Sunday, January 11, 2015

2015.01.11 Let's Start a Post-Fear Era

“Fear has in this moment, a respectability I’ve never seen in my life.” 

Marilynne Robinson said this in an October 5, 2014, NY Times Sunday Magazine, interview conducted by Wyatt Mason. Robinson, 2013 recipient of a National Humanities Medal at the White House, is one of the few contemporary writers who is not afraid to speak out about fear. She is also not afraid to speak out about being religious—a “bent” she seems to have been born with, she says. Even clergy these days are hesitant about their religious "bent" and couch their religious faith in currently acceptable terms of spirituality. 

It’s post-Christmas time. It’s post-Christian, post-modern, post-everything, as far as I can figure out. For me it’s post-menopausal, at the least. What’s ahead? I get tempted to “respect” fear too much when I let it hold me back, when I over-anticipate negative outcomes. What if?—and the like. 

Every Christmas season we engage in our annual ritual of watching the film, “A Christmas Carol,” based on the 1843 novelette by Charles Dickens. We watch the 1984 version with George C. Scott playing the aging Scrooge, frozen in his ways by self-preservative strategies, derived from a cruel and humiliating early history. Fear ran Scrooge's show—fear posing as greed. Scrooge shut out the clamor of the world, amassed as much money as he could, never looked back, or forward, or round about him. 
We sat on the edges of our seats, pulled along by the old familiar story we knew by heart. Or did we? It was like Holy Scripture—everyone’s story in all its naked ugliness, yet without any easy answers or security that it will, in fact, turn out all right, just because some people notice what is holy, good, and, yes, divine. But will they (or we) choose good?  Will Scrooge? Oddly, our hearts were never quite sure until Scrooge ended up on his knees, weeping and full of grace. It was the emotional incredulity that kept, and keeps us every year, watching to make sure fear does not have its way entirely and looking forward to pure rejoicing, once again, at the end.

This year a phrase, or idea, from the script I hadn't noticed before struck me. Call it Scrooge wisdom. It went something like this: remember your past well, in order to live fully aware in your present, for these two combine to influence the yet unknown future you are creating. All three of Scrooge's Spirits are connected. The past, the present, and the future are never completely separable one from another in the human psyche. I call this the healthy internalization of one's personal cycle through time. As in Scrooge's transformation, the impact of all three time "zones" had to be known and integrated before his heart unlocked, defrosted, softened, and turned from fear to love.

Marilynne Robinson writes similarly compelling narratives. Her characters evolve and change, less dramatically than Scrooge, but then Scrooge needed several brickbats. Robinson's assessment of our current cultural condition isn’t too far from Dickens’s, however: that we have become overly fearful, and that our fear has become a respectable excuse for not acting as we should.

My gosh, I can identify with that when I hurry by the many beggars I pass on the city streets in Boston and hastily drop money into their cups or guitar cases. I’m generous, yes, a kind of good thing, yet I confess that I feel fear underneath. I’m not sure exactly of what. The future perhaps? These folks are always courteous and always say thank you, or God bless you, and sometimes have a musical offering. 

Mason asked Robinson: “What do you think people should be talking about more?” She talked then about fear as a default position and connected it, specifically, with faith-fear. Some of her religious students, for instance, come to her because they feel inhibited from speaking about the sacred in life, and they know she is faith-friendly. “How it [fear] has come to keep us at bay from our best selves, the selves that could and should do something”

Robinson is 70 now and has always been unafraid to write openly about internalized religious faith through story. Her characters have “soul voices” struggling to be born as they learn to speak for themselves. They often seek guidance from religious resources, like the Bible, while they are working out the scriptures of their own lives.

Dickens did the same. He was critical of religious hypocrisy and pious practices, so religious faith expressed itself from the inside out. We see Scrooge’s soul go through hell and back. And do we know it’s all a dream? Sort of. Scrooge, like the biblical Saul on the road to Damascus, stands out for his powerhouse, overnight conversion. Robinson’s heroes stand out by a similar process, though more nuanced like the slow awakening that begins for the disciples on the biblical road to Emmaus. 

I'm afraid to be called a crazy religionist, so I take courage from Robinson and Dickens. I share a portion of their fine writerly souls, and delight in the enlightenment that comes to their "fictional" heroes. They help me notice and appreciate the steady stream of transformative moments all around me every day.

Honestly? I take more courage from the solid faith of minor characters, supporting roles, who, though less central, are just as luminous in their steady recognition of the sacred in all life—the medicine for fear-driven living.

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