My family is divided when it comes to cheering for either Michigan State or the University of Michigan in sporting events. I enjoy the rivalry since I don’t have sufficient attachment to either school to solidify my allegiance. I didn’t grow up in Michigan, and I’ve taken classes and worked with faculty and staff from both institutions. I find it less stressful to watch these two teams in sporting events than if I had a strong preference.
Some days I wish this was true when it comes to the outcome of the presidential election. The official date of the election comes the week after this newsletter is published, and I can’t wait for it to be over. We may not know who our next president will be for a few days after the election. Meanwhile, the effort to keep as many of us from voting or to disqualify our vote continues. This is strange behavior for citizens living in a democracy. And I am afraid of what may come next.
An article appearing in The Atlantic, written by Molly Ball, makes this observation — “Fear is in the air, and fear is surging.1 Americans are more afraid today than they have been in a long time.” Her article was published a couple of months before the last presidential election in 2016. Before the pandemic and before the appointment of three Supreme Court justices, each confirmed along partisan lines. Both terrors cause us to worry about our present and future. I suspect that our fear hadn’t peaked four years ago.
Fear is conducive as a protector. But what if fear is given total control of our personal-homeland security? This powerful emotion exerts influence over everything we do. And this makes us miserable.
Just look behind some of the most life-threatening struggles, including war, depression, addictions, and violence, and you’re likely to find fear as the instigator. 2
Our bodies are awesome creations. Dr. David Zald explained in an interview with Adam Hamilton that even before we are consciously aware of a threat, our body takes protective measures. This protective firmware is located in a part of our brain called the amygdala. This security center makes initial determinations as to whether what your body senses may be a threat.
And if a threat is perceived by the amygdala, your body’s early warning system is activated. This results in the release of chemicals like epinephrine (adrenaline) and cortisol. Keep in mind that cortisol is the hormone commonly associated with stress. Suddenly, your heart begins to race, your breathing is more rapid and more shallow, your mouth gets dry, and your muscles tense up.
You may shake and perspire, and your pupils dilate. Why? Your personal homeland security is at DEFCON 2, ready for whatever comes next and anticipating the worse. There is the possibility of immediate and present danger, and you must be prepared to take the next step. Will you attack, retreat, or freeze in place?
A potential problem occurs when one sensory experience or stimulus is mistaken for something else altogether. This can happen even when something desirable is about to happen. A past experience conditions you to react as though something dangerous or frightening is inevitable. We become conditioned to respond out of fear whether or not fear is warranted.
This happens when you had a traumatic experience in the past. Your mind associates the memory with a smell, sight, sound, or taste. Perhaps your experience is associated with a particular feeling, a person, or a place. Your brain becomes conditioned to associate a particular stimulus with the unpleasant, frightening, or painful situation that occurred in your past. And in the present, you respond to a similar stimulus with fear. And your personal homeland security system prepares to respond to a threat that isn’t.
Humans can manufacture fear in each other. And people who rally around fear look for ways to eliminate whatever threat is creating their collective fear. And while the world can be a dangerous place, most fears are fabrications of an imagination motivated by manipulation. Nevertheless, when we are afraid, our body’s homeland security system goes on high alert.
So they spread a false report.
There is a good illustration of how our collective fear conspires against us found in scripture. The backdrop begins with God’s intervening to free a people from an oppressive dictator. Moses is appointed as a leader to help guide them through the wilderness to a promised destination that was to be their new home. They were camped across a river from the edge of their new home when Moses sent a dozen forward observers to investigate the area and report back.
Ten of the spies gave an alarming report about the obstacles they observed, describing the people living there as giants and the wall keeping people out as impenetrable. This group sought to sway public opinion away from any notion of heading this direction. When an opposing perspective was voiced by one of the spies who believed differently, this group mobilized to control the narrative. They did this by lying to the people and downplaying the benefits of going forward. By doing so, they succeeded in spreading panic, dismay, and fear among the people.
Even when fear is a persistent companion, we don’t have to be controlled by it. Adam Hamilton writes in his book, Unafraid, that “We can learn to address our fears, control them, learn from them, even use them, and we can press through them.”
In this past week’s Book Club discussion, we began with the question, “Where do you hold your fear?” In other words, when cortisol and adrenaline are rushing into your system, where do you feel the effects of fear the most? Sweaty palms or a sick feeling in the pit of your stomach? In which parts of your body do you feel fear lingering the most?
All night long the people cried out in distress.
Fear, even false fear, can keep us from living satisfying lives. Even though we may be very near a breakthrough. For some of us, getting close to the finish line itself brings on fear. As we grow accustomed to the physical manifestations of fear, we develop an addiction to the affects fear has on our body.
This week, we begin our new series, Naked and unafraid, by examining the role of fear in our lives in the present times. And we turn to scripture for new insights into how others handled their fear. Notably, the hope that scripture offers us as an antidote to fear.
This month’s series is called Naked and unafraid. If you’re fearful about the present or the future, this series is for you. You can read about our series in our newsletter or online. I pray that you will join us online or in person over the next four Sundays. Make it a habit.
Be aware that we follow social distancing practices without exception. Free face masks are available and must be worn in our building.
After Thanksgiving, our theme moves to God living among us. Our next series, Incarnate, explores the importance of God among us in the aftermath of an intense election. The Christmas season is guaranteed to be different this year. God’s presence is our greatest hope for the future.
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1 Molly Ball. “Donald Trump and the Politics of Fear.” © September 2, 2016. The Atlantic.
2 Adam Hamilton. Unafraid: Living with Courage and hope in Uncertain Times. © 2018. New York: Penguin Random House.