Too many of us are hamstrung by fear, anxiety and shame. No, not the prudent fear that keeps kayakers off the raging Minnehaha Creek running wildly out of its banks. Neither should we tolerate true mental illness that too often goes unrecognized and untreated with tragic consequences.
But we should be wary of overly inflated egos or a consumer culture which often belie self-doubt and feelings of inadequacy. A mom disciplining her eight-year old daughter coming out of church on Sunday perfectly expressed the right balance: “Honey, I know that’s what you want, but right now it’s not about you getting your way.” Hurray for this mom! What a fortunate child!
The sort of fear and anxiety I’m talking about functions more as subtle undertow on our sense of self and emotional well-being. For example, I tire of well-intentioned warnings to “Be careful – that’s dangerous!” when others learn that I ride a scooter. I’ve learned to reframe these as an expression of care, even affection, that comes out sideways.
Too often fear and anxiety get tangled up with legitimate concern and appropriate caution. Again, a parent struck the right balance: Rather than telling her child, “No, get off the wall, you’ll get hurt!” I saw a mom attentively teaching her four-year old son how to walk on top of a two foot high retaining wall along the sidewalk. Good for her! That’s a child who will grow into mature self-esteem.
Shame is where fear and anxiety get really embedded and problematic. Healthy guilt comes with an appropriate regret for something I have done wrong. Shame is that toxic self-judgment that something is wrong with me and that I am deficient in who I am as a person.
Addiction finds a receptive host in shame. Marketing of all sorts feeds off this fear and suggests we will be happy or whole if we buy this product. We are awash – like Minnehaha Creek running out of its banks – with consumer products that brazenly promise what they cannot deliver.
Churches are all too often purveyors of fear, anxiety and shame as well. We joke about “hell, fire and brimstone” but know that humor always carries an element of truth. America carries in our DNA the heritage of Jonathan Edwards’ 1741 sermon: “Sinners in the Hands of a Vengeful God.” Why else do so many smile knowingly to another’s comment about being a “Recovering Catholic”?
Ronald Rolheiser, a contemporary American preacher I much prefer, offers a clever way to slip behind our puritanical heritage. He tells of a dream in which he was to go to the airport to pick up Jesus arriving on a flight. He characterized the dream as anxiety producing! How would he recognize him? What would he look like? How would Jesus react to his chauffeur? What would he say to him? Would Rolheiser like what he saw? Would Jesus like what he saw?
Dispensing with pious overlays of what we’ve been told in church or given as “Gospel truth” this simple exercise slips behind such filters. Don’t dismiss it too quickly, or at least before you honestly ask whether fear, anxiety or shame is at the basis for “not wanting to go there.” Give it try! Your personal meeting-up with Jesus at the airport is what counts!
I will share one memorable encounter conjured for me by this exercise – I was seven years old. My favorite grandma, now in her eighties, was visiting. I dashed through the kitchen door and saw her seated on a straight-back chair near the warm radiator. Thinking it to be an odd place to sit I asked, “Grandma, why are you sitting there?” Without missing a beat she said, “Because it’s next to the window and I can see you sooner coming home from school.” Can a child feel more loved?
We probably all get tangled up in fear, anxiety and shame because at some deep level we doubt whether we are loved, unconditionally. I thank God today for my Grandma, for the mom with the eight year old daughter at church and the parent who taught her son to walk on top of retaining walls!
The complete story of Ronald Rolheiser’s dream is in his book, Prayer: Our Deepest Longing. Franciscan Media, 2013. p 17.