Full of Fear: An American Existential Crisis
Updated: Dec 4, 2022
I get asked all the time, “How do you do what you do?” The question is followed by, “I could never do that! Sit and listen to peoples’ problems all day. It would depress me.” I respond. “Of course you could!” And I do believe that most people, if they had to, could do what I do. Yes, I’ve had years of training and education in my field. But I don’t see that as any different than most jobs. Now if I were an astronaut or professional athlete, my tune would be different. There are clearly inherent traits present in those professions that not everyone has, like IQ and muscle structure. For instance, a close friend of mine used to be a Navy pilot. He had 20/10 vision until he was in his late 50’s. Talk about an eagle eye! And because of his vision he was able to pass rigorous physical requirements to become a fighter pilot. Something I would have never been able to do because of my mediocre vision! I can barely see the broad side of a barn the older I get, and I’m only 38!
Furthermore, if I really believed I’m doing something no one else can do, my whole counseling system would fall apart. Because I spend my days training people to do what I do. To think deeply about themselves, to be honest in their communication with their spouse, and to press on in the midst of emotional, psychological, and spiritual pain. I have to believe most people can do what I do because I want them to do it. I want them to press into the darkness of their relationships, the darkness in their own hearts, and to overcome it. I want them to face their biggest fears and prevail!
That’s important for you to know because in my estimation, 2020 has been the year for fear. My hope for 2021 is that we learn to manage it. Our country’s election is in turmoil. Our world is being scared and scarred by a virus. Our access to unbiased information is negligible, and the information we are receiving is fear on steroids. Our social support systems have been made impotent by decades of social media, spiritual ineptitude, family dysfunction, and moral failures. It’s not so much that 2020 delivered unprecedented atrocities like no other year. Our country was born in the face of divisive politics. Our grandparents and great grandparents fought and overcame several infectious diseases. We’ve prevailed during uncertain times before. And we can do it again. But we must conquer our fears and move through our current existential crisis. Inevitably there will be those who are unable, or unwilling, to do so. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t.
2020 being the year for fear, I spent a lot of time reflecting on Scripture and my psychological training. Two points came to light. First, the Bible spends a significant amount of time talking about fear and overcoming it. Second, the Existentialists were right. Fear of death, fear of freedom, fear of isolation, and fear of meaninglessness are built deep into each of our psyches. And if you do not overcome these 4 fears, you succumb to anxiety and depression. It’s that simple. Two of these fears have wreaked havoc on our nation this year. But all of them are at play.
Fear of Death
Don’t be fooled by the whimsical commercials and scantily clad models telling you to “stay young” and “you can live forever”. Butt implants won’t save you from the gnarly reality of old age. You will not live forever. At least not this side of heaven.
When I was a young boy I had a recurring nightmare that I would die and cease to exist. I was afraid to go to sleep for fear I would not wake up. The thought of no longer thinking, no longer existing, sent me into a panic. If I were honest with you, sometimes it still does. As I’ve laid awake at night contemplating my day. A brief flash of a thought will resurrect the same old fear that kept me from sleep some 30 years ago. I immediately do two things. I recall a lecture from seminary, and I recall the hope of my faith.
The lecture was a gut punch in the best of ways. A favorite prof of many a Dallas Seminary student, Dr. Glenn Kreider changed the way I thought about death forever. “Death is not our friend!” He exclaimed. “Death is our enemy; it has been and always will be!” For many years I’d contemplated death as a release. As a way to get out of the pain and turmoil of the present. I won’t lie that for much of my teenage life and early 20’s I’d wished for it in some form. I wanted to be in heaven, and I wanted to experience what the Bible says is a new earth free from unrighteousness and a place where there is no death. But hearing Dr. Kreider that day I realized the selfish ambition inherent in such a wish, and how fear was twisting my logic. Death is not good, and it never will be. So because of my faith, I now find meaning in helping point people to life. The reality of death is painful and scary. But it is something we must all face. My faith gives me the ability to face it. In fact, I would rather die having my faith and it not be true, than to live my life as though it weren’t. Because it gives me peace. It brings me solace knowing I have no control over the present, and I have no way of stopping or creating more time. The Apostle Paul said, “Be anxious for nothing.” And that is what I intend to do.
Fear of Freedom
One of my favorite verses of Scripture is Galatians 5:1. “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free…” So naturally it was odd for me to consider that fear of freedom was a real thing. Turns out I had not been responsible for all that much growing up. Freedom is terrifying for many because responsibility cannot be separate from it. The two are irrevocably linked, otherwise they lose their substance and are defrauded in every sense. A person who is free is responsible to the outcomes of their choices. A person who desires to live in a free society is likewise responsible to and affected by the choices of others living in their freedom. Which is why it is imperative that a free people be a moral people. As the famous French diplomat Alex de Tocqueville penned, “Liberty cannot be established without morality, nor morality without faith.” Of course there are differing opinions on what is moral. And the concept of morality and freedom will often devolve into arguments. So let’s try and put this fear into a picture we can all resonate with.
Do you ever remember playing chase as a child? This is my youngest daughter’s favorite game right now. I’ll be holding her and trying to accomplish something. Like putting on her clothes or getting her ready for bed. She will wiggle out of my grasp and take off as fast as she can. She’s free, and the chase is on! What’s funny is she will pause when she’s about 5 or 6 feet away. She’ll stop fleeing, look back, and make sure that I’m coming after her. She wants to be chased.
The other day we had some spare time, and I wasn’t trying to accomplish anything too important. So I gave into her game. I chased her around the hallway, and she thought it was the greatest thing since sliced bread. But then I played a trick on her. I disappeared behind a wall. When she turned around to make sure I was chasing her I wasn’t there. I watched from a distance as panic quickly set in on her face. She immediately began to cry. She enjoyed the exhilaration of freedom, and the chase, but when left to her own devices. The game quickly lost its value, and fear set in.
Now magnify that for 2020. Fear has set in, and all of us are looking for something or someone bigger than ourselves to pop out from behind the wall and let us know it’s going to be okay. For some it’s the government, for some it’s God, or maybe a mixture of both. Again, my answer is to turn to my faith. God promises to be a refuge in the midst of life’s storms. And as King David noted it is better to take refuge in God than people. Don’t misunderstand me. My faith does not stop a virus from spreading. I don’t intend for it to. My faith reassures me. It comforts me. When the world is going haywire, I know my Father is watching. He sees me looking around in panic and insecurity. And I know it will only be a matter of time before he comes to me, wraps me up and says, “I’ve got you.”
There’s a sign in our guest bath that reads, “WASH YOUR HANDS AND SAY YOUR PRAYERS, ‘CUZ JESUS & GERMS ARE EVERYWHERE.” I loved it before the pandemic, and I love it even more now. It’s a great reminder to me that I washed my hands before it was cool, and that God was in control before I had ever even heard of COVID-19.
I’m no virologist. I’ve spent the last 20 years learning and studying human behavior, and the last 11 years trying to teach people how to change it. That’s how I know fear can make people do and say crazy things. Things you never thought they’d be capable of doing. Unless your heads been in the sand for 10 months, you know it now too.
The famous psychologist Jordon Peterson said, “In order to be able to think, you have to risk being offensive.” Throughout my professional life I’ve found this to be true as well. I’ve offended clients in the course of therapy. To say the least, it’s uncomfortable for me. But the conversations it produces are irresistible. Because I know one of us is going to grow from the experience. If I’m right, and it’s them, I’m doing my job. If I’m wrong, and it’s me, I’m doing my job even better. I say this because it’s time we start to risk being offensive. It’s time we all start conversations and STAY in conversations that make us uncomfortable. Let 2021 be the year we learn to talk again. We learn to compromise again. We learn to develop our faith in God, and not in man. Let 2021 be the year we conquer our fears. It is the only way we will force ourselves to think, and by doing so we develop the courage to overcome.
Happy New Year! And may God bless you and your family.