Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Facing Fear

Have you ever had a dream in which you were running away from an unseen adversary, who seemed to lurk around every bend in the road, while at the same time so close you can hearing him panting behind you?

It's a common dream. Some would suggest that the one who is chasing you is the devil; a personification of evil. That is certainly one way to talk about that presence we feel prowling the perimeter of our lives, looking to devour us. And, depending on your audience, it may be the best way to describe this feeling of fear that many of us have experienced.

I'm reminded of Evagrius of Pontus, a 4th century Greek monk, who is credited with writing a rather obscure little book entitled Praktikos. He uses the terms demons and passions, and angels and virtues interchangeably. He had a remarkable insight into the working of the human psyche for his time. I found Evagrius helpful in my own attempt to sort out the inward and outward aspects of spiritual struggles. As a side note, I must admit to being uncomfortable with some of his suggestions, such as the appropriateness of using one demon (passion) to drive out another demon in cases when the angels (virtues) seem unable to dislodge that particular demon. The hope is that the angel will have better success in thwarting the remaining demon. Using evil to fight evil is a dangerous ploy, it seems to me. One final side note; Evagrius, along with Origen, was condemned by the Church as a heretic.

I bring up Evagrius to point out that sometimes it is not always external forces with which we contend. I suspect that more often than we want to admit, the real struggle is internal. I think this realization is an important one. If the threat remains external, we have no control, and the fear will overwhelm us. Our response will be fueled by this fear.

For instance, consider the notion of sin. If it is an external reality, with God's help, I can surgically remove it. What often happens, when this approach is taken, is that the sin (or the passion) is repressed, but reappears in some other manifestation at a later date. The person is then devastated, either thinking of themselves as somehow unworthy of God's healing, or else questioning their belief in God's redemption.

To slip into some Jungian phraseology, this denial of our dark side is one of the most spiritually unhealthy things we can do, it seems to me. For instance, as I've pointed out before, I know I'm a killer. I can take life without a second thought. That happens to be one of my demons. I don't deny this, or believe that this part of my personality has somehow been miraculously removed. Instead, I call on the angels, the virtues, in this case compassion, to form a fence around this particular kind of behavior. As a result, I am much more adamant about killing things than some other folks might be, because I know the darkness of the killer so very well.

It seems to me that the most dangerous person in the world is the one who has not confronted their own dark side, their own demons. Only when brought into the light can such destructive aspects of our personality be subdued, and hopefully, over time, by the grace of God, be transformed.

In one dream in which I was being pursued, I turned and faced the lion. What I saw was a much younger version of myself. My greatest fear was a very dark, angry young man that still lurks somewhere inside of me.

I don't know of any better way to overcome fear except to face it. That means being willing to consider worst case scenarios. Some folks, with good reason, suggest that it is never healthy to even put such negativity in the air. Personally, I find it much more detrimental to live in fear of some invisible adversary.

In summary, recall the words of the philosopher Pogo; "We have met the enemy, and it is us!"


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