What Fear Can Teach Us

What Fear Can Teach Us May 9, 2014

Many of those we regard as heroes are simply women and men who forced themselves to do something in spite of their fear, only to discover that the very thing they feared held a gift.

Clement Moore was a professor of Oriental and Greek literature at Columbia University for 29 years. He traveled in elite academic circles and worked hard to build his reputation as a scholar. He wanted the world to remember him for his scholarship. His hobby, however, was writing poetry. His family tried to get him to publish his poems, but he was ashamed of them and afraid of what people would think if they ever read his poetry. One day, a friend who was a publisher accidentally saw a poem that Moore had written for his children. He secretly published it, and now, 150 years later, the only reason we remember the name Clement Moore is that he wrote the words:

‘Twas the night before Christmas

And all through the house,

Not a creature was stirring

Not even a mouse.

What he feared had the power to give him exactly what he was looking for. That which we fear often comes to us with a gift in its hands.

Abraham Lincoln struggled so badly with depression that there was a time when his friends could not leave him alone. They removed all sharp objects from the house, lest he harm himself. On one occasion, he wrote to a friend named John Stuart, “I am the most miserable man living. If what I am now feeling were equally distributed to the whole human family, there would not be one cheerful face on the earth. Whether I shall ever be better I cannot tell. I fear I shall not.”

Although he had to struggle all of his life against depression, Lincoln did get better. In fact, the sadness with which he struggled made him a man of such great compassion that, at the end of the most violent and deadly war in American history, he was able to write those famous words, “With malice toward none, with charity for all.”

The depression he feared shaped him into a gentle and tender leader. Some historians have suggested that if Lincoln had lived to lead us compassionately toward reconciliation, a century of racial hatred and bitter segregation might have been avoided entirely.

An old woman who was my friend loved to say, “Son, you don’t drown by falling in over your head, you drown by staying under.” She was right. The very things we fear can teach us to swim, to run like the wind, or to soar like the eagle. Yes, they also might drown us, crush us, or destroy us. Which happens is up to us.

by Michael Piazza
Center for Progressive Renewal

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