed above and will likely include others not on this list. There is something about the process of writing them out, and then being able to see our fears in black and white, written in our own handwriting, that enables us to take ownership of our fears (as opposed to letting them own us).
Reviewing our fears, we ask a series of questions:
- Why do we have each one? Some of them may be there for good reason; a person who experienced abandonment as a child can hardly be blamed for fearing abandonment or rejection as an adult. The roots of some may be obvious, and the roots of others obscure. Still, we try to identify their sources where we can.
- How have they negatively impacted us? Have they caused us to do things (or prevented us from doing things) that we later regretted? Have our fears harmed our relationships with those around us? Have they robbed us of peace of mind?
- How valid are they? What is the likelihood that the things we fear will come to pass? If those things do come to pass, what is the realistic worst-case scenario for what could happen? Often at this point we realize we have been scaring ourselves to death for little or no good reason.
Finally, we return to the lesson of Step 3 and turn these fears over to the care of God as we understand God, using these or similar words:
God, I entrust my fears to you and to your perfect love which casts out fear. Deliver me from the burden of my fears, that being relieved of them, I might better love and serve you and those around me. When I am afraid, grant me the wisdom to seek your will and the courage to carry it out. Amen
As with resentment, fears of long standing do not disappear overnight. However, naming them, reflecting on them and turning them over to God (as often and for as long as it takes) can help greatly to break their power over us and lead us into spiritual freedom, the freedom that is at the foundation of authentic loving relationship with God and with those around us.
Once we’ve listed our fears, we turn to any remaining loose ends in our lives. For more on this, click here.