I was talking with someone yesterday who had attended a July 4th fireworks display at a large downtown public park in Los Angeles. He told me that he was “constantly on edge” during the entire event. After all, the entire country had been warned of a possible terrorist threat from ISIS that might be perpetrated during American Independence Day celebrations. Police had patted down anyone who entered the park for the fireworks and they were out in force, constantly patrolling the area, everyone was on the lookout for random backpacks that could explode at any moment - everyone was “constantly on edge.” My online friend told me that his sense of underlying fear took all the fun out of being there this year.
I’ve been thinking about this and wonder if my friend’s recent experience at a July 4th fireworks display might not be the very icon of life is contemporary society nowadays - a society where an underlying sense of fear and doom seems to permeate so much of our common life: “When will the next terrorist attack happen, the next backpack turn into a bomb, the next plane go down?” And so, we are “constantly on edge” and indeed this “takes all the fun out of life.”
I think about something Buddhist teacher and monk Thich Nhat Hanh once said about this constant presence of underlying fear that so eats away at us.
We are always running, running, running,
Even in our sleep we are running.
We run because we are trying to escape from our fear.
As I reflect on this wisdom it makes me wonder if this explains why so many people nowadays are always so busy, busy at work or school, busy at home, even busy on a summer vacation – always on the run, afraid to be fully present in the moment because who knows what the moment might bring: an exploding bomb, an attack at the mall, a gunman who comes into Bible Study and shoots the people sitting around the table?
There is one single line in the Bible that appears more than any other phrase. It is a line that shows up hundreds of times and runs throughout the entire Bible - the Hebrew Scriptures as well as the Christian Gospels:
Do not be afraid!
Over the thousands of years of history out of which the various books of the Bible have emerged this is the one single piece of wisdom that has been given to all people of all time - a constant admonition to avoid succumbing to the underlying fear that threatens to poison and destroy the serenity of the human spirit.
Interestingly enough, when I look at the Bible, I find all sorts of things people might rightly fear - plenty of reasons to be afraid. The Bible is written to people who are experiencing war and famine and threats of terror, it is written to people who have suffered great personal disaster, devastation, floods, earthquakes and exile. The Bible never says there isn’t anything to be afraid of in life, instead it continuously says “Do not be afraid” – don’t let fear eat away at you, don’t let fear destroy your spirit.
Sitting in exile in a South African prison, unsure of what would become of his life, Nelson Mandela had plenty of reasons to be afraid. It was during this time that he wrote:
I learned that courage was not the absence of fear,
but the triumph over it.
When I reflect on my own life and on the times in which we live, I am well aware that there are lots of reasons to be afraid - the things that might make us afraid are constantly knocking at the door of our lives. But instead of always running, running, running and rather than being constantly on edge, I simply try to embrace what comes to me each day and at each moment, and when I do this I find an abiding Love standing there at the threshold - a Love that will never let us go.
Do not be afraid!