In the fractured world in which we live these days it might be considered sad that the one common thread uniting our tribal factions is fear. Fear that we are not being listened to or heard. Fear your “ratings” may plummet because you are not confident enough to decide for yourself. Fear that if another looks good, we will look worse. Fear that the achievements of those who came before us will set a bar too high for us to surmount. Fear that apologizing will make us look small. Fear that a changing demographic will weaken the case of those who should be confident in that rising tide that lifts all boats. Fear that love and respect are not strong enough to stand up to hatred and suspicion.
In the spirit of turning lemons into lemonade, let us instead move forward bravely and consider what is generating the fears and how they might be addressed. It begins by recognizing the “fear triggers” in our common life. By recognizing them and giving them names we may be able, like little children that banish the bogeymen under their beds, to banish them as the fictitious specters they are.
I should start with a pilgrimage to Roosevelt Island on an overhead trolley that looks quite fearful to people with fear of heights. Most riders have banished that fear by recognizing the safety record that speaks for itself and also the testimony of those who pragmatically decided that the merits of speed outweigh the “demerits” of time taken by land-based alternatives.
The real reason for such a pilgrimage would be to visit the Four Freedoms Park that honors the late FDR and his iconic message on the eve of World War II about the freedoms worth risking a great deal in order to preserve. In a lofty statement, that President who had himself faced down fears ranging from polio and heart disease to the threat of fascism that hung like a cloud over Europe, and the looming threats that emanated from the other side of our globe.
In his State of the Union Address on January 6, 1941, the President identified four freedoms he recognized as the cornerstones and bulwark of honorable life on our planet and worth risking all to preserve. They were (and are!):
- Freedom of Speech and Expression, that FDR recognized as the best defense against the corruption of any democracy;
- Freedom of Worship, identified as our shield against the forces of bigotry, intolerance and fanaticism;
- Freedom from Want, recognizing that turning a blind eye to our world’s hunger, poverty and pestilencewill condemn us all to live with their consequences; and
- Freedom from Fear, calling for international institutions and agreements to keep the peace, control armaments, prevent aggression, accept the rule of law, and assure social justice.(After his death, his widow Eleanor worked to be certain that these practical ideals are enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.)
So, a challenged man, a child of privilege faced down his own fears and drew a blueprint of things worth living and perhaps dying for. He called on us to recognize the real enemies of what we stand for as a nation. Don’t let ambition to prove yourself by amassing personal wealth become an enemy to the richness that comes from compassion for those with less. Realize (perhaps because of your own frustrating limitations) that more is to be gained by helping people feel better about themselves. Understand that enemies (real or perceived) are not vanquished by insult or innuendo but rather make you look smaller in your self-absorbed pandering for applause. Vow never to confuse cruelty with strength. Recognize that muzzling or demeaning those who speak truth to power will ultimately gain them strength from your rather transparent fear.
History tells us that FDR’s declaration of the Four Freedoms did not immediately bump up his “ratings.” It took something as homespun as Norman Rockwell’s subsequent art works portraying the faces of the Four Freedoms to make them popular icons. For the President that first identified them, one of his great glories was to have captured the link between necessary freedoms and the enemy that could undermine them, when he broadcast a “fireside chat” that “nailed” the true enemy of freedom with the undying advice that “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”
It is not the origins of our protest signs that need be attacked, but the fear that to hear their messages will demean not them, but us. It is not the calls to lock people up that will empower audiences. It may well be the compassionate understanding that we all suffer from fear. We tend to look for bogeymen instead of knowing we are brave enough to look under the bed and see that there is nothing there. Surely at least nothing we cannot vanquish by identifying our own fears.
Fear that no one is listening to or hearing us. Recognition that we will gain more ground in our assault on fear by admitting that it is listening and not shouting that will unlock a treasury of progress. Admit that neither demagogues nor deniers will help us stop the melting of our glaciers and the deadly threats unleashed by ignoring the pleadings in the eminently sensible and surely not profit-motivated reflections like Elizabeth Johnson’s pleading that we, like our Old Testament heroes, “Ask the Beasts.” That will mean taking our cue from those who hear the cry for help sounding from our God-designed and demagogue-denied evidence of our environment. (Make sure to note that the animals that flee to high ground and so survive tsunamis, are listening to their earth and not simply to shortsighted calls for monetary profit.)
The most prominent and persistent message of our Biblical reporters of Testaments Old and New is the call to recognize and resist fear. There are more citations of that subject than of any other. Knowing the real enemy is the best and only way to banish it. Let us cry out to those who would aspire to lead us, that truth is more powerful than any other weapon and that the one thing we are forbidden is to let the fear of truth confuse our hearing as we listen to campaign promises unworthy of a people conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all are created equal.
Opening photo: Pixabay; Interior photo: Shutterstock