Chaplain's Corner + Persevering in Fearsome Situations
When encountering fearsome situations some people have an automatic appraisal that they must flee from them at all costs and that they should continue to keep such dangers in mind - and even "keep dwelling on the possibility of such events occurring" again. This is described by clinical cognitive psychologist Albert Ellis, (1962)1 as being "terribly concerned about" them. Another possible common reaction is to 'freeze in place.' Granted, there are some dangerous events in which it may, in fact, be appropriate to flee or freeze. To run and call attention from someone threatening harm would be functional in some situations; naturalists, however, would advise that when coming upon a harmful animal in the wild many times it is best to immediately stop, and not move to prevent calling attention to yourself. Most common everyday situations are not this extreme, and for our well-being it behooves us to deal with them.
When I was in post-graduate clinical training under Ellis, I was instructed in the technique of performing a public "shame exercise' and then teaching the technique and encourage its use by patients who were adversely affected with fear in their daily lives. One example suggested (and that I practiced) was to go into a large department store and shout out the time of day every 10 seconds while riding up and down the escalator for a few minutes. I quickly learned that I could get through such shameful and potentially fearsome situations. The "shame exercises" given to patients as psychotherapy 'homework' are related to their particular feared circumstances. To this day, I tell patients that they are capable of carrying fears with them as they journey through their various life activities.
Such counsel was not lost on some of our brave military individuals. Former U.S. Navy aviator, POW and Silver Star recipient John McCain has said: "We are taught to understand, correctly, that courage is not the absence of fear, but the capacity for action despite our fears. Courage is fear holding on a minute longer."2 World War II General George S Patton, commented: "If we take the generally accepted definition of bravery as a quality which knows no fear, I have never seen a brave man. All men are frightened." He further went on to say: "The time to take counsel of your fears is before you make an important battle decision. That's the time to listen to every fear you can imagine. When you have collected all the facts and fears and made your decision, turn off all your fears and go ahead!"3
A spiritual perception when confronting life's vicissitudes can aid us in persevering in fearsome situations. The Buddhist tradition would have us focus on detaching ourselves from our attachments: "From what is dear, grief is born, from what is dear, fear is born. For someone freed from what is dear there is no grief-- so why fear? (Dhammapada 212). Judeo-Christian teachings would encourage us to see God accompanying us in frightening times. As we read in Psalm 90 1-5, "He that dwelleth in the aid of the most High, shall abide under the protection of the God of Jacob. He shall say to the Lord: Thou art my protector, and my refuge: my God, in him will I trust. For he hath delivered me from the snare of the hunters: and from the sharp word. He will overshadow thee with his shoulders: and under his wings thou shalt trust. His truth shall compass thee with a shield: thou shalt not be afraid of the terror of the night." Thus, as Eastern Church Father, St. John Karpathos summarizes, "With our whole soul we must trust in God: as one of our Fathers said, 'Entrust yourself to the Lord, and all will be entrusted to you.'" (Philokalia I, p. 308)4. While carrying our fears with us we can be assured that God is accompanying us as well, as our buckler, our shield, our protector.
1 Ellis, A. (1962). Reason and Emotion in Psychotherapy. Secaucus NJ: Lyle Stuart.
4 Palmer, G.E.H.; Sherrard, P.; and Ware, K. (Trans.) (1971, 1981, 1988, 1990). Philokalia, IIV. London: Faber and Faber.