Our culture views fear as a sign of weakness. The fearful person is told to “not be a baby.” Our boys are instructed to “man up” and “grow a pair.”
Sometimes fear is maladaptive, distancing us from reality and paralyzing us in front of the challenges of everyday life. But what if a healthy fear, one correctly ordered, by Fear of God, was the starting point for an authentic faith?
What is fear?
Fear is an instinctive response to potential danger.
The experience of fear is one way your brain interprets the body’s “fight or flight” response. This physiological response starts with the production of hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol. By stopping your resting functions – like digestion—and activating your heart and muscles, these hormones prepare your body to deal with the threat.
The amygdala is a brain structure at the core of the experience of fear. This almond-shaped structure underneath the temporal lobes processes threat. It’s wired to respond to some environmental threats, like heights. But we also condition the amygdala to fear certain things based on our social and cultural upbringing. Two brain structures help the brain perceive threats in context: hippocampus (largely responsible for memory) and the cortex (source of higher-level processing).
The essential role of fear
Fear is a deeply rooted, fundamental reaction to perceived threats. We have evolved to respond with fear, which motivates us to fight the threat or run away, in order to protect our existence. Without fear, we have no sense of danger or risk.
In the neuroscience literature, a patient known as “SM” dramatically illustrates the essential role of fear. This woman had a rare genetic disorder called Urbach-Wiethe disease, which caused the degeneration of her amygdala. Consequently, SM could not read fear on others faces, reported no fear, and showed no signs of fear (even when surrounded by poisonous snakes!). And many areas of her life suffered as a result. SM had difficulty concentrating and experiencing empathy. She showed a lack of personal space, and difficulty regulating her behavior. Even her experience of music was impaired.
A sense of danger or risk – a sense of fear – is essential to many aspects of our day to day life. It helps us focus on the task at hand and be judicious about our behavior. Fear helps us connect with others, and see things in perspective. It’s even involved in our experience of wonder and beauty.
Sometimes, though, fear is not adaptive.
When fear isn’t helpful
There are two common sources of maladaptive fear.
The first is fear of the future. We cannot control upcoming events, so if we are constantly afraid of them, we are grasping beyond our reach. As a result, we are consumed by distraction, because we can’t actually deal with the threat we perceive. This generates anxiety.
The second is irrational fear. Sometimes, our fears are grounded in an irrational fantasy world of our own construction. We fear that someone will abandon us, when they have shown loyalty and fidelity. We fear failure at work, when our performance has been solid and consistent. In these cases, fear is not reasonable. Instead, it originates in false perceptions and unrealistic narratives.
Ultimately, both forms of maladaptive fear show a detachment from reality. In the first, you’re living in the future, and in the second, in an alternate fantasy world. Either way, such fear distances you from reality.
The antidote to maladaptive fear
One gift of the Holy Spirit is the perfect antidote to maladaptive fears, healing our anxiety and irrationality. This is Fear of God. A health and essential part of life, it can put the rest of our fears in their proper place.
Fear of the Lord isn’t being afraid of God. It’s not living in dread of eternal punishment, or trembling at the thought of damnation. Rather, fear of the Lord is having wonder at His glory, and awe at His majesty. This is described by Aquinas as a fear of separating oneself from God, a “filial fear” of offending our Father rather than a “servile fear” of punishment. Fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom (Prov 1:7) because it helps us understand our correct relationship to God. We are finite and dependent, while He is our infinite omnipotent Creator.
When we learn this dependence, and embrace our finitude, our maladaptive fears can be correctly ordered. We don’t need live in dread of the the future, because God is holding our existence with tenderness. We don’t need to be paralyzed by an irrational fantasy. Instead, Christ turns our gaze to reality and promises His presence there.
So what does this mean?
It means that our fears, our anxieties, can be the starting point for a new approach to life.
Don Giussani says that “what characterizes the human person [is] doubt about existence, fear of existing, fragility in living, lack of substance in ourselves, terror of impossibility, horror at the disproportion between oneself and the ideal.”
We need not be paralyzed and bewildered by these fears, and we need not rid ourselves of them. Instead, we are asked to have passion for these fears, because it is in these fears that we can verify our faith. Our faith is true if it passes the trials of living. Our fear of God is authentic if it allows us to live the difficulties of everyday life.
Further reading recommendations
St. Bonaventure is excellent on the Seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit.