FACING UP TO FEAR
Fear is something that is felt by every living creature. For animals, it is the natural reaction to a situation of imminent danger, stimulating whatever evasive action the animal can take. But for human beings, with the gift or curse of foresight, fear and anxiety also comes from the apprehension of some future danger, real or imagined. The threat may be of pain, loss, hardship, or of course, death. No one is immune from these fears; they are part of the human condition, common to us all. So how should we cope with fear and anxiety?
There are rational fears and irrational fears: rational fears are fears of some real hardship or suffering; irrational fears or phobias are fears that have no ground in reality, but are some dark figment of our imagination. A fear of spiders is not usually the fear of poisonous bites, but some irrational fear of spiders' legs. On the other hand, a fear of heights has a more rational basis, inasmuch as a fall from a great height is a real danger to life and limb. Fears of pain, sickness and death are rational fears; the fear of doctors and hospitals as such is irrational: all the staff in surgeries, clinics or wards are concerned only for our welfare.
In contemporary Western culture, there is such a powerful conviction that human life is all about health and happiness that it is not surprising that people seem to be afraid to talk about dying and death. These are usually regarded as negative and painful experiences that we are anxious to
avoid. Moreover, there may be a lingering suspicion or fear that talking about these things may bring them nearer. In particular, there is a reluctance to talk about the possibility of dying to a sick person, lest the prospect depresses them or saps their will to fight against the illness that is threatening them. The will to live is after all an important factor in survival.
Fear of dying and fear of death are not the same thing. People often say, ‘I am not afraid of death, but I am afraid of dying.’ I am never sure that I believe them or, if I do, that they have their priorities right. By the fear of dying they mean the fear of the process of dying, the fear of the physical and mental pain involved in the progress of their final illness, and the consequences of leaving this world with regard to those left behind. As far as physical pain goes, today this is probably an exaggerated fear: pain-killing drugs that will be readily prescribed by the medical profession during our final illness are highly effective in relieving the worst of our pains. Mental pain in the face of dying is a different and more intractable problem: the sense of powerlessness to control our lives, the prospect of separation from loved ones, both for us and for them, the frustration at hopes for the future being cut short, the anxiety over things left undone, all these, and perhaps the fear of the unknown after death, are fears that require a different sort of treatment.
Fear of what happens after I die is a very specific fear and a very rational one. Is death just the end of everything, or, perhaps more frightening, is there some form of life after death? Does the character of that life depend on what sort of a life I have lived here on earth? Will my darkest secrets be exposed? Is there some sort of reckoning, some sort of purgation or punishment to be endured? If so, what can I do about it? Is there anything I can do to prepare for such an eventuality? The prospect of death can bring us face-to-face with that sense of guilt that we all carry with us, because we have all fallen short of even our own standards of right and wrong, let alone God’s. As the old Prayer Book of the Church of England says, ‘We have left undone those things which we ought to have done, and we have done those things which we ought not to have done’.
We have looked at the questions that arise about life after death in the chapter above, and, in particular, what we can do from a Christian point of view to prepare for it: repent and believe in Jesus. There is no substitute for thinking through these issues and taking the necessary steps for ourselves, and the sooner in our lives we do it, the better. It is only too easy for us when life is going well and we are in rude health to postpone this task. But when the real possibility of dying arises, when death advances from over the horizon to the present, or the near future, we will wish that we had acquired some well-considered and settled faith, one way or another, to support us in our dying hours. It is not a good idea to put this enquiry off until we are on our death-beds, possibly in a state of drug-induced semi-consciousness. Do it now. Whatever the fears that trouble us, there are some steps that we can take that will help us to bear, if not resolve, our uncertainties.
Talking about our fears
Whatever the nature of our fears the first step is to talk about them. Anxieties only grow and multiply when we try to ignore them or keep them in the dark. Bringing our fears into the light by talking to someone about them, often enables us to see them from a new perspective. If our confidant is a person of wisdom and experience we may find help and comfort in their counsel and advice. Even if all they can offer is their love and support, a hand to hold, this itself relieves the sense of being alone in our distress.
Supporters of Liverpool Football Club apparently derived much strength after the Hillsborough disaster, and go on deriving strength from the assurance that by merely being supporters of the same team, ‘they will never walk alone’
Whatever the group to which we belong, the football supporters club, our family, our friends, the church, our colleagues at work, if there are people within our circle with whom we can share our fears and anxieties, the sentiment of the Liverpool song is true enough: when we walk through the storms of life we draw strength from companions who will walk through it with us, whatever the outcome may be. So a first step in dealing with fears and anxiety is to seek out a trusted listener and ‘open our grief’.
It may turn out that our fears are purely imaginary. The fears that disturb us in the dead of night are often revealed as no more than fantasies when we draw the curtains in the morning. Letting another sort of light into our nightmares as we reveal them to a friend can have the same wholesome effect. We can see how silly we have been to worry; how unlikely or unreal the dangers that we have imagined. Of course, not all our anxieties are groundless, but naming them and talking about them helps us to see reality for what it is, and that is the first step to coping with it. That is the first step to mastering our fears and dealing with the future: talking about it.
True phobias are the most difficult to deal with. Confessing and talking about them can help. But so deep are the roots of these fears that we are not easily delivered from them. In a Christian context, prayer for deliverance in the name of Jesus can help in some instances, but in all cases there is usually a longer process of confronting and overcoming habitual reactions of fear. But even in the worst cases, having a companion and helper who will accompany us through our times of fear is a source of strength.
‘Thinking will not overcome fear but action will.’ W. Clement Stone, American self-help author
Doing something about it
The second step in dealing with our fears and anxieties is to consider what action we can take to improve the situation. When we are anxious about the progress of our illness or the approach of death, we need to talk about it openly with our medical advisors, our family and friends. The sort of conversations that we ought to be having are outlined in this book. What are the options for treatment? What are the prospects of recovery or of deterioration in our condition? How can the medical profession help us to cope with whatever the future may hold?
If our days are limited, we must go on to ask how we can make the best use of the time left to us here on earth.
In the film The Bucket List two characters in the same hospital room find themselves facing the same terminal diagnosis. Carter is a blue-collar mechanic; Edward Cole is a billionaire businessman. Carter has drawn up a ‘bucket list’ of the things he wants to do before he dies, and Cole offers to finance a last trip round the world for them both to fulfil their dreams. They go sky-diving; they visit the Taj Mahal and the Pyramids. But by the end of the film they have both discovered that the most important thing in life is love, and both in different ways have returned to and been reconciled with their families.
This is a good guide for anyone facing such a prospect: the best use to which we can put the rest of our lives, however long or short they may be, is to invest our time and energy in bringing happiness to others, especially those nearest and dearest to us.
Perhaps the most important task in this area of personal relationships is to make peace, before it is too late, with anyone whom we have quarrelled with or whom we are aware of having hurt. A letter or a phone call, with a word of apology or regret, may have been long owing. On the other hand, it may be a word of forgiveness that we need to speak. We may need to make some more tangible reparation or amends for things that we have done wrong. Such efforts may or may not succeed in mending a relationship: just as it takes two to make a quarrel, so it takes two to make it up. But if we have made a gesture in the right direction, we shall at least die knowing that we have done our best, and however our overtures have been received, we shall be able to die in peace. The most important relationship of all that we need to put right is our relationship with God.
These activities, whether fulfilling our ambitions or attending to our personal relationships before it is too late, are activities that are constructive and helpful, but there is a frenetic sort of activity that is merely escapist and unhelpful. As a way of escaping our fears, this sort of activity is futile and counter-productive. This is because our fears will not be banished by it but will lie in wait for us, springing up again in the slow watches of the night, or to catch us unawares in some unguarded moment in the day time. Fears have to be faced and confronted, not avoided and buried.
In the end, I know no real remedy for fear of any sort other than faith. Friends can give us false assurances that ‘things will turn out alright’. But things do not always turn out alright. We do suffer illness and infirmity; we do suffer pain and loss. One day, if not now then later, we will all have to die. There is no escaping these realities, though our present, materialistic, Western culture is not in touch with them and does not want to recognise them. That is why they cause us so much anxiety when they do draw near. It is God alone who can both say to us, ‘Fear not’, and give us good reason not to fear.
Here are some of the great ‘fear nots’ from the prophecy of Isaiah: ‘fear nots’ that can speak to our hearts at any time but especially in times of sickness and weakness.
‘Fear not, for I am with you; be not dismayed for I am your God.’ (Isaiah 41:10)
‘I, the Lord your God, hold your right hand; it is I who say to you, “Fear not, I will help you”.’ (Isaiah 41:13) ‘Fear not, for I have redeemed you.’ (Isaiah 43:1)
We, the authors of this book, all believe that it is Jesus alone (as God in human form) who can set us free from our guilt and fears. By his death and resurrection, he has paid the price for our sins and overcome the power of the grave. In the night in which he was betrayed, he looked suffering and death full in the face and spoke to his disciples about these things, both for himself and for them. That evening, he spoke to them for a long time, over supper and on the way to the Garden of Gethsemane, beginning and finishing with these words:
‘Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God; trust also in me. ’
'I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.' (John 14:1 and 16:33)
Jesus himself shrank from the pain and suffering that would be involved in his death. In the Garden of Gethsemane, he prayed to God that he might be spared. But there was no other way for him to take away the sin that separates us from God. The disciples were confused and dismayed at the prospect of his death and, like all of us, afraid of suffering and death for themselves. They shared with us the same natural shrinking from these calamities, from which, in one form or another, there is no escape. Jesus said, ‘In this world you will have trouble.’ Notice the realism here; Jesus was not giving them any false assurances. They had to face these things, and so do we. But with him we can face them with peace and confidence, rather than with anxiety and fear.
Trust in God and trust in Jesus, who has trodden the path before us, is the key to walking through the valley of the shadow of death without fear. The apostle John, towards the end of his life, wrote, ‘Perfect love drives out fear.’ (1 John 4:18) Few of us can claim that we have achieved such perfect love that we have no fear at all, or have such perfect knowledge of the love of God for us, that we have no fear at all – though that is how it should be. But as we grow up in faith, so we grow out of fear.
The Good Shepherd promises that he will be with us as we walk through the valley of the shadow of death (Psalm 23:4). Who knows, until we reach that place, what that actually means?
When my own father, a man of strong and lifelong faith, was dying, our family was gathered round his bed. We prayed and sang hymns over him quietly as he lay peacefully with his eyes shut, either unconscious or asleep. The nurse came and turned him over in the bed, and in his last moments, he was lying on his side facing the wall beside which sat my mother and I. My father’s breaths became shallower and shallower and less and less frequent. At length, without any warning, he opened his eyes wide and looked straight through my mother and me and straight through the wall behind us. It seemed as if he saw and greeted someone coming to fetch him. We all held our breath for about half a minute. Then he closed his eyes, breathed his last, and died.
Who knows what he saw? But I like to think that he saw Jesus fulfilling his word, ‘I will come back and take you to be with me, that you also may be where I am’ (John 14:3). I pray that it will be like that for me – and for you. Trust in God the Father and in Jesus the Son of God.
Questions to help us talk to people about their fears
Are you afraid?
What can be done to help you?