Not being afraid

There is nothing quite like fear to inspire an ardent interest in what works.

I am going to cite today two formulations that have helped me and that I have thought about. [1]  It seems odd to me, as I look at them, that both should help because they pull in opposite directions.  I really ought, I think, to find one or the other absurd and unhelpful, but in fact I have found help in both of them.

This one is called “The litany against fear” and it is familiar because it is featured in Frank Herbert’s 1965 novel, Dune.  This litany is taught to members of the Bene Gesserit order.  It goes like this.

I must not fear.
Fear is the mind-killer.

Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.

I will face my fear.

I will permit it to pass over me and through me.

And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path.

Where the fear has gone there will be nothing.

Only I will remain.[2]

This tee shirt version will help suggest how popular this litany has become, but I also chose this because it features the least helpful elements.  For me, at least.  I have two things in mind.  First, look at the verbs: I will face, I will permit, I will turn, I will remain.

Those virtually scream agency.  I am doing; I am acting.  And when you are seriouslyfear 1 afraid, agency is what you really need and besides it feels marvelous.

The second thing is the visualization.  The feared thing is coming at you and then you do something (permit it to pass) and then it goes away and you turn to see it go.  And then you stop and realize fully that it is gone and you are still here.

You can say those things all you want, but presupposing them is a good deal more powerful.  The things you might say, like “I am not afraid.”[2] don’t really work, but saying things that presuppose that you are not afraid, do work.

Everything in this litany presupposes that whatever is getting done, you are doing it.  It is your own courage that matters most because you are alone with the fear and have no recourse except to your own inner resources.

Minnie Haskins poem, at least the part of it quoted by King George VI in his famous address, is entirely different.  Here is that part.

I said to the man who stood at the Gate of the Year,

“Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.”

And he replied, “Go out into the darkness, and put your hand into the hand of God.

That shall be to you better than light, and safer than a known way.”

That poem reaches a completely different part of me.  I love it and I benefit from it.  I try not to be troubled that it is entirely opposed to the Litany, which I also find helpful.

Note first that I take no actions in this at all. [3]  I ask the advice of the man who stands at the gate of the year. [4]  And then I take his advice, which is to rely entirely on an understanding that is not my own. (See Proverbs 3:5)  What I do—and it might indeed be heroic—is to give up on what I understand and to rely entirely on what God understands.  Anyone who thinks that is easy has not tried it.

fear 8To the extent I do anything at all, in Minnie Haskins picture of reaction to fear, is that I do go out into the darkness. [5]  Then I put my hand into the hand of God.  That makes sense to me as a commitment, but for me the imagery is all wrong.  I think I would put my hand up and would feel God taking my hand.  You don’t “take” God’s hand when you can’t see it.  And, of course, the theology is all backwards, as this very sophisticated graphic demonstrates.

What is good about my situation, after I have accepted God’s firm grasp of my hand (my version of the transaction) is that my way in the darkness is better than any light would make it.  It is also safer than any way I might know.

I have an understandable and prudent [6] desire to know where I am going and also a desire to be safe.  Ordinarily, knowing what you are doing and how to make good choices fit together just fine.  But not at the Gate of the Year.  The future is God’s Territory, and following Him where he wants to take us is prudent and also safe.

Minnie Haskins view of dealing with danger is irreducibly relational.  It is in the relationship that understanding and trust and safety are found.  They are the presuppositions of her vision just as “my unconquerable soul” is the presupposition of the Bene Gesserit liturgy.  I ought, I am sure, to love one of those and hate the other, but the fact is that I love them both.

[1]  At first, the “helping me” part and the “thinking about” part have had no relationship to each other at all.  But over the years, the two actions have flowed together so that now, I think I find them more helpful because of the understanding of them I have developed.

[2]  “I do not fear those pale green pants with nobody inside ‘em.  I said and said and said those words.  I said ‘em, but I lied ‘em.”  Thank you Dr. Seuss.

[3]  In the part of the poem immediately after this, I do “put my hand into the hand of God” but in doing so, “I am led.”  Again, the passive.

[4] “ It is said that the image in her poem came to her at Warmley when she was standing at an upstairs balcony window, looking down the lit driveway to the gate.”So says a writer for the Daily Telegraph.

[5]  That is, in fact, the common biblical pattern.  God told the priests carrying the Ark of the Covenant to start into the raging Jordan River and then He would stop the waters and give them safe passage.  But first, you have to step into the water.

[6]The Latin prudentia is a contraction of providentia which is a combination of pro- before, and videre, to see.”It is seeing ahead, in this word, that allows us to “provide” for good choices, which is the “prudent” thing to do.


About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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