When I was a twenty-something, I hated it when my elders would smile slightly as I opined about the state of the world, politics, and Everything. My existential angst about Everything, and my accompanying solutions to massive problems, should have had them rolling on the floor. Laughing. (ROFL.)
But they were polite enough, or perhaps wise enough, to smile quietly and let me have my say.
Now of course, I am one of those elders, or at least mid-elder. My 20-something era was focused on fear of Cold War and nuclear holocaust. The current state of affairs doesn’t eliminate those fears — indeed, the intensity of social and news media onslaughts magnifies them and a few thousand others: refugee crises, climate meltdowns, political messes, overpopulation stresses, verbal and physical violence against everyone everywhere in the name of religion or simplistic hate.
As a middle-aged woman who lives in privilege (read: white, U.S. citizen, native Midwesterner living in a relatively safe town, highly educated, middle class), I benefit from a little bit of distance from this kind of fear. At least the fearful feeling is low-grade most of the time, with some episodic bursts of the full-blown kind here and there.
Now, I use fewer words to describe the state of the world and what I think should be done about it. Complexity of circumstance and relationship is not addressed well by over-simplified solutions. “If ‘they’ would just…” is no longer helpful rhetoric, even when I think of people who drive me wild with frustration.
Here is my observation (ROFL if you wish). There are people who thrive off of others’ fears and there are people who are in search of joy-based meaning. And those who ricochet between the two poles.
It’s the first category that can turn pathological if taken to the limit. When personal power is Everything, then fear-mongering is a useful weapon even when circumstances don’t have to be fear-based.
Some fear is natural, but when fear becomes chronic, even a small-time bully who invades our realm triggers us easily into a fearful state. Check out history throughout the eons and you will see this truth.
I choose to be with people who live meaningfully. They are on the path to joy. I am clear that God calls us to pursue meaningful life, not with platitudes and easy fixes, but with intention and integrity. Such a search will have its fear-filled and complicated times, but jump in or there will be no joy.
Have you noticed that fear-mongers are not joyful people? They are always looking for the next maneuver to gain personal power because they ascribe happiness to power.
Not so. Sounds like addiction to me.
Joy-mongers are not always “happy,” but they work toward the common good by being a part of the healing needed in the world. They choose to look fear in the eye and walk through it toward joy.
As I age, I am learning to simplify rather than be simplistic (see existential angst about Everything above). In the simplifying, I find meaning. I have to determine what really matters and move out of the clutter of the rest.
That means saying “no” a lot more, even to my friends and unequivocally to fear-mongers. That also means I say “yes” to what is beautiful, healthful, and focused on the common good.
Carefully and with intent. My faith calls me into this mindset and the accompanying behavior, struggle as it is sometimes. Perhaps this focus is what Jesus meant when he spoke the great commandment, “love your neighbor as yourself.”
Say “no” to the fear-based life and anyone who pushes fear, say “yes” to the pursuit of the common good. When we lift each other up, we know that there is a special kind of joy that rockets right through fear and into the light of joyful love of other — and self.
Lisa R. Withrow is Dean and Vice President for Academic Affairs, Methodist Theological School in Ohio.