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It Is Ok to Be Afraid

It is okay to be afraid. The challenge of living well is deciding what to do next.
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My sister is terrified of flying.

Every time she gets on a plane, she goes through an elaborate ritual. First come the meds. Then, once boarded and seated, the earplugs, the blanket, the sleeping mask. Her coping strategy is to block out the world and try to forget that she is in a skinny metal death tube 20,000 feet above the ground.

Being the caring, compassionate big brother that I am, I spent years mocking her fear of flying. After all, flying is statistically safer than driving, riding an escalator, and a host of other daily activities we do without a second thought. What fool would be so unreasonably fixated on any one danger?

Heartless? Yes. And yet half of my Facebook feed is full of people telling others why it is stupid to be afraid of terrorism or refugees, marshaling statistics and every proof point they can get their hands on.

Stop it.

There is nothing okay about bigotry, racism, or xenophobia. For leading presidential candidates to be calling for a national registry of muslims, public ID badges, or tests of religious faith for refugees is simply appalling.

But we need to untangle fear, from our response to fear.

Fear is not something we can control. It arises within us from the depths of our subconscious. It is not rational. It is not chosen. It is not a lifestyle we adopt. No one ever woke up in the morning, and made a list of pros and cons, and and decided "today, I am going to be terrified."

Fear just happens.

After the tragedy in Paris, with the trauma of 9/11 still on our mind, we are afraid. We are afraid of being gunned down at dinner or at a concert. We're worried for our friends and our loved ones. We are scared of bombs and planes and suicide attacks and terrorists and Ebola and so much more.

The world has not gotten any uglier in the last thirty years. But the ugliness seems closer, more intimate. We can reach out and touch it. Worse, it seems like it could reach out and touch us. So we are afraid.

You know what? It is okay to be afraid. What's not ok is ratifying that fear, endorsing it, justifying it, and acting on it.

Telling people they are wrong to be afraid is cruel. I say this as one who has done it. The only thing worse than fear is being judged based on your fears. When that happens, you aren't just afraid, you are under threat. At best, we respond with self-loathing. We tell ourselves that it is wrong to be afraid. All those other people are right, and we must be stupid or weak or feckless.

At worst, it is counter-productive. Told we are wrong to be afraid, we grow in our certainty. Why not? People hate to be wrong. We would much rather prove we are right to be scared. We start casting about for evidence. Maybe one refugee somewhere once committed an act of terror! Maybe one committed a crime! See, my initial instinct of fearfulness was correct!

Fear will bubble up into our minds whether we want it to or not. Telling people how wrong they are to be afraid is the least likely way to make them feel safe and secure.

Worse, we do it for the wrong reasons. For sure, if we see fear leading to a horrifying backlash against those who are fleeing for their lives, we want to go to the source to stop it. That instinct is to be commended. But that's not the only reason we speak out. It also makes us feel brave to tell others they are being fearful. It makes us feel rational to tell others they are being irrationally afraid.

Fear happens. It is okay to be afraid. What matters is what we do next.

I have spent most of my own life afraid, of career and personal failures, of judgment, of making mistakes, or my mistakes coming back to haunt me. I know fear well. I know that two things happen when you are afraid.

First, you tell yourself that if you feel fear, it must be for good reason. If you are afraid of public speaking, it must be because you are bad at it. Nervous about a social gathering? They all must secretly hate you. You cast about for proof that your fear is a rational response to a real threat.

And why not, if the other option is that we are somehow "stupid" to feel afraid? Who wants to feel stupid? Or weak? Who wants to be fearful in the land of the brave? The problem is that in the process, you create your own reality. Fear begets more fear.

Then, you react out of fear. You decline a career-making opportunity to speak in public. You skip a party. Or worse, you start thinking that maybe it makes sense to bar the doors to people who don't look like us, or ban refugees, or shut down flights to Ebola-stricken countries, no matter what all those so-called wannabe "experts" say.

You are no longer in charge, fear is.

Right now our leaders are bickering over whether we should be afraid. The battle lines have been drawn. One group is digging up proof that fear is warranted. The other is condemning people for being afraid.

But judging people for their fears won't make them go away. Neither will soaking ourselves in them and letting them dictate to us. Our only hope is to accept our fears and then ask ourselves if this is how we choose to live. Being afraid does not mean we need to act on our fears.

Bluntly speaking: Having a moment of fear that letting Syrian refugees in will make us less safe is OK. The world is scary. Thoughts pop into our heads. Latching on to that fear to level accusations against innocent people and deny them refuge from violence is not ok.

In the Bible, whenever people come face to face with god or his messengers, the first command is, "Do not be afraid." Not, "it is wrong to be afraid." Not, "fear is a sin." No, God reminds those people that they can choose. The unknown is scary, but they can decide what comes after fear.

FDR said, "The only thing we have to fear, is fear itself." He wasn't talking about the fearful thoughts that pop into our mind. He was warning us against taking those thoughts, elevating them to the level of capital-T Truth, and letting that new Truth dictate our lives.

One of my pastors, Rev. Robin Anderson of Commonwealth Baptist Church in Alexandria Virginia, says," Life is beautiful. Life is brutal. Life is brutiful." It is oh so human to minimize the beauty and fixate on the brutal. But it is not destiny. We still have a say.

It doesn't matter whether our fears are arbitrarily "right" or "wrong." All that matters is what we do now. You can be afraid and still choose to open your arms to the huddled masses yearning to be free. You can worry about your safety and still provide a home to the stranger, to the least of these. You can be afraid and let it make you more compassionate toward other human beings who are even more afraid.

The distance between our fear and how we choose to react is the measure of our humanity.

A few years ago, on a family vacation to Alaska, we took a helicopter ride to the top of a glacier to visit a dogsled camp. My sister was, unsurprisingly, terrified. But she told me recently that she would do it all over again. She is no less afraid. The fear would still be there.

But on the other end of that helicopter ride was a stunning glacial view and dozens of dogs with tails wagging. So she's decided the destination point is worth the fear.

It is okay to be afraid. The challenge of living well is deciding what to do next.