Habits of the Heart: Fear

There seems to be an epidemic of fear in the world these days. Like any other epidemic, it’s widespread and contagious. People pass it on to one another, but unlike ordinary pathogens fear can be transmitted remotely—mainly through the media. If there is an epidemiology of fear, it involves identifying and treating the causes while containing the spread in the meantime.

For some people fear becomes a kind of habit, maybe even an addiction. We get addicted to substances because we have receptors for those things in our brains, and one way or another we’re also highly receptive to fear. There’s a good reason for that. The right kind of fear keeps people alive, by avoiding poisonous snakes and looking both ways before crossing the street, for example.

But too much of a good thing turns proverbially bad. Fear is helpful in small doses, around particular dangers, when it leads to solutions and lets us get back to the joy in our lives. Sometimes, though, fear begins to run rampant. A healthy impulse gets magnified and takes on a life of its own. Then fear prowls around looking for anything to feed upon. For many people—nearly one out of five Americans by some estimates—fear grows into full-blown anxiety, which can become a generalized condition, a way of being in the world that keeps the soul churning without even needing a reason. Fear and anxiety become habits of the heart.

There’s no shortage of things to be concerned about, and the inclination to be afraid, once it gets started, can quickly go viral. Sadly, there are plenty of people who profit from spreading the contagion. Like the pushers who live off of junkies’ addictions, fearmongers make millions selling books, or gathering listeners and viewers and advertising dollars, by feeding people’s fears. And the world has never run out of demagogues who profit from fear in other ways.

It’s not hard to understand how fear becomes epidemic. The question is, how to control it.

For individuals who suffer from clinical forms of anxiety, help is available through therapy, relaxation and retraining techniques, and medication if necessary. Clinical anxiety is an illness and deserves the same compassionate caring and treatment we bring to any other illness.

Those of us who cultivate fearfulness as a way of viewing the world, on the other hand, need to replace some old habits of the heart with new ones. Marilynne Robinson, the author of Gilead and winner of the Pulitzer Prize and the National Humanities Medal, says that “fear is not a Christian habit of the mind.” She means that if we trust in a good and gracious God, and believe that God is working to redeem the world, we approach life fundamentally in faith, hope, and love rather than fear. We don’t spread fear around. We quarantine and contain it, and watch it give way to courage and peace and strength in the hearts of those who know that their Redeemer lives.

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