Not so long ago I was having a difficult time with a number of things in my life. There were many round pegs and too few square holes. This wasn’t just relegated to my personal life. I had a few clients who were challenging, one of whom was delusional, possibly psychotic, with hints of antisocial personality disorder. Think manipulation. Think rape.
One day in particular I felt as if I were being drawn inexorably into a black hole. I felt, in a sense, hopeless, as if I were losing myself and as if life as I had known it was being wrenched from my hands. I felt cut off and alone in my suffering.
In the midst of this inner turmoil I turned to a number of people who were closest to me, sharing my experience and maybe even looking for some advice. A family member recommended that I contact some people whom I admired and who did similar work as I do. With that I called a man who, whether he realized it or not, had become a mentor.
What I respected about this man, apart from him being a professor of spiritual counseling, was his brutal honesty and joyful sarcasm. I also respected the fact that he had spent years as a Buddhist practitioner before becoming a committed Christian, a not very common spiritual trajectory.
When I called this man I sensed him setting aside all that he was doing so that he could be present with me, a skill I assumed he had procured through years of mindfulness training and meditation. I spoke some of my current personal challenges but mostly about my clients, in particular the delusional, possibly psychotic, anti-social one. After describing my inner experience of floating inexorably into a black hole he hesitated before speaking.
“What if you didn’t have to bring yourself from that black hole?” he said.
Hearing this a number of thoughts went through my mind. The first was through the filter of my childhood and the many rather intense personalities that filled it – life is scary and sometimes dark and you just need to deal with it. The second thought was more defensive – what the #@$% is this guy talking about? I call in a moment of existential angst and all this man can give me is some wonky Zen paradox?
As the weeks went by and as I dealt more and more with both personal and professional challenges the question my mentor had posed to me kept coming back, especially when I sensed that black hole looming. The question had changed somewhat in my mind, however; it was altered to fit the best meaning I could ascribe it. Instead of “What if you didn’t have to bring yourself from that black hole?” I would repeat to myself, “Push into it. Push into it.”
As I pushed into that black hole more and more, not retreating to what I had known safety to be, life gradually changed. Living situations normalized, new friendships replaced old, children’s needs were met, professional aspirations were reframed, and, most importantly, life expectations were adjusted to meet my reality and reality wasn’t so bad after all. What I discovered as I looked back on this time in my life was that the black hole that I had sensed already had a name. That name was fear.
Truth be told, at this time in my life I was afraid. For a number of very deep and significant reasons I was afraid of letting go of what I thought I was supposed to be in order to accept what I had become and afraid of the unknown and what it may bring, including the fear that if I enter into the experience of a delusional, possibly psychotic, antisocial client I will never come out. In short, I was afraid of growing into myself and into the world, a process, I suppose, that never ends until the day we die.
At the time the only differences between me and some of the many other people who have fear in their lives was that for a number of reasons I couldn’t run from my circumstances – I was too old and entrenched for that – and as a faith-based group leader and addiction therapist I was both an example to others and should know better than to turn to alcohol, drugs, or pornography in order to avoid my existential pain. I had to face my fear, and in doing so I have been changing my life.
It hasn’t just been my own experiences with fear that have sparked my profound interest in this topic. It is the experiences of others as well. Throughout the years I have had conversations with hundreds of men and women about their life challenges. My ears have become uniquely attuned to hearing the word “fear” and paying attention to the context in which it is used.
What I have discovered is that what we are afraid of holds the key to becoming who God created us to be. What we are afraid of holds the key to our unique relationships with God. Discover what you are afraid of, and push into it.
If you haven’t yet read the blog posts Change, Part I; Change, Part II; and Stages of Recovery (Change) I recommend you do. Those posts are about how fear holds the key to becoming who God created you to be. In short, our fears represent a departure from the expectations of others. Humans are hardwired for connection, and connection to the people closest to us is most hardwired in us. To separate in belief or deed from these people sparks fear because if their love is conditional, in believing or acting differently from them we run the risk of being cut off, disconnected, isolated…alone. And this is what the mind fears most.
So what if we run that risk? What if we persist into facing our fears and push through to the other side, even if we don’t know where this journey is taking us?
We discover ourselves.
And I’m not necessarily talking about facing fears like jumping out of planes, walking into a pit of snakes, or swimming with sharks – although those fears may have interesting associations. The fears I’m talking about facing are going sober from compulsive masturbation, porn use, and anonymous sex; asking someone out on a date; committing to marriage; telling your spouse about how scary it is to be vulnerable; staying in a relationship even though the intimacy is difficult to bear; discussing physical and sexual abuse with a therapist; leaving a job you hate; pursuing a job you would love; writing a novel; painting a canvas; signing a song…
Often we don’t know what we should be doing with our lives but we always know of what we are afraid. Our fears are the markers for our fulfillment. They’re the markers for life. Know your fears. Push into them.
Our fears hold the key to our unique relationship with God not only because it is through our fears that we discover the person God created us to be, but also because, by its very definition, there is nothing we can take into our fears other than God. Fear is fear because there is nothing to mask it. No TV, no drugs, no alcohol, no porn, no anonymous sex, no idols of any kind. When we face our fears we must stand alone and that’s when God becomes most relevant. That’s when we can see God.
I have met many men and women who have found God to be illusive. They just don’t know where God is in their lives. Either they have done all that they felt was expected of them as prescribed by their beliefs and feel let down because they didn’t get what they wanted in the end, or they have failed to meet the expectations of their beliefs and feel they don’t deserve to have what they want anyway. For many, the solution to God’s perceived absence is to assume a diminished life or to give themselves over to indulgences and addictions.
Those who are earnestly seeking God and feel God to be illusive may take some spiritual direction in what I am discussing here. Psychiatrist and theologian Gerald G. May wrote in his work Addiction and Grace, “There can be no addiction to the true God because God refuses to be an object” (p. 97). In facing our fears we have nothing physical on which to hold. We must stand before them with open hands and open hearts and ask of fear what we are supposed to learn. In this, fear is no longer fear, but God showing us that we can trust God and that God will embrace us and love us despite our frailties. We are OK. We are enough.
In Philippians 2:6-11 the Apostle Paul quotes what is believed to be the oldest recorded Christian hymn. If Philippians was written around 60 A.D., this hymn could date back another ten, fifteen, or twenty years earlier to not too long after Christ was crucified.
In this “Christ Hymn,” believers proclaimed the essence of Christ and the meaning of his death. Paul writes of Christ, “Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant…he humbled himself and became obedient to death – even death on a cross” (Phil. 2:6-8).
Christ’s life, fundamentally, was one of pushing into fear, not running from it, because that’s where God was. In the Garden of Gethsemane, before his arrest, Christ openly implored God to “take this cup from me” (Matt. 26:39, Mark 14:36, Luke 22:42). Christ was afraid, but he was faithful. Christ pushed into “nothingness” (Phil. 2:7) and was “exalted” (Phil. 2:9).
After Paul quotes this hymn in Philippians, he writes what has often been a reason for many Christians to live a life of fear instead of a life pushing into fear – “Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed—not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence—continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose” (Phil. 2:12-13).
When we push into our fears we discover God by virtue of the “nothingness,” not because God is a protection against it. When we face our fears we have nothing on which to hold and we must open ourselves up to change. Without illusions; without distractions; without compulsive masturbation, anonymous sex, pornography, prostitutes, etc. we are required to look into the “black hole” and discover that instead of our fears holding the seeds for our destruction, they hold the seeds for our rebirth.
This process of pushing into our fears, if fully committed to, is the very nature of “The Wall” stage referred to in Stages of Recovery (Change). If we allow ourselves to push into our fears and stand there long enough, we discover that we don’t decompose; we don’t drift off; we don’t actually die. Instead we persist, find our footing, and live the life we were meant to live.
I still have many fears today. At this moment I am afraid of raising my children in such a big city, afraid of drifting apart from my family of origin, afraid of saying or writing the wrong things in trying to help people, afraid of disclosing too much about myself for fear of shame. Those are just my conscious fears. There will be other fears of which I am currently unaware. But in my spiritual walk I have gotten better – not perfect but better – at sensing my fears, and gently pushing into them. Each time I have done so I found God. When I look back, I can hear God imploring, “You’re where you need to be. Trust me.”
The truth is, this process isn’t easy. Our fears are our fears for a reason; they protect us from further harm. Contrary to logic, our brain protects itself through fear. Yes, dismantling fear is necessarily in order to lead an authentic life, but it can also be harrowing, especially if you have been traumatized by abuse or neglect. If you chose to face your fears, please do so with unconditionally loving support. This is the job of a good therapist and should be the job of a good support or community group and church. If anyone needs recommendations, please email me – email@example.com.