On Fear, Fighting, and the Freedom to Embrace
A few weeks ago, in the welcome message, I talked about my desire to partner with people of different faiths (or no faith at all). While I am by both nature and experience a xenophile and a bridge-builder, this desire to get to know and collaborate with those who hold worldviews different from mine does not come without a price. The price is spiritual and sometimes even physical discomfort—the ear-splitting screech of long-cherished stereotypes shriveling up before me; the blinding soul-sting of seeing my sinful pride reflected onto another human being; the disconcerting sense that at any minute a challenging question may come my way, a question for which I am entirely unprepared to provide a gracious let alone coherent response; and, sometimes, simply the nose-itching irritation that accompanies any judgmental thought—Why can't Ms. Y or Mr. Z come to their senses and be/think/act more like me, after all?
But I persist, because I am a girl dedicated to taking her medicine, no matter how big and bitter the pill may be. I persist because I know it is good for my soul when I am denied the chance to nurse a judgment against another, when I am forced to consider my own glib faith assumptions in the harsh light of another's gaze.
Ultimately, I persist because the thing I am most afraid of is being afraid.
Years ago I read the extremely unsettling and exceedingly beneficial book The Man Who Was Thursday (http://www.christianbook.com/the-man-who-was-thursday/g-k-chesterton/9780140183887/pd/0183884?item_code=WW&netp_id=164782&event=ESRCN&view=details) by G. K. Chesterton. If you have not yet read it and had your world firmly shaken by all four corners, please do so at your earliest opportunity—it is a mystifying adventure of mythic proportions. A line from that book lodged itself stubbornly in my psyche many years ago that continues to haunt, prick, and motivate me throughout my adult life: "No man should leave in the universe anything of which he is afraid … Fight the thing that you fear."
Of course many people think they are doing just that when they attack those who are different from them. They believe they are fighting the thing that they fear when they hose down peaceful protestors or launch preemptive strikes. But I propose that the thing they really fear is fear itself—in this case the fear of whoever the "other" is in a particular context. Precisely because we find it so intolerable to fear, we lash out at the thing that most reflects that fear back to us. However, when we strike merely at the reflection of our fear, instead of at the fear itself, another reflection immediately pops up like the duck in an arcade shooting gallery. We would do far better for ourselves if we attacked the fear itself, for then we could live in freedom.
To give an example, after 13 years of living overseas, I returned to the US in 1997, in many ways a foreigner in my own country. I was unaccustomed to the American understanding of personal space (leave a wide berth around folks or they'll feel crowded), paralyzed by the choices presented to me at the supermarket, and unfamiliar with the tacit social conventions in the Philadelphia suburb where I'd landed. The nightly news offered to help me out with the latter, and from it I learned that no young black male wearing a do-rag on his head was to be trusted. When I boarded the train to work each morning, I found myself avoiding the empty seats next to males of that hue and headwear, suspecting (in spite of myself) that they were armed and probably on their way home from a hold up. But I resented that feeling—that fear that robbed my freedom to be at ease during my commute and to sit where I wanted. Why should I endure a cell-phone screamer when there was an empty seat next to the snoozing African American teen in a nylon scarf? And why was a certain external style more indicative of a person's sin or threat than any other?
I remembered Chesterton's character advising that we fight the thing that we fear. I began intentionally looking for black teens and young men to sit next to, and forced myself to find conversation starters, awkward as they may have been at times. Without fail, I discovered normal, harmless young men—on their way to college class or home from a night shift. One showed me the Christmas gifts he'd just bought his daughter; another kept on snoring; many others chatted as politely as any passenger might when accosted by a perhaps over-friendly seatmate. But whatever the results of the various conversations I started, I had confronted my fear, and I was free—free to be at ease, to be myself, even eventually to move into a mixed-race neighborhood in Philadelphia and to count myself blessed by my wonderful, diverse neighbors.
Success bears repetition, so I've continued to confront my fears of the unfamiliar and to tackle the daunting—befriending the Muslim family at the end of my block, working with teenagers, taking a theater class, embarking on marriage counseling, visiting prisons, speaking in public. Each of us finds different things frightening, but all of us experience that same feeling of imprisonment when we let our fear call the shots.
Here are a few articles that I've read lately that sparked this reflection on exclusion and embrace, fear and freedom. I hope you find them nourishing food for thought as well.
10 Terms not to Use with Muslims by Chris Seiple for the Christian Science Monitor (3.28.09)
There's a big difference between what we say and what they hear. Read more. (http://www.csmonitor.com/2009/0328/p09s01-coop.html)
Editor's pick: Jumping through Fires
by David Nasser (Baker Books, 2009)
Forced to escape a country gripped by an Islamic revolution, Nasser and his family ran for their lives in an attempt to find refuge in a new culture. This raw account by an Iranian exile and former Muslim of his transition from hating religion to discovering a relationship with Christ is inspiring. Learn more. (http://www.christianbook.com/jumping-through-gripping-escape-revolution-redemption/david-nasser/9780801013355/pd/013355?item_code=WW&netp_id=625774&event=ESRCN&view=details)
Comic relief: What Would You 'Ask An Arab'?
by Art Silverman for All Things Considered (2.17.10)
Let's face it: Many Americans have a distorted image of Arabs. Take the word itself. In this country, it's used to label anyone from the Middle East or North Africa. While a possible unifying link might be a shared Arabic language, an Egyptian is very different from a Palestinian who, in turn, is very different from someone of Lebanese or Saudi Arabian heritage. To challenge your own assumptions and have a good laugh while you're at it, read, listen or watch this made-for-radio news story. (http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=123806794)
Heart-mind stretch challenge: Read Samir Selmanovic's It's Really All About God: Reflections of a Muslim Atheist Jewish Christian. (http://www.samirselmanovic.com/) The title alone will make a lot of us squirm. Are you brave enough to take the challenge and read the book instead of judging it by its cover?