“We have nothing to fear but fear itself.” That iconic quote comes from FDR’s First Inaugural Address given way back in 1933. At that time a very dispirited nation was sinking into the depths of the Great Depression. In rallying our nation Roosevelt was quoting something Francis Bacon had written four centuries earlier. FDR’s whole quote is illustrative: “We have nothing to fear but fear itself—nameless, unreasoning unjustified terror which paralyses needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”
The worst of our fear is “nameless” in the sense that it’s usually subconscious. In the parlance of psychological dynamics it is termed “free-floating anxiety.” It is the worst kind of fear to have because it is nameless and generally “unreasoning” as well. Our subconscious flight or fight indicator tells us that it’s far better to know what we are afraid of than not. Many of our worst fears make little logical sense, and when they are faced are not nearly as bad as we’d thought.
At times, it has felt like my own life has been a personal “Great Depression”—a walking dread and, sadly, one ruled by anxiety—fear itself.
Free-floating anxiety is an anticipatory fear, a fear that is not attached to anything like say a phobia or a compulsion or an obsession. It lies behind most panic attacks. I recall an incident when I was 19 or 20 and an undergraduate. I was sitting in a chair reading; I was likely studying for a class. Something, I had no idea what, triggered a sudden rush of anxiety. I shot out of the chair with a racing pulse and for a moment felt overwhelmed. It only lasted a minute or two—but it was the first of many.
At that time my life was suffused with a growing fear—the walking dread of exsistential angst. I was officially an agnostic and had been so since around the time of my 13th birthday. And as a college sophomore majoring in Psychology I was on the leading edge of knowing just how much I didn’t know. Existence was a great mystery that I was nowhere near solving. I think I believed in some very distant creator-type god, but one totally uninvolved in my life. If Sunday school had taught anything about Jesus as my personal savior it’d been lost on me. At age 19 one of the books that I read in my spare time was a paperback with excerpts from various 20th Century philosophers titled “The Age of Anxiety”. Reading books like that and listening to classical music was a self-conscious attempt to appear brighter and more sophisticated than I thought I could ever hope to be in reality.
The dreary philosophy of Bertrand Russell and the various existentialists of the paperback offered me no hope. I was an exceptionally shy and introverted young man. Having dates and a normal college life was way beyond me, and I had the depressive triad in spades: feelings of helplessness, hopelessness and worthlessness. In spite of that I never felt like ending my life: I was too worried about dying young to contemplate suicide. I thought it would be an accomplishment if I could just live to 21 and be officially an adult. Twenty-one came and a few months later I graduated from college, and for a few months I felt better. I had achieved something.
But I still felt basically without hope. The future was a formless nameless dread. Yet some “still small voice” said to keep putting one foot in front of the other, and another voice said that there was more to life than what was dreamed of in dry philosophies. About the only tangible at that time that spoke to me about hope was music—particularly the music of Beethoven. In the face of despair his refusal to give into “Fate” aroused the elan vital in me. His music is Alpha Plus—hope, strength and joy overflow from it. It resonated in my soul and at times it seemed like it was the only thing that kept me looking forward. Since I was blind to His word, God was speaking to me thru the music—though I only understand that in retrospect. My goal then was to live to the age of 25 and make love to a woman. It seems absurd now, but at that age my focus was to live long enough to not die a virgin.
At the point at which my anxiety became overwhelming—and I began drinking heavily to cope—I was in a doctoral program at the University of New Mexico. I had basically stayed in school to avoid the draft and a likely trip to Viet Nam. It wasn’t war that I feared as much as being ripped out of my very narrow comfort zone. I was so full of dread and the spirit of hopelessness that my path thru life was dictated strictly by avoidance—decisions were never proactive or hopeful. Yet God was always holding the doors not taken.
My panic attacks made sitting thru a three hour seminar or going to the library for research an agonizing ordeal. I was suffering a type of agoraphobia/sociophobia that made being around strangers or away from my comfort zone a near impossibility. I dropped out of UNM in March, 1967, and began looking for a job. Though more qualified to be an inmate than an intern, I started my career in “mental health” and a more or less normal social life around the age of 24. I bluffed my way thru a phone interview and got hired as a psych intern by a large state facility in Illinois. At the Zone Center I found mentors and close friends. I say “found” but in reality they were provided me by God. There were ample young people employed there and some chose to befriend me, as I was still far too timid to reach out to them. And much to my surprise some were attractive young ladies.
Though I didn’t believe in Him at the time, God was still looking out for me. However, my anxiety had not gone away. The Lord was still knocking at the door of my heart but I was doing my best to not pay attention. I was busy staying drunk and trying to be a womanizer. And I was medicating my fear with copious amounts of vodka, gin and beer, and medicating my depression with weed and speed. My musical tastes had morphed from classical to Dylan and the Stones. It was what my peers were listening to and their poetic defiance resonated more than the classics at that point in my restless journey.
Eventually I relocated to Florida, the Sunshine State, found a wife and a career of sorts working in a community mental health center. I was married for nine years and employed at the center for nearly fourteen. With my wife came a stepson. I enjoyed being a family man and having normal intimacy. I stopped drinking because my wife didn’t like it and she was tougher than grog. I grew up. Quite unexpectedly in 1979, the Lord came crashing into my life and I accepted Jesus as my savior.
Though the marriage didn’t last, I matured a lot. I learned that I could cope without a drink in one hand and a cigarette in the other. Though becoming a Christian allayed much of my nameless dread, it never completely went away. It was always there, vaguely present, like some threatening spectral presence staring at me in the twilight. It was fear itself. But at least the anxiety attacks had become a yearly event instead of weekly.
In 2002, I was ministered to thru a book titled Ruthless Trust by Brennan Manning. With that book came the realization that whereas I believed in God, I didn’t really trust Him. The proof of that was that I had not gotten on an airplane in 33 years because of fear—fear of the unknown, fear of being out of control, fear of the absence of my comfort zone, etc. I hated the fact that part of my life was ruled by fear, and I was ashamed that as a Christian counselor I wouldn’t take the advice I’d give to a client about facing fear.
However, my stepson had been pestering me to come to California for a visit, and quite uncharacteristically, in a rare moment of courage, I booked a flight. A few days later the book was provided by God masquerading as serendipity. I was browsing in the Christian section of a bookstore killing time before a movie. Suddenly, a book with the odd title Ruthless Trust jumped out at me and I thought, “Yes, that’s the one.”
Well, in the last dozen years I’ve taken over twenty flights, including four across the pond to Europe. Being able to fly has allowed me to go on mission trips, and provided me other wonderful experiences in God’s kingdom. And now if I don’t have a trip planned it feels like something is missing. Manning’s proposition, his equation is this: Faith + Hope = Trust. I had faith but chronic depression and the spirit of hopelessness had rendered me unable to trust in the Lord. And what underpinned that depression was anxiety—fear itself.
Today I believe that fear itself, is the “spirit of fear”—as in “But God has not given us a spirit of fear; but of power, and of love and of a sound mind.” (II Tim. 1:7) I believe that the spirit of fear is one of the powers and principalities that is the dominion of “the prince of the power of the air” that Paul warns about (Eph. 2:2). The airwaves these days are certainly full of fear—that’s pretty much all the 6 o’clock news and talk radio are about anymore. Oh, there are plenty of things to personally worry about like one’s health, loved ones or employment, but the spirit of fear is different, it’s nameless, faceless and paralyzing. Folks obsessed with fear itself are not going to accomplish much for the Lord. They are too preoccupied and distracted by battling the demon of dread to do much proactive for His kingdom.
My dread started to give way when I became a believer in Jesus in 1979, but it more fully dissipated in 2002, when I started to walk with Him in trust. Like David says in Psalm 37, we must “trust in the Lord and do good.” God gives us his grace and countless blessings, and as Brennan Manning points out, the only thing we have to give back to Him is our trust.