Anatomy of the Soul: Fear & Anxiety
There’s a children’s game I played only a few times—I was bad at it—called OPERATION!. It was battery-operated, but simple enough to play. The board was a cartoon outline of a person with a bright red clown nose and little spaces all over the body, which were labeled with colloquial ailments and held little plastic shapes: “water on the knee” was a bucket, “butterflies in stomach” was a butterfly, “broken heart” was, of course, a heart split down the middle. The tiny spaces that held the shapes were edged in metal, and the game included metal-tipped tweezers attached by a wire. When it was your turn, you’d reach the tweezers into the little spaces, trying to pull out the offending part without touching the edge of the space with the tweezers. If you succeeded, you received a doctor’s fee. If you failed, as I mostly did, the contact of tweezer to edge resulted in a loud, punishing buzz, and then, if you were me, you jumped so hard you threw the little plastic piece and all the cousins had to stop the game and find it. I’ve been speaking in the past tense but I think OPERATION! still exists, actually, but I prefer not to know, because even a glimpse of that cartoon drawing of the patient elicits an automatic fear response in me. Getting kinda sweaty-palmed just thinking about it.
Now I haven’t played that game in, conservatively, twenty years. But that feeling, trying to perform a delicate task carefully enough that I wouldn’t be punished, well, it doesn’t fade very quickly. Especially if the shape of that feeling repeats itself in your life. Fear is a very basic and very powerful emotion. Its use, its potential helpfulness, is easy to see: it can alert us to danger and so keep us safe. But its usefulness and its power make it a backhoe when it comes to forming our inner landscapes: The shapes it leaves there are big and more or less permanent.
Many of us know, I imagine, how fear can shape us. It can happen all at once: something truly catastrophic happens, a single trauma, brief or extended, that divides life into “before,” when things were good, and “after,” when we are afraid. It can happen in very specific ways: something hurt us, a place, a person, an attempt, and most of our life is fine but that thing, that idea, must be fenced off forever. It can happen gradually, over time: years spent in a home or a family that was not safe, where fear was such a normal part of living that it did not bear remarking upon and the landscape in us it created is just the landscape. Oh, it is powerful.
I am a person for whom fear is a first-order response: a new email, my name called from another room, news of someone’s illness, a change in routine, an opportunity, a global pandemic, any of these will fill me first with dread, after which and with more information I may shift over into whatever the actually appropriate reaction is. I am rarely in danger, and I know it. But I am carrying a landscape built into this shape, and landscapes are not rebuilt overnight. And so to find fear in the Bible, to read of people experiencing and reacting out of fear, being comforted in their fear, being afraid before they feel something else, is fortifying to me in a way that is difficult to put into words. There is a profound relief in having your—my—fear comprehended, utterly contextualized, already accounted for.
Psalm 27 begins with a familiar verse, soaring in its total confidence: The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid? The Psalmist proclaims that though disaster should befall, war and enemies on all sides, their heart will not fear; they are sure that God will lift them up to a place from which they can survey their enemies in perfect safety. I love to read these verses; I love to imagine this kind of supreme confidence. And I love, above all, that it does not last: just past the middle of the psalm, the tone shifts from triumphant-in-advance to, if anything, afraid.
The trouble with fear is that it is a habit, and also sometimes it tells us something true. Like a wash, sometimes it’s a river rushing, dangerous, and sometimes it’s the dry, still track of a river that once was, with grass growing at the bottom. There are ways to sift out fear that is warranted and reasonable and fear that is habitual, and that exercise can be fruitful; but the tracks it leaves, the washes in us, the backhoe’d gulleys and rock piles, those we are left with. It is natural, so natural, to live as though we are always playing OPERATION, as though if we control perfectly the things we do and say, walk carefully and avoid bumps, we will avoid the buzzer and collect the fee, avoid punishment and claim a reward. Fear whispers to us that if we’re careful, the bad thing won’t come. But that isn’t true. And the Bible knows it.
The Psalmist imagines disaster, enemies and war, because enemies and war are real, and no amount of care and control can keep them from arising. We are living through a disaster, as though our own existing collections of trauma and misfortune weren’t sufficient. And when enemies do surround us, when false witnesses rise against us breathing out violence, as the Psalmist describes—whether those enemies are people or circumstances outside of us or the product of our own hamster wheel minds spinning and squeaking—the landscape inside of us will determine the outline of our response, as it does for the Psalmist. And the Psalmist goes first to God: Do not hide your face from me! they cry. Do not turn your servant away in anger, you who have been my help. Do not cast me off, do not forsake me, O God of my salvation! Don’t leave me. Don’t leave me. The one thing they have asked for is to draw near to God, adore, meditate upon the Lord. Don’t leave me now, they beg. Stay close.
It may seem at first that this means the confidence of the first few verses was all show, but I don’t think that’s the case. The Psalmist declares that what they desire more than anything is nearness to God; in fear they cry out not for physical safety, not for victory in battle, but for God’s presence, which is for them more than victory. When push comes to shove, we reach for what is most precious and hold it close, and the Psalmist reaches for the divine presence—which is the only thing more powerful than fear. This is a glimpse of the way God will take what we bring to her and will work, with the gentle and trustworthy hands of a master gardener, to reshape it, reorient the slopes and flat places in us away from fear and towards God, the truest and most trustworthy thing. Towards, as one of the wise voices in the wise council of Midweek Manna put it, “the hope that God is a reality,” as real as, realer than, any of the real things that can and will befall us.
To be Christian is, above all things, to let Christ shape your life. We may haggle a bit over the agency, whether we permit Christ to shape us or whether the Holy Spirit’s action is what shapes us such that we can even consider what a Christ-shaped life might be, but nevertheless: The landscapes of us, our inner shapes and the ways they are worked out in our living, are precisely the things we surrender to Jesus when we follow him, which we will take and make anew. Fear and its effects are not illusions; they simply are not our Lord and our God. Christ is.
Such a life is not free altogether from fear but owes fear nothing, does not take from fear its direction. Such a life trusts, hopes, waits eagerly for the reality of God, takes courage not in the thought of victory in war or power over others or safety from all trouble but in living, moving, being in God. Such a life believes that it will see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living. Such a life, lived as one with the whole of the Body of Christ, is ready to be part of that goodness. Another wise voice said this goodness can be seen in what is easy to miss: generosity, help, neighborliness, human connection, all right there to be seen if we look, to join in as the hands and feet of Christ.
There is a prayer in the old prayer-book of the Church of England that I love, that I have saved for my reference, and I want to share with you to close. It goes like this:
O MOST loving Father, who willest us to give thanks for all things, to dread nothing but the loss of thee, and to cast all our care on thee, who carest for us; Preserve us from faithless fears and worldly anxieties, and grant that no clouds of this mortal life may hide from us the light of that love which is immortal, and which thou hast manifested unto us in thy Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.