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Keeping Fear in Its Place

Building Community

Our response was instinctive, as if our bodies made decisions without consulting our minds. The huge bear on the other side of the glass lunged toward us and in unison we all quickly stepped back. We were at Como Zoo.

The polar bear exhibit is much improved from when I was a child. The bears have room to roam and, if they choose, hide from view, which has often been the case on visits I have made over the years. Either they are lying there asleep or nowhere to be found, neither of which lend themselves too much interest. This day, however, they were awake, all three of them and they had moved to center stage, the pool, from which spectators could watch the show. It was while they were diving, swimming and occasionally grooming themselves that one of the huge bears decided to make a leap from the edge, landing with a magnificent splash directly in front of the crowd which had gathered. If you had asked in advance if we believed the glass will protect us, we would have all said yes. Why else would you stand mere feet from a polar bear? Yet, when the bear jumped we moved back as fast as we could. Fear is instinctive. It alerts us to possible danger. Fear cautions us to be on guard. It can get us moving quickly even before our minds have time to question whether there is a real reason for fear. 

Fear has its place as an early alert system, like a flashing light at a railroad crossing. It is nothing to be ignored, but once the train has passed or the light has simply quit flashing, it makes no sense to continue sitting by the railroad tracks, refusing to cross. Fear’s role is in alerting us to possible danger, to serve as a caution that we should pay extra attention. Unfortunately fear has a tendency to take its minor role as an alert system and turn it into a central role dominating our decisions making, our reactions and responses in situations where fear is anything but helpful.

As one whose privilege it was to preach from the Christian gospels in the weeks leading up to Christmas, I was always struck by how frequently people in the story are told not to be afraid. Joseph, the father of Jesus, is told don’t be afraid. Mary, Jesus’s mother, is told don’t be afraid. The shepherds are told “fear not.” Again and again, the place of fear is acknowledged and then people are encouraged to turn off the alert system so that they might listen and respond in ways that will be life-giving. 

In his book Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, Bryan Stevenson says, “fear and anger are a threat to justice; they can infect a community, a state or a nation and make us blind, irrational and dangerous.” Bryan Stevenson is the founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, which provides free legal representation for anyone sentenced to the death penalty. Among the people Stevenson helped free was a man by the name of Walter McMillian, who spent years on death row before finally having his conviction overturned and was set free. Unfortunately years of incarceration took its toll and Walter lived only a short time after his release. Stevenson spoke at Walter’s funeral, saying Walter “survived a guilty verdict, death row and the wrongful condemnation of an entire state. While he did not survive without injury or trauma, he came out with his dignity….Walter had overcome what fear, ignorance and bigotry had done.” 

It is hardly surprising that in Stevenson’s reflection ignorance and bigotry are close companions to fear. Whenever fear substitutes its secondary function as an early alert system for a dominant role with our emotions and decision making, ignorance and bigotry are eager allies. 

Too often, as was the case for those of us at the zoo, our alarm system goes off when in reality there is nothing to fear. Rather than dwell in fear, we are better served by making room for listening, consideration, thoughtfulness, compassion, kindness and mercy, all the things that make for the types of relationships and types of community which give richness to our lives. 

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