A friend of mine embarked on a 23-day hike along the John Muir Trail earlier this month. Just days into the trek, wildfire smoke became a prohibiting factor. She and her fellow hikers were forced to leave the trail. Not to be deterred, they traveled to eastern Oregon so as to keep their feet moving along a worn path. A couple days along those new paths, they had to ditch efforts again because of hazardous air quality. As they hiked out, they were alerted by a group of hikers about a wildfire. Having walked by the area where it emerged just an hour before, they were surprised of its existence. With water bottles and packs in hand, teams of hikers extinguished the fire. Their best guess was that the fire originated a few hundred feet away from an extinguished campfire. It did not spread by wind or spark, but rather through the ground, traveling through soil until it found something to ignite. Upon putting out the fire, a forest ranger in the group had everyone put their hands in the dirt to check for hot spots before leaving the scene. No hot spots were detected; all was well.
In How Fear Works: Culture of Fear in the 21st Century, Frank Furedi explores the historical understanding and containment of fear, and examines reasons why fear is such a driving force in our current culture. For millennia, fear was “regarded as an emotional state that meshed with moral concerns…a medium for cultivating moral values through…the right kind of fear. Today, fear is often abhorred, dreaded, (and) medicalized as a disease to be avoided.”
“Many historical thinkers believe it is the fear of death that serves as the foundational frame for the public articulation of fear in general. Anxiety about death, which is a very private fear, is said to lurk in the unconscious and is bound up with a basic concern with existential security.” Because of the ubiquitous nature of fear in humanity, fear was something to be manipulated and controlled through philosophical, cultural, or religious narratives. Socrates, concerned with Homer’s description of afterlife horrors, believed language of eternal damnation should be removed, and only courageous portrayals of death supplied. This was primarily to encourage warriors to enter fearlessly into battle, knowing any death that comes to them would be one of valor and honor, as they die for something bigger than themselves. Within religion, fear of God was considered good fear, a driver of moral virtues that lead to earthly benefits, eternal rewards, cultural norms and moral order. Theologians, such as Thomas Aquinas, believed this cultivation of fear was actually rooted in love, and to remove fear from its religious context would produce a “disorienting and destructive dimension.”Evidence of Aquinas’ prediction abounds as the decline of religious influence is countered with a “lost sense of common story” and an increase in “anxiety and naked terror.” In short, modernity’s displaced focus of fear on God, has moved toward an “unfocused, confusing, and meaningless force: the fear of fear itself.”
This “fear of fear itself” infuses every aspect of society. It fuels words we speak and actions we take, whether in politics, medicine, religion, parenting, business, or education. Fear is an emotion, a dis-ease, a reaction to life that is to be avoided at all cost. As the quest to eliminate fear increases, so does the anxiety that surrounds how exactly to do that. Tirelessly, we work to eliminate uncertainty by increasing knowledge and minimizing risk. This grasping for knowledge has proven ineffectual as knowledge itself is contested. In our fast-paced culture filled with increased knowledge and decreased moral grounding, the answers to big questions continue to elude us. Confusion abounds as we no longer have effective tools for navigating a society which is unable to agree on shared meaning of life experiences.
Fear travels like fire, ready to ignite the next available fuel source. A spark of fear spreads like wildfire when blown by just the right media spin. Pandemics, war, economic destruction, civil unrest- those are the big flames of fear. What is less obvious, more insidious, and just as destructive is the spread of fear below the surface, stealthily moving through and heating the dirt, waiting to emerge in unexpected places. The police officer on edge, the mom waiting for medical test results, the CEO that drinks herself to sleep every night, the pastor addicted to praise of his people- here is where under the surface fears quietly move.
Until we reach our hands down into the dirt to find the hot spots, we aren’t going to be able to extinguish the fear of fear’s flames, which are ultimately fueled by our fear of death. In truth, we may never be able to fully eliminate those fears, but if we are willing to dig our hands deep into the dirt and look for those hot spots, we can gain clearer understanding of our humus, our “from the dust” origins, and discover that embracing our impermanence cools the heat-filled dirt of fear.
What would it look like to embrace the ever present reality of death in a way that no longer moves us toward anxiety, but rather transforms us into a non-anxious, well differentiated, grounded “in the soil of ourselves” presence that reveals goodness and grace to the world?
There is One who walked the hardest of trails, through tears, suffering, and death. But through that difficult journey, eternal life emerged. Jesus is our example. Following him along the trail is the way. It will not be an easy hike, as hot spots of fear will be discovered, dug up, and allowed to cool. In time, at the end of all things, as we fearlessly trust in Jesus, all will be well.
“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.” (John 14:27)
 Frank Furedi. How Fear Works: Culture of Fear in the 21st Century. (London, UK: Bloomsbury Publishing, Plc. 2018) 35.
 Ibid., 42.
 Ibid., 37-38.
 Ibid., 50-52.
 Ibid., 52.
 Ibid., 52.
 Ibid., 53.
 Ibid., 61.
 Ibid., 26.
 Edwin H. Friedman. A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix. (New York, NY: Church Publishing, Inc., 2007) over-arching theme of the text.