Saturday, January 18, 2014

On Fear

~~  "Fear is the beginning of despair even as hope is the beginning of daring."  --Thomas Aquinas  ~~

What are you afraid of?  I mean really, really afraid of...?

We all have something-- many of us have several somethings-- that we are terrified of.  Fear is present in all living, sentient creatures; but it's important to realize that it is highly subjective and can differ greatly from creature to creature.  The list of phobias, for example, reads from here to the moon-- and to some of us, it is almost funny to consider what others are deathly afraid of (e.g., spectrophobia: the fear of looking at one's own reflection in a mirror).  Funny to us "normal" folk, but a quite serious matter for someone suffering from the phobia.

The fact is, sometimes it is quite rational and downright smart to be afraid; e.g., when facing a clear and present danger.  By the way, this is a good place to sneer at the inane, but for some reason famous, quote by FDR on us having nothing to fear but fear itself.  Damn, that is a dumb statement.  Anyway, sometimes it is not rational or smart to be afraid; e.g., when in the throes of a phobia.  From this, we can see that fear and our other passions, like all tools, can be used wisely or foolishly.  When allowed free reign, fear is like an insane dictator leading us down the path to panic and ruin.

 ~~  "Fear is a good motivator, but it is a lousy leader."  --kmg  ~~

There are, of course, certain things that are almost universally feared-- with death perhaps being chief among them.  Who among us has not, at least several times, had a thought of dying and felt terrified  by it-- perhaps even to the point of immediately trying to think of something else?  I can remember very clearly being a small child and coming to the realization that life ends.  It was such a shock to me that I was traumatized by it for a long time.  It seemed, and still does seem, illogical to me.  "Why must we die" was the question I kept/keep asking.  Most people have learned to manage the knowledge of impending doom and can live happy and productive lives in spite of it.  Many people have a literal phobia about death.  I know that this is very common, and I am certain that it is at the same time very unnatural.  I'll try to explain what I mean by that via a short detour into philosophy and logic.

Let's start by discussing who and what we are.  Saying what a thing (or person) is and saying that a thing (or person) is are two very different statements.  Every actual "being" in the universe must have two principles in order to actually "be:" these are essence and existence.  Essence is the "what" of a thing (or person).  Existence is the actualization of the essence.  A thing (or person) can have an essence without actually existing.  Examples used by some would be a unicorn or a dragon-- they both have an essence; we know what they are... but they do not have actual existence, or being.

According to Aristotle's hylomorphic theory, form and matter together constitute a material thing (form actualizes matter much as existence actualizes essence). Matter and form, in other words, are not beings but principles of a being.  I would encourage reading in depth Thomas Aquinas' take on souls and matter and form-- especially "Questions on the Soul" (bring a lunch).  To briefly summarize: the human soul is the form of the body; i.e., the soul actualizes the body.  The body of a human being is a natural whole because it has one form-- far different from a simple collection or assembling of parts, as in a building or a car.  All of the parts of a human body receive their existence and nature from the soul, which is the essential form-- and which had to come first.  We can see that this priority of the form (soul) is true by watching what happens when the soul leaves the body: the body ceases to function and begins to corrupt.

Now, back to the question of fear of death.  Aristotle said that fear arises from the representation of some future corruptive or painful evil.  That sounds a lot like something that can happen to our physical self, not to our true form (soul).  Fear concerns itself with avoiding something perceived by the mind to be bad.  If the soul is eternal (here is Thomas' take on that), then it will not die or corrupt.  In other words, death is not a part of our true form.  It is known to us only through the corruptible world.  Remember that we were originally created to be immortal: body and soul.  So... if our soul will not die, then why do we fear death?

~~  “To fear death, my friends, is only to think ourselves wise, without being wise: for it is to think that we know what we do not know. For anything that men can tell, death may be the greatest good that can happen to them: but they fear it as if they knew quite well that it was the greatest of evils. And what is this but that shameful ignorance of thinking that we know what we do not know?”  --Socrates  ~~

One simple answer is that we allow our true selves to become much too beholden to our corruptible bodies.  Our eternal self is, I think, often shoved to the back of the bus by our worldly and temporary body.  This comfort in worldly and transitory things leads us to obsess about losing them... and so we neurotically contemplate and dread our demise-- even as we pay lip service to the notion that our souls are immortal.  Such a quandary... an illogical and utterly human quandary.

~~  "How strange this fear of death is! We are never frightened at a sunset."  --George MacDonald  ~~

Animals and even insects are also afraid of death; but their fear is one dimensional and really quite practical.  They, like the human animal, are made to survive and anything antithetical to survival is feared.  Also like us, they have essence and existence, matter and form, and they mean to keep both.  Unlike us, though, they do not have irrational phobias and despair.  Think of it: a being capable of clear and rational thought, far beyond mere instinct, is also capable of blurry and irrational fear.

Come to think of it, there is another thing that we are capable of, and it is the very antidote for blurry and irrational fear (and all other kinds of fear, as well).  We are capable of utilizing the virtues to get us through our struggles.  We can, with prayer and practice, become adept at using faith, hope, love, prudence, fortitude, justice, temperance, and so many more.

~~  "Do not ask for fears to be removed; ask for courage equal to the fears."  --Jack Hyles  ~~

It is intuitive that Hope is a surefire cure for a nagging sense of some future evil.  Fortitude is what makes us go on, even in the face of things that we should be afraid of.  Prudence keeps us out of situations that will make us afraid.  Justice shows us right from wrong, and thereby ensures we will fight against fear in trying to do what is good and right.  Temperance ensures that we keep worldly pleasures at the level they were intended for, and that we do not wallow in them.  Love, of course, demands that we rise above our fears by looking into the eyes of God and realizing what truly matters; and in so doing, we see fear shrink and shrivel (the apostle, John, reminds us that there is no fear in love, and that perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with evil and punishment).

Of them all, though, Faith seems to be the clear and best response to fear.  The bible is chock-full of verses on trusting in God and laying aside fear (here are ten really good ones).  Have you noticed that when angels appear to people, the first thing they usually say is "don't be afraid?"  It is almost as if humans have historically defaulted to fear.  Anyway, people through the ages have realized that faith is the one thing that works against all of those unseen problems that we incessantly worry about.  Faith, when practiced with full zeal, kills fear.

~~  "A perfect faith would lift us absolutely above fear."  --George MacDonald  ~~

~~  "Fear is faithlessness."  --George MacDonald  ~~

~~  "Fear imprisons, faith liberates; fear paralyzes, faith empowers; fear disheartens, faith encourages; fear sickens, faith heals; fear makes useless, faith makes serviceable."  --Harry Emerson Fosdick  ~~

I have a working theory that fear is similar to something like nuclear energy.  It can be useful when in proper use and context; and it can be an absolute life-crushing force when allowed to run away unchained.  It is a necessary passion within our essence, but we must constantly work to master it.  For some, denial and "whistling past the graveyard" may seem to work.  For me, though, I find that the closer I make myself to God and His word, the more my fears diminish.  Really.

~~  "If the Lord be with us, we have no cause of fear. His eye is upon us, His arm over us, His ear open to our prayer - His grace sufficient, His promise unchangeable."  --John Newton  ~~

~~  "Fear God and you'll have nothing else to fear."  --Woodrow Kroll  ~~

Perhaps the final word on this is given to us by King David.  It is Psalm 23:4.  Please go and read it.


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