Beyond Fear and Hostility to Meaning and Relationship

This week I would like to consider the experiences of fear and anger and suggest possible ways to respond to them. Of course, experience also tells us that knowing a helpful response is much easier than living out that response.

Three prominent kinds of fears are the fear of hurt, the fear of making a mistake, and the fear of rejection. The fear of being hurt taps into our vulnerability. This is the recognition that we can be wounded and even killed, both physically and in other dimensions of out life. In the words of theologian Gregory Baum: “Life can be shattered. … It is possible to fall into situations where life is destroyed. It is possible to have one’s life shattered like a precious vase and despair over ever being able to rebuild it. … These deaths in the midst of life are what we are most afraid of.”

Corresponding to this fear, however, is our longing for life, to stay alive. It is the deep impulse within us to preserve our life. Yet it is not enough for us just to be alive. We wish also to live a life of meaning. We want to have a sense that our life is worth living, that we are of value and that our lives have purpose.

This longing flows into a second fear, the fear of making a mistake. We certainly are aware of mistakes we have made, both small and, perhaps. more far-reaching. Underlying this kind of fear is the fear that our whole life could be a mistake. This is essentially the fear of meaningless, the fear of a life in which we have no sense of identity or worth, belonging or purpose.

Corresponding to this fear, however, is once again the longing for meaning. Out of his concentration camp experiences, Viktor Frankl concluded that the longing for meaning is the deepest human drive. He saw that this meaning could be found by doing a deed, by experiencing a value such as love, or by a courageous response to inevitable suffering.

Behind the striving for meaning is an underlying trust in the meaningfulness of life. Historian of Religions, Wilfrid Cantwell Smith, and theologian, Karl Rahner, are among writers who have maintained that this basic trust is the foundation both of all authentic religion and of a meaningful life.

In this vein, writer, John Magee, maintains that it is not possible “on the one hand, to picture the world as mechanically determined, indifferent, or hostile to human values, utterly meaningless, devoid of living responsiveness, and, on the other hand, to cultivate inner freedom, passionate commitment to human values, order one’s life in a meaningful way, and live in open responsiveness to existence.” He adds that a person’s verbalized beliefs may not correspond to their vital convictions. It is possible “to believe in the bottom of your heart what you cannot express off the top of your head.”

A more humourous expression is found in the cartoon, Herman. He says that: “Maturity is the feeling that comes over you when you look back on your life and realize that you were wrong on just about everything.”

A third fear is the fear of rejection, something everyone as probably experienced slight or more serious forms during their lifetime. It can readily provoke a person to question their own value, their ability to love and be loved. The underlying and more expansive fear here is the fear that our life will be unshared. I recall a student once describing loneliness as the sense that there is no one with whom we can be ourself without defence or pretence.

The opposite is expressed in Sonnet XXX by Shakespeare.
“When to the sessions of sweet silent thought
I summon up remembrance of things past,
I sigh the lack of many a thing I sought, And with old woes new wail my dear time’s waste: …
But if the while I think on thee, dear friend,
All losses are restored and sorrows end.

The underlying reality here is the essentially relational and social nature of us as human beings. The underlying longing includes sharing our life in friendship, in some kind of worthwhile connection with one or more human beings, and in some form of social outreach. As noted before, the deepest energy in the universe, according to Teilhard de Chardin, is love energy. Einstein reaffirms this view in a letter to a daughter that we have quoted before. In this time of stress, psychologist Kimberley Wilson has written that kindness is important

We can also look at anger from a similar perspective. If someone strikes us, we tend instinctively to strike back, at least in self-defence. Sometimes we may wish to lash out in frustration. In a third occasion, we may become enraged at the injury, physical or mental, inflicted on another. As with fear, these reactions reflect an experienced threat to physical life, to the meaning of that life, and to the sharing of that life. Here too an immediate reaction may give way as well to a response from more deeply within that reflects our deeper longing for life, for meaning, and for relationship.

If we have an underlying conviction that these are possible or are in fact present, we tend to experience life with gratitude. Behind such gratitude is an equally underlying trust in the lasting meaning of our lives.

May you come more and more to experience a deep worth and purpose in your life, and may you be filled with a spirit of gratefulness that flows into a generous kindness to yourself and others.

Norman King, May 29, 2022