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I Don't Want to Live in Fear
But what happens when you find yourself in a culture that thrives on the fear of others?
In Embracing Curiosity, I step away from writing about travel to comment on the bigger journey of life, exploring my faith and politics with curiosity and nuance.
Jeff and I were preparing for our family’s Christmas break vacation to Big Bend National Park and I couldn’t contain my excitement. Not only were we going to visit a beautiful national park, but we were also going to finally use the passports we had gotten for our family the year before. I shared with a coworker, who had also taken his family to Big Bend a couple of years before, that we were excited to cross the Rio Grande and visit Boquillas, Mexico. He shocked me with “Why would you want to do that? The border is dangerous.”
His words echoed those of the husband of another coworker who, when I shared with him our plans to travel to west Texas on our way to Arches National Park, asked if we carried guns with us while we traveled. He couldn’t understand why I would risk my family traveling through western Texas without a weapon on hand. I couldn’t understand why he thought my family would be safer with a gun at the ready at all times.
Both conversations amplified the spirit of fear that seems to infect nearly all parts of this American life.
Fear is a normal part of being human. It warns us of danger and keeps us from taking foolish risks. In the best moments, fear keeps us alive.
But fear is also a powerful drug. It is an essential part of human survival, but when it forces us inward for extended periods of time, it breaks down civilizations. It causes us to prioritize our own survival over the well-being of our neighbor. It persuades us to follow those who present visions of peace and prosperity while othering those who do not look like us, believe like us, or live like us.
The last eight years has forced me to look at a lot of the lessons about fear that I was taught as a child, adolescent, and adult. I grew up with normal childhood fears, and while I spent my first eight years of memory making in Detroit, Michigan, I honestly don’t remember being afraid of other people. Sure, there were times I could feel my parents tense up as we drove through certain neighborhoods on our way to school or the zoo or downtown to watch a baseball game, but I pretty much lived in happy oblivion, riding my bike up and down the street, playing in our fenced yard, and running between the houses of neighborhood kids as we soaked up the last rays of daylight.
But eventually, I absorbed the fears of the adults around me.
While the 80s would see the collapse of the USSR, I still understood that the Eastern Bloc was a threat to my health and well-being and was taught to believe that our nuclear weapons were keeping us safe from nuclear holocaust.
I learned what it was to fear financial ruin as I watched my parents struggle through financial hardships my entire childhood, pinching every penny so that we could still have the life they wanted for us.
I inadvertently learned to fear non-Christians, to believe that they wanted to challenge my faith and morals and that it was best to surround myself with other Christians, preferably those of the same denominational beliefs, if I wanted to be able to combat the evil I would face throughout my teen years and beyond.
I learned to fear anything that wasn’t considered “conservative.”
I was taught all of this while Weekly Reader also warned my peers and me about the dangers of global warming and the hole in the ozone layer. I absorbed all of this while I also dug into classics like To Kill a Mockingbird and watched movies and television shows that exposed me to the truths about racism and bigotry. And in my teen years my fears grew as I watched LA erupt in riots, a compound in Waco burn, Oklahoma City get bombed, OJ Simpson get arrested and then acquitted, and Bill Clinton’s presidency erupt in scandal.
As I entered college, the reasons for fear appeared to accelerate as I watched the news of a shooting at Columbine High School unfold, a president got impeached for lying about sexual scandal, and then the Twin Towers came crashing down onto New York City.
By the time I was twenty-five, I had learned a lot about fear. But most of all, I had learned just how powerful a weapon fear can be when wielded against others.
During my adulthood, I have watched our leaders use fear to justify never-ending war. I’ve watched peers use fear to justify schooling decisions for their children, housing decisions for their families, and voting preferences. I’ve watched the gun industry use fear to convince millions of my fellow Americans that it is perfectly acceptable to have more guns than citizens in our country. And I’ve watched as peers, neighbors, and fellow citizens have listened to the clarion call of politicians who have used fear to divide and conquer, consequences on the more vulnerable be damned.
And in April 2023, we saw just what happens when citizens live in a spirit of fear: in one week, seven people across the United States were shot for showing up at the wrong place: wrong house, wrong driveway, wrong yard.
At one point I was going to write about gun violence, because as a teacher who sits through multiple active shooter drills every school year, I am so damn tired of having the same conversation about guns and feeling like nothing is going to change. But the more I sat with it, the more I realized that this was about something more. This was about fear.
Fear leads to isolation. It puts us in separate schools and neighborhoods and behind fences. It keeps us from getting to know each other and saying hello to our neighbors. It keeps us from new places and experiences, like the coworker who refused to take his family to Mexico for a few hours. It amplifies “us versus them.” It closes doors and takes lives.
And I’m afraid that it is going to eventually destroy us.
In a recent Holy Post episode, as the co-hosts covered the week of shootings mentioned above, Kaitlyn Schiess discussed the cost of our culture of fear, a conversation that challenged me to think about how fear impacts both my witness as a Christian and my role as a citizen.
In my least nuanced and compassionate moments, I want to demand an apology. I want to rage at the belief that imagined causes for fear mean that I have to live in real fear: a burning planet, increased reality of gun violence, the collapse of democracy. I want to shout from the rooftops that proclaiming “faith over fear” while waving a gun or voting against the rights of our neighbors or storming the United States Capitol flies in direct violation of Jesus’ message to “fear not.”
But then I have to remember that the rest of the message is those of us who are tired of it all. In John 16:33 he said, “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” (Emphasis mine.)
It is eighteen months before our next major election, and I’m already tired. I’m already fearful of outcomes. I’m already steeling myself for the destruction of more friendships and family relationships as we continue to let fear push us further and further away from each other.
But then I remember that I still believe there is something worth fighting for. I remember the future that I want for my children and the hopes that I see in my students. I remember the loved ones who have spent the last three years of pandemic living moving forward with their lives even while the world around them appears to be on fire.
And I swallow my fears again and choose hope, because that’s the only message that will defeat our deepest fears and give us the changes that we want to see.
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