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World steeped in fear, but Jesus says, ‘Be not afraid’


As a nation we have learned lessons about freedom, and hubris, and the art of perpetual motion. Now we are learning the varieties of terror.

Our education began with hijackers who slowed and took aim, then flew straight into their own deaths. We swiftly denounced their attack as cowardly -- and, as an act of war, it was. But the individuals who executed those meticulous plans were either so driven by hate that fear no longer mattered, or so convinced of eternal reward that it weighed nothing. The realization terrified us. Because when the enemy is fearless, logic explodes, and our scenarios must include the unthinkable.

And so we watched and listened and trembled, imagining crop dusters above our yards, anthrax on our keyboards. For the first time, we could not rock away the terrors of our children, pooh-pooh the conspiracy theories of our crazy relatives, medicate away the panic. For those already helpless, paranoid about conspiracies or paralyzed by anxiety, Sept. 11 was proof. For the rest of us, it was revelation: We were hated.

Knowledge of the hatred addled our brains, but it didn’t reach our hearts. Only the cell phone calls cut that deep -- the calls, and the people who jumped, holding hands. Because in their last seconds, they had reached past fear and broken through to love. A miracle that wasn’t yet available to the rest of us.

Instead, we stocked up on antibiotics, overdosed on CNN, urged each other to be safe. At the airport, my husband and I produced our driver’s licenses eagerly, displaying them like virtue. Passing between armed guards in camouflage uniforms, we traveled like good children, quieter than usual, much too scared to worry about civil liberties.

People in the Middle East, Asia, Africa and Eastern Europe smiled in quiet pity at our surprise. They’d lived precariously for years -- while we flew to the moon, bent world markets to our will, pierced the sky with our towers. For reasons opposite those of the terrorists, we, too, were fearless. Now it was our turn, and I felt an odd twist of relief, a long-awaited solidarity with the rest of the suffering world. Our exuberant excesses had failed to protect us. We, the superpower, leaders of the free world, were as fragile as newborn chicks.

“We’re at war,” a chubby fourth-grader informed me. His friend pulled a magazine photo from his backpack and held it outstretched. “My mama wants me to carry this everywhere.” His brow furrowed as he squinted at the image of two towers. Then he returned it to his folder, smoothed it, and looked up. “Don’t go to any malls on Halloween, OK? They’re gonna do something really bad to us again soon.”

My heart broke when I saw the fear in his soft brown eyes because I couldn’t erase it, any more than I could erase my own. “Be not afraid,” I remind myself regularly these days, summoning the old comforts: Jesus wrapping his arms around children, gently pulling old men to their feet, drawing pariahs toward the hearth, placing long slender fingers, vibrating with healing energy, against the lids of sightless eyes. “Be not afraid. I am always with you.”

When I try to explain the soothing power of my faith to a Jewish friend from Queens, she cocks her head. “Funny, I don’t remember any teachings like that about fear. I think the rabbis just assumed suffering and danger were a huge part of life, and of course we’d be afraid; the point was to keep going anyway.”

Interesting shift in emphasis. I find myself wondering what the third branch -- the true Islam, not the terrorists’ perversion -- teaches about fear.

The imam calls back promptly. “In Islam there are four kinds of fear. The natural fear of a child. The regrettable fear of someone who is naïve or inexperienced. The understandable fear of the good man, protecting himself and his loved ones. And the virtuous fear, the fear of Allah alone.”

It is that final, fourth fear that the good Muslim strives for. We saw its distortion in the Sept. 11 hijackers, driven by a fear of Allah so single and concentrated that, in other circumstances, we might have called it pure. And we hear truer echoes throughout the Old Testament, which urges us again and again to fear God above all else.

Fear’s a word that always worried me; surely they mistranslated? A God of love would not inspire fear. And if he did, why would his son then turn around and contradict him, gently admonishing us to “Be not afraid”? We’re talking about two different kinds of fear, I realize suddenly, two different parts of the brain. The Old Testament fear is an intellectual sort, a swift reordering of priorities that places the revered above all else. But the fear that Jesus addresses is biological, psychological, existential. The panic of getting separated from the group, lost in a desert that’s turned to ice. The long nights worrying, convinced the worry itself can somehow control the outcome. The heavy-hearted dread of losing someone we love; trading pleasure for pain; dying.

Be not afraid, Jesus told us: I love you, and I have saved you already. Such assurances don’t negate the darkness, they offer us a night-light. But until now its solace always seemed so personal, illuminating the dark corners of my own tiny life. Can I use the same message to guide me through collective terror? Do I want to?

What I haven’t dared to admit until now, even to myself, is that, even as I grieve the losses, I find this new terror a bit exciting. It’s as though we’ve finally set our ridiculous differences aside, stripped away our shallow disguises and climbed together into the Hindenburg. Inside our new fear, the air is warm, heavy and intimate, the colors brilliant, the ideas urgent. We are learning about parts of the world we never knew existed, suffering we were never willing to acknowledge. But soon danger itself will become routine. We’ll lose the adrenaline, the obsessed interest in every bit of news, the ready tears and solidarity. Our bodies can’t sustain the intensity -- and our faith can’t keep the foxhole fervor. Old-time preachers drummed it up fresh every Sunday with threats of hellfire and brimstone. Now we’ll have terror to remind us that we are tender, raw, vulnerable.

We’ll need to develop thick shells, for refuge. But we’ll also need to leave them every morning, go naked into the world and search out our lives. Terrified. But unafraid.

Jeannette Batz is a staff writer for The Riverfront Times, an alternative newspaper in St. Louis. Her e-mail address is Jeannette.batz@rftstl.com

National Catholic Reporter, November 2, 2001