Monday 8 February 2021


We are ruled by fear at the moment, first and foremost fear of illness and fear of death but along with these there is fear of the unknown and fear of the future, all sorts of fears brought on by something we can't see or detect by any normal means and so have to rely on people who claim to know what they are talking about but who do not inspire any great confidence. Fear is, of course, fundamental to the human condition but there are times when it becomes the dominant emotion and now is one of those times for many people. When you are frightened you often act illogically through panic, and that is what lies behind much of what is happening today all over the world.

Fear is something we will never completely overcome until we reach sainthood. Still, that does point to how we might start to overcome it. Jesus said that perfect love casts out fear. What does he mean by this? I think the element in real spiritual love that demolishes fear is trust. When you love God you trust him and when you trust him you have no fear. You know he will look after you, come what may. This doesn't necessarily translate into material terms which is the mistake many people make. They think that if you put your faith in God everything will be fine. It may be but it may not because God always works on the soul and does what is best for that. The body and the earthly man are not unimportant but they are secondary.

When you fully trust God that doesn't mean you leave God to do everything for you. God gave us a mind, common sense and free will and he wants us to use these things to become a mature soul, able to function creatively in the spiritual world. I've always liked the phrase attributed to Oliver Cromwell before the battle of Edgehill "Trust in God and keep your powder dry" for it sums up just the right attitude. Always trust God but be responsible for yourself. Then you need have no fear, whatever befalls you. However, if you think God is going to bail you out whatever you do, you need to think again. He is not your nursemaid and you should never take him for granted.

Writing this piece prompted me to think about times I have known real fear in my life. Probably my two most intense experiences of fear came when I was rock-climbing as these are the two occasions I have felt closest to death. The first was when I was 13 years old and in a climbing competition at a place called Eridge which is a sandstone outcrop on the borders of Kent and Sussex. As I recall, the rock face was about 30 feet high and we climbed in teams, the team leader having no supporting ropes. I can't believe they would allow that kind of thing nowadays! Anyway, when it came to my turn to lead I got about 20 feet up and then got stuck in that I couldn't find any grips. I couldn't go up and I couldn't go down. So I just stayed very still and tried to be calm. There wasn't much else to do. Luckily an adult below saw I was in difficulties and called out to me telling me how to proceed and directing me to where a hold was. I still remember the huge wave of relief that swept over me when I got to the top and safety. That feeling was actually worth the fear. I wonder if the difficulties of life in this world will be similarly, only much more so, put into perspective after we have left it.

The second occasion was around 15 years later when I was in India. There was a place called Killiyur Falls in the forest near where I lived. To get to it entailed a walk through the forest which then was just along a rough track though I believe that a more amenable path has been created now. But the trek meant that not many people visited the Falls then. It was a rock face about 300 feet high which during the rainy season was a waterfall. At the time I am describing however it was the dry season so there was no water, just bare rock. I went with a friend, an Englishman who was staying at the local ashram which sounds more glamorous than it was. This particular ashram was nothing much and I think Richard may have been the only person there apart from one orange-robed monk.

When we reached the foot of the falls and saw there was no water we had the crazy thought that it would be fun to climb up to the top. I said it was the dry season but I remember that we actually had brought umbrellas with us so it may have been the very beginning of the monsoon. But the waterfall was created by an overflow from a lake higher up in the hills and this had not yet started to swell so the rock was still dry. We didn't really know how high it was or how difficult it might be but it didn't look too hard from where we were at the bottom. It seemed as though it wouldn't be too much to scramble up this. We could even do so carrying our umbrellas.

To begin with all went well. The ascent involved a little clambering but nothing daunting until all at once the rock face began to get steeper.

Still, this just meant we had to climb rather than clamber though we did have to do something about the umbrellas we were carrying so we hooked them on the back collars of our shirts. They weren't very large.

But then the climb got even steeper.

You might ask why we hadn't realised this from the bottom but the combination of height and tree cover had obscured the reality from us and we just hadn't thought seriously about what we were doing. The climb had started off as a boyish adventure but was now very serious. We dropped the umbrellas down below as they had become encumbrances and carried on with the climb, each of us probably wishing we hadn't got ourselves into this mess but not saying anything out loud. Descent would have been too hard as it would have been blind so there was nothing for it but to keep going even though we didn't know if it was actually going to be possible to get to the top. It was one of those times when you are living totally in the moment, your whole being just concentrating on not making a mistake.

We eventually did get to the top and, as before, the wave of relief and sense of accomplishment amply compensated for the earlier fear. I remember there was a trickle of water from a little stream which would eventually become the waterfall and we drank from this, a delicious draught that refreshed our bone-dry mouths. We sat there for a while still shaking from nerves and the climb but feeling intensely alive, the blackness of fear having given way to the bright thrill of life. I had prayed for help while climbing because that is what you do, believer (which I was) or not, when you are in such a situation, and we both thanked God for our deliverance. When we got back to town we talked about our experience with local people who told us that only the month before a schoolboy had died on the rocks attempting the same foolhardy escapade as us. We had been lucky.

Fear is the inevitable accompaniment to the conscious awareness of life in this world. It is the knowledge that life involves pain and suffering and death. I do not know how far down the evolutionary ladder fear goes but it is clearly instinctively registered by very primitive forms of life. What I do know is that it can be overcome, to an extent anyway for there will probably always be residues of it while we live in this world, by trust in God. He is the only thing that can remove fear because in him is perfect love and perfect goodness.


Anonymous said...

About the Author
William Wildblood was born in London. After a period working as an antiques dealer he left the UK to run a guesthouse in South India, where he stayed for several years. He later ran another guesthouse in France where he was also an occasional guide at the medieval abbey of le Mont Saint-Michel. He returned to England at the end of the 20th century, working for several BBC magazines including seven years as an antiques columnist. William now lives in Epsom, Surrey, UK.
William, my name is Christopher, I had recognized Mont Saint-Michel upon the book cover and was going to ask you to clarify with my observation. I've wanted to visit that magical place ever since getting wind of it in a virtual tour of it, of all things, in a video game about samurai battling demons. Behind that morning haze I thought it could have been that place and your brief bio mentions you are very familiar with the place. Super cool.

Fear has many aspects which are reflections of the aspects of one's self. Coming to know one's self is coming into knowledge of God. I treat it with, perhaps speaking flowerly, of artistry; Oh, as I type this, I receive some syntax error of the computer of the use of flowerly, so maybe I should say leafly.

I want to speak of a brevity of fear that can lay to rest what one is as one perceives one's self, and the brevity that will shock the individual and the intimate who are present in such times as wars and destructions. Entire lives, the experiences of oneself and their countrymen, are ordered by culture to attain to the truth of the self as being of God. I pray that such extreme severances form a man who knows that he is born again into eternity. Ave Maria.

The span of moments between indecision and inaction are the moments between decision and action.

William Wildblood said...

Hello Christopher

I lived near Mont St Michel for a few years in the 1990s. It is a magical place in an extraordinary setting. I wrote a bit about it last year.

Bruce Charlton said...

@William - Excellent analysis - articulates the situation very well.

I think it is usually necessary to distinguish between the acute fear you experienced in rock climbing - which is usually a heightened alternateness that is sueful for survival; from the chronic, angsty, long-term state of being afraid of the future - which is what Jesus seemed to be warning us against.

Being afraid on a rock face may be useful, if it helps you escape the situation without harm - after which (as you describe it) the fear subsides spontaneously.

Be not afraid could mean (as when angels say it) "there is no reason to be afraid, we mean you no harm" - or it can mean "You need to stop being afraid and trust in God's love for you".

It would be useful is the sinful kind of fear had a different name (?angst) but maybe there just is a continuum of fears, some valid but others sinful; and a need for discernment among them?

William Wildblood said...

You are right, Bruce. There is physical fear such as I described here and then there is what you might call spiritual fear which comes from not having sufficient faith. As you say, the former is probably helpful while the latter is sinful because it rejects God.

Brief Outlines said...

Beautiful. Thanks William