Fear will always tend to present the anxieties of the future in the most serious possible tones.
It is never “I may have to get unemployment insurance, and schlep around town looking for work.” It’s always “I’ll lose my job and the bank will seize the house.” It’s not “We’d better get used to rice and beans,” but “We’ll starve, and the children will have no milk.”
Nothing in this life is really particularly terrifying.
This is the point made by the film Life Is Beautiful: Even when the hero is in a Nazi concentration camp, he is still capable of joy and love.
“We know,” says St. Paul, “that in everything God works for good with those who love him” (Romans 8:28).
Paul did not mean that if we loved God we would live in a nice house with some floral deck furniture, or that our bones would not creak and fail us in old age.
In fact, Paul boasts that: “Five times I have received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. Three times I have been beaten with rods; once I was stoned. Three times I have been shipwrecked; a night and a day I have been adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brethren; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure” (2 Corinthians 11:24-27).
St. Paul put his hand in the hand of the man who walked the waters and calmed the sea, and he got shipwrecked three times. No wonder the atheists think that we are mad.
Yet, “We know that in everything God works for good with those who love him.”
This has been a constant refrain in my life, and yet, in spite of it, I am often afraid.
I was an exceedingly zealous convert, and shortly after becoming Christian I sold almost everything I owned, gave the money to the homeless, and spent most of my time wandering about Southern Ontario preaching the Gospel to people I met in coffee shops. I have subsisted on nettle soup and day-old doughnuts, and I happen to know that it isn’t all that bad. I have come home to find my tent torn apart by raccoons, my honey and peanut butter eaten, and my beloved books left rotting in the rain.
It took a couple of hours to get over the shock, but by evening I was laughing by the fireside, confident in the love of the God who giveth, and the God who taketh away.
Poverty, then, is not really to be feared. Nor is death.
Although I am often terrified that one of my children will catch meningitis or that my husband will be sucked into an airplane engine at work, both of my actual close encounters with death have been proof of St. Paul’s dictum.
Never have I felt as close to Christ as when I miscarried. And never have I had such confidence in the resurrection than when my little sister was killed in a car accident.
Neither of these experiences remotely resembled the image of death that fear had painted in my head; the grief was painful, difficult, but it was exactly the sort of pain that is most cleansing, most redemptive. “Blessed,” as Christ said, “are those who mourn” (Matthew 5:4).
Of the great fears of man there remains pain. I will admit, I don’t know that much about it. I have never been beaten with rods, and I have never been diagnosed with cancer.
From what little I have seen, however, I have found it to be like the other great fears — nothing, really, like it is in our terrified imaginings.
Being of an over-intellectual cast, I couldn’t resist seeing childbirth as an opportunity to examine the relationship between pain and the will, and so eschewed pain-killers when I was in labor. The pain itself is not as bad as it looks: The writhing and screaming that elicits so much sympathy is generally evidence that reason has collapsed, and consciousness withdrawn. Time becomes distorted, every moment anchored in eternity, and yet the whole thing is over very quickly.
The terrible thing is not the pain.
What is really unendurable is when the pain slackens, reason rushes back into the void, and the mind begins to fear again.
And yet, though all the sufferings of this world are, according to St. Teresa of Avila, no more significant than a bad night in a bad hotel, we fear.
We are not alone. Even Christ was afraid, when he knelt in the Garden of Gethsemane, and contemplated the scourge, the cross, the loneliness of separation from the Father, the sins of all mankind being heaped upon him, and the thought that some sinners would reject him no matter what.
What then, is the good of fear? In the next installment, we will try to find out.
Melinda Selmys is a staff writer