I knew from the moment I walked into her hospital room that this wasn’t an ordinary visit. In the summer of 2006, I was serving as a hospital chaplain at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. One day, while doing rounds on one of my floors, I came into contact with an interesting woman. She was experiencing advanced dementia, and she was waiting to go to another floor. When I came into her room, she was sitting on a chair staring out of the window, with her care-taker reading a magazine in the corner. When I introduced myself as the chaplain on this floor, she said, “that’s nice,” and invited me to sit down with her.
She looked to be in her late 80’s. With perfect posture, she sat with copies of the New Yorker, the Economist, and Newsweek on the table beside her. She was proud to tell me that she attended Bryn Mawr when very few women were going to college. She then asked what faith tradition I was a part of, and when I answered, she smiled and told me, “I was raised a Unitarian, you know.”
We sat looking out of her window, watching a storm come in from the distance, and then she turned a moment later to ask me who I was. I told her I was the chaplain on the floor – she replied, “that’s nice,” and asked me to sit with her again. We talked about Bryn Mawr, and she was, again, excited to let me know that she was raised a Unitarian. This conversation repeated itself a number of times as the storm came closer to us.
Her room was on the 18th floor, with one wall composed almost fully of large windows looking over Boston. Growing up in Texas, I knew these kinds of storms, but they were rare in the Northeast. It was the kind of storm with powerful flashes of lightening, loud, booming thunder that shook us, and winds that we could feel pressing against our window high above the city. She reached over and held onto my hand, and we sat in silence as the storm pounded against the building. When it moved past and the sky cleared, she turned to me, smiled, and once more asked who I was.
Fear and being human
Those moments when she held my hand and we stared out at a powerful storm in front of us were so peaceful to me. I felt secure, free from anxiety, present, and grateful. I didn’t expect that. It shouldn’t have been that way, because two of my greatest fears for as long as I can remember are strong storms and losing the capacities of my mind.
I’ve been afraid of storms from a young age, since I watched flood waters rise and creep into my home while family members placed sandbags where they could. I’ve been scared of those storms since I watched property destroyed and farm animals float by in the flooded creek.
Like many people, I’ve watched family members and friends seem to disappear with dementia. And, as a person who too often identities with my ideas, I struggle knowing who I would be without them.
I know I’m not alone in those fears specifically, and certainly not in having fear in the first place. The experience of fear is a critical part of being alive and being human. And, that can be a good thing.
The first time someone voices fear in the Bible is only three chapters into the entire text. It’s in one of the creation stories, after Adam and Eve eat fruit from the tree of knowledge of good and evil. The author writes that the two hide from God, and when God asks where they are, the man replies by saying, “I heard you walking in the garden so I hid. I was afraid because I was naked.”
Even in this story, written thousands of years ago, in a culture and time very different from our own, the first time someone shows fear, they say, “I am afraid you might see me as I really am.” Sound familiar?
Many fears are baked into our DNA. We’ve inherited them from generations of ancestors, and our evolution depended on them. When our hearts race looking down from a great and dangerous height or at the sight of a spider or snake, we can thank an ancestor long ago. We are built to be afraid of these things long before we experience them.
What can your fear teach you?
Through the right lens, looking at our fear can tell us a lot about what we desire as humans.
What can your fear teach you? Fears of snakes and falling point toward our desire to have basic safety and protection. Fears of aging bodies and minds can represent, in part, our hopes to have agency, to create, and make a difference. These fears can also illustrate a love and recognition of the bodies and minds we have that we don’t want to lose. Fears of ridicule and rejection point toward our human need to be held and loved in community. We are social animals who often know the greatest good in relationship. We want someone who will see us and stay with us.
Obviously, there are times when fear can be unhealthy. We can become obsessed and myopic. It is easy to have out-sized fears of things that probably won’t hurt us too much. The conversation at work might push some of the same buttons in our brain as being chased by a tiger, but the stakes are rarely as high. Too many people know what anxiety that will not let you function feels like, and that is real.
However, the goal is not to remove fear from our lives, even if we could. It can tell us so much about living well. Knowing what you fear helps you know what you love. Fear doesn’t have to disappear, but rather it can serve as one of many guides in our lives. If we ask it the rights questions, it keeps us safe and points us toward what we believe will make our lives whole.
The storms outside and within us will return. That is certain. But sometimes, if we sit and watch them, we learn who we are and what we desire most. Goodness and wisdom exist, even within the fear. Sometimes, a person reaches over to hold our hand, and we are not alone. The clouds will clear, the skies will open, and we will start again.