Fear as a Prison

In The Way of Love, Anthony de Mello writes about the prisons we each live in created by layers of beliefs, ideas, habits and attachments and fears. Each layer is added by culture, traditionalisms, mass media, families, religions, etc. Each is a layer of prejudice that keeps us from being awake, leaves us reactionary and with little sense of self or courage in the face of angry mobs. Sound familiar?

In response de Mello writes:

Realize that you are surrounded by prison walls, that your mind has gone to sleep. It does not even occur to most people to see this, so they live and die as prison inmates. Most people end up being conformists; they adapt to prison life. A few become reformers; they fight for better living conditions in the prison, better lighting, better ventilation. Hardly anyone becomes a rebel, a revolutionary who breaks down the prison walls. You can only be a revolutionary when you see the prison walls in the first place (65).

One of the fears that I have struggled with all my life is the fear of “what people will think?” I am afraid that I will reveal myself as someone who isn’t as smart or creative as people imagine or as I want to project, so I often remain quiet. I am afraid that I won’t be the kind of friend in solidarity with those I aspire to be in solidarity with; that I’ll say the wrong thing, or worse, say hurtful things, and in the process damage relationships. So I don’t always risk the kind of vulnerability needed to create deep friendships. I am afraid that people will think I am a self-promoter, so I have an uncomfotable relationship with being a leader. I am afraid that I’ll reveal my own ignorance and my blindness to my privilege, so I avoid the hard conversations. I am also afraid of what happens once these things are revealed. In the age of the Internet, folks can be merciless. Two seconds of misspeak on the Internet can equal years of dealing with collateral damage.

I am trying to be honest about my fears here because I want defang them. I want to move past them as a friend and as a leader. When I became a pastor, I slowed down in my writing due to workload and because it was hard to know how to be a public writer and a pastor whose work is primarily local and often confidential. Now that I am at a College, and my relationship to work is different, I am again wondering where my voice fits and how do I speak in ways that are authentic and true, while facing these fears that leave me within a prison of self-doubt and questioning?

Over the weekend, I had the opportunity to drive home to Ohio and see family on a short trip. I love road trips and my 3.5-year-old, C, rode with me. The 7 hours of driving to and from Ohio gave me time to think and observe the layers de Mello is talking about. The space to observe some of what is happening underneath the many layers was invaluable.

Two things came up for me as I listened to two great podcasts, The Liturgists interview With David Bazan, and Microphone Check Interview with Saul Williams. In both podcasts, Bazan and Williams discuss the act of creating and working through fears. For Bazan, when one creates, they must create primarily for themselves rather than telling people what you think they want to hear. This reminded me that when I used to preach weekly, I tried to focus my sermon prep on what I heard from God, rather than what I or others in my meeting wanted to hear. Every week, prior to my message, I would open with a prayer from the Psalms, “Let the words of my mouth and meditations of my heart be acceptable and pleasing to You, our Rock and our Redeemer.” In other words, whether there was 1 person in the meeting house that morning or 200, I would be doing the same thing, saying the same thing, and offering it as an experiment in faithfulness.

When it comes to my writing and reflecting, I want to revive this sense of sharing. I write to think and I write publically in the hopes that my listening, learning and sharing might strike a resonant chord with another. The act of thinking in public has helped me think in different ways than if I was just going to write in my journal.

Hip-Hop artist Saul Williams said a few things in his interview on Microphone Check that really struck me on this particular topic:

I have the philosophy that rappers, in fact, should age amazingly, that they get more and more graceful, more and more innovative, more and more amazing with time.

I mean, if you were to look at the evolution of someone like Monk or someone like Max Roach, it’s not like, “Oh, Max is old.” I mean, Max was drumming on a level that got better and better, more and more intricate, maybe their — the thing that they’re interested in may get more abstract. Or you look at producers, people like Brian Eno or what have you.

There has to be something that is said for the artist who stays on their creative path, that does not swallow the hype or what have you, but keeps on forming challenges for themselves to keep going. And that’s funny, because we have no doubt about that in painting, for example.

A painter gets older and older, and they follow their path. And we know — like, “Have you seen what they’re doing now?” Sculptors: “Have you seen what they’re doing now?” Some filmmakers, not every filmmaker, you know? It really does — some filmmakers get really better and better. Tarkovsky is a great one.

On the other hand, like, I’m hesitant to diss popular names, but there are some established great filmmakers who have films that are out now or have been out recently that don’t hold up, because people do other things. They surrender to fear…

What I love about this reminder is the need for people who are in it for the long haul to create and evolve in ways that are public and accessible to folks; To not surrender to fear but to continue to push oneself in her or his community, to grow, to allow for the kind of vulnerability that creates both growth and depth of relationship and to let that be seen by others in healthy and helpful ways. This reminds me of Bob Dylan’s continual evolution as an artist. He could keep busy just playing the old songs that everyone loves, but instead he continues to push himself as an artist into new musical territory. His new musical styles are not always received warmly either but he does it because it is how he grows and what keeps his interest and creativity alive. He has not surrendered to any number of fears.

This is some of what I am processing for myself as I seek to move beyond my fears, evolve as a human being, a friend and a person of faith and do it in ways that invite people into these processes.

How about for you? What are the layers that you’re wrestling with? Where are you needing to push through? What fears hold you back?