on fear

Don't Be Afraid of the Dark - Sally (Bailee Madison) © 2011 Miramax, Photo by Carolyn Johns

‘How we deal with our fear is becoming the defining measure that determines us as a people’. – Waleed Aly


‘Because not to fear was to imagine a world beyond experience. And that was too much for anybody’. – Richard Flanagan


‘Fearfulness obscures the distinction between real threat on one hand and on the other the terrors that beset those who see threat everywhere’. – Marilynne Robinson


‘We all know how when moved by fear, people may act against what others see as their own best interest. We know how, when people are afraid, they may act even against their own fundamental will We have seen how, when influenced by such actions, the course of events may take on aspects of inexorable fatality up to the point where, our of sheer weariness, no resistance to the gravitation into open conflict any longer seems possible. This is a constantly repeated tragedy.

Why is war and fear of war in the headlines of every daily paper, if not because man fears man and nation, nation [sic]? … Can there be a greater challenge for us to work for such a recognition of the dignity of man as would eliminate the fear which is eating our world like a cancer? …

If, at long last, the recognition of human dignity means to give others freedom from fear, then that recognition cannot be simply a question of passive acceptance. It is a question of the positive action that must be taken in order to kill fear.

This is not a question of abstract ethical principles. I state conclusions from some very concrete recent experiences. It is when we all play safe that we create a world of the utmost insecurity. It is when we all play safe that fatality will lead us to our doom. It is “in the dark shade of courage” alone, that the spell can be broken’. – Dag Hammarskjöld


‘It is not power that corrupts, but fear. Fear of losing power corrupts those who wield it. Fear of the scourge of power corrupts those who are subject to it. Fear stifles our sense of right and wrong. In any society where fear is rife corruption in all forms becomes deeply entrenched. Within a system which denies basic human rights, fear is the order of the day. Fear of imprisonment, torture or death; fear of losing friends, family, property or livelihood. One insidious fear masquerades as “common sense” – condemning as foolish or futile the small, daily acts of courage which help to preserve self respect and dignity’. – Aung San Suu Kyi


‘The enemy is fear. We think it is hate; but, it is fear’. – Mahatma Gandhi


‘I have been living for more than thirty years with men and women who have been excluded from society. I have seen firsthand how fear is a great and terrible motivator of human actions. Through my experience with these men and women with intellectual disabilities, I have become more aware of how fear is at the heart of prejudice and exclusion.

We are all frightened of those who are different, those who challenge our authority, our certitudes, and our value system. We are all so frightened of losing what is important for us, the things that give us life, security, and status in society. We are frightened of change and, I suspect, we are even more frightened of our own hearts.

Fear makes us push those with intellectual disabilities into far-off, dismal institutions. Fear prevents all of us with the price of a meal in our pocket from sharing with the Lazaruses of the world. It is fear, ironically, that prevents us from being most human, that is, it prevents us from growing and changing. Fear wants nothing to change; fear demands the status quo. And the status quo leads to death.

Fear always seeks an object. If I feel insecure in myself, I will almost always find some scapegoat for my fear, someone or something that I can turn into the object of my fear and then my anger. But there are some broad categories for the objects of fear, and I think it’s worth looking at some of them.

Fear of Dissidents

First of all, there is the fear of dissidents. There has always been a fear of the dissident, that is to say, of the one who seems to threaten the existing order. Those who fear the dissident are those who have a vested interest in the maintenance of that order; frequently, money and power, or the need to control others and to feel superior to them, are at the root of such interests. When political leaders – kings, most frequently – were seen as the representatives of God on earth, protectors of truth, religion, and morality then whoever opposed such leaders were necessarily regarded as evil, agents of the devil. If the status quo was ordained by God, whoever stood against the status quo stood against God and the natural order. The appeal to “God on our side” was always a powerful justification for torture and killing in the name of truth.

The millions who were tortured and eliminated in Stalin’s Russia, in German concentration camps, in South Africa, Guatemala, Chile, any one of a hundred countries in our own time, were seen, in all sincerity, as evil and dangerous by those they opposed. Dictators have always maintained an elaborate secret police to exclude and suppress those who oppose them.

The story of humanity is that of heroes and martyrs with a new vision for humanity, regarded as terrorists and dissidents by some, as prophets of freedom by others. Christians were thrown to wild beasts in the coliseum because the Romans saw this new, strange religion as a threat to the existing order.

It is in the nature of power to resist change; the principle of the divine right of kings goes back at least as far as the first man – and it probably was a man – who sought to establish the continuity of his power as a natural law. We live in a more secular time but we have transformed the divine right of kings into the divine right of anybody in power.

There is a deeper issue here, beyond the self-aggrandizement of the powerful. Leaders consider themselves as generally in the right. It is part of the paradigm we have created: if you have succeeded in making your way to the top, then, by definition, by the law of natural selection, the values for which you stand have been authenticated. That is why it always seems entirely reasonable for the powerful to seek to quell and exclude anyone who opposes them. Those who oppose create disorder; they run against the natural order.

The only point to be made about all this is that it is important for leaders to listen to dissent and try to understand where it is coming from and what is true in it. If history teaches us nothing else, it is that power is borrowed. At best, power is something granted not something taken. That means, in Western democracies at any rate, that those who have power need the gifts of discernment and judgement, because if we recognize the temporary nature of power, then equally, we need to recognize what in the activity of dissent is valuable.

The principle at issue is the temporary nature of power, and the necessity of service and humility, the necessity of seeing what truth is being cried out in an act of protest.

Fear of Difference

Second, there is the fear of difference … Human nature is to want to belong to groups of like-minded creatures, to those of the same culture or who have the same goals and interests. If we know each other, we can work together. We feel safe together. Those who are different disturb us.

Who are those who are different? They are the people who suffer poverty, brokenness, disabilities, or loneliness. They cry out to us for help, these millions named Lazarus. Often, they are in discomfort while others live in comfort. Their cries become dangerous for those of us who live in comfort. If we listen to their cries and open up our hearts, it will cost us something. So we pretend not to hear the cry and so exclude them.

Those who are different are the strangers among us. There are many ways of being different: one can be different by virtue of values, culture, race, language or education, religious or political orientation. And while most of us can find it stimulating or at least interesting to meet a stranger for a short while, it is a very different thing to truly open up and allow a stranger to become a friend.

This fear of the different is very marked when it comes to people with intellectual disabilities. I remember when I first met such people. Father Thomas Philippe, the French priest who became my spiritual accompanier when I left the navy and who was instrumental in the founding of l’Arche, invited me to meet his “new friends” in a small institution where he was the chaplain. At the time, I was teaching philosophy at St. Michael’s College in Toronto. I accepted his invitation but, nevertheless, I was very anxious. How was I going to communicate with people who could not talk? If they could talk, what would we talk about? I was fearful of not being able to cope with the situation or of not knowing what to do and of being inadequate.

When we have constructed our lives around particular values of knowledge, power, and social esteem, it is difficult for us to accept those who cannot live by the same set of values. It is as if we are threatened by such people.

The social stigmas around people with intellectual disabilities are strong. There is an implicit question: If someone cannot live according to the values of knowledge and power, the values of the greater society, we ask ourselves, can that person be fully human?

People with intellectual disabilities are generally placed at the lowest end of the human spectrum. When I first encountered them at l’Arche, I believed in love but, for me, love meant generosity, doing good for others. At that time, I did not realize that through our love we can help others to discover their own intrinsic value; we can reveal to them their beauty and their uniqueness.

Gradually, through l’Arche, I began to see the value of the communion of hearts and of a love that empowers, that helps others to stand up; a love that shows itself in humility and in trust. If our society has difficulty in functioning, if we are continually confronted by a world in crisis, full of violence, of fear, of abuse, I suggest it is because we are not clear about what it means to be human. We tend to reduce being human to acquiring knowledge, power, and social status. We have disregarded the heart, seeing it only as a symbol of weakness, the centre of sentimentality and emotion, instead of as a powerhouse of love that can reorient us from our self-centredness, revealing to us and to others the basic beauty of humanity, empowering us to grow.

Fear of Failure

… Another fear that drives us is the fear of failure. The fear of failure, of feeling helpless and unable to cope, had been built up in me ever since my childhood. I had to be a success. I had to prove my worth. I had to be right. This need to succeed and to be accepted, even admired by my parents and by those whom I considered my “superiors”, was a strong motivating force in me and is a motivation at the heart of many human endeavours.

The urge to please and to succeed is obviously a valuable motivation but it has its flip side. Not everyone can succeed at the same entrance exam; many must fail. And failure can and does break people. This need to succeed, coupled with the fear of failure and the fear of being rejected and of falling into loneliness and anguish, can make us choose to relate only to those who like and admire us: those who look on us as winners. And, of course, we recognize others playing the same game.

People with intellectual disabilities, however, seem so different, as if they were in another world; it seems impossible to communicate easily with them. We can feel totally helpless in front of them.

Fear of failure, of not coping with a situation, of not being able to relate to another person, is at the heart of this fear of the different, the strange, the stranger. It is as if we are walking in unknown territory.

Fear of Loss and Change

Then there is the fear of loss and change. Why do the rich and powerful – you and I, in short – fear so much the Lazaruses in our midst? Is it not because we are frightened of having to share our wealth, frightened of losing something? It is easy to give a few coins to a beggar; it is more difficult to give what is necessary to maintain our own standard of living. We feel so inadequate in the face of poverty. What can we do to change so many seemingly impossible situations? …

We all need a certain amount of security in order to be able to live peacefully. This sense of security comes from the way we live our lives; it comes from the presence of and reinforcement from family and friends; it comes from our place of work and through daily routines. In this context, the unexpected can provoke a crisis. To lose the “known” and to move on to the “unknown” can mean a terrible loss for us. To live such loss one needs a great deal of inner strength.

To give food to a beggar who knocks on the door can be quite an easy thing to do. But if he keeps coming back – with his friends – then what do we do? We can become totally lost and insecure. We are at sea with no horizon, in unknown territory without a map. We are frightened that the beggar is calling on us to change our lifestyle. We are all frightened of the ugly, the dirty. We all want to turn away from anything that reveals the failure, pain, sickness, and death beneath the brightly painted surface of our ordered lives. Civilization is, at least in part, about pretending that things are better than they are. We all want to be in a happy place, where everyone is nice and good and can fend for themselves. We shun our own weakness and the weakness in others. We refuse to listen to the cry of the needy. How easy it is to fall into the illusion of a beautiful world when we have lost trust in our capacity to make of our broken world a place that can become more beautiful.

The Origin of These Fears

What is the origin of the terrible fears that so hinder us in the making of our heart’s desire: a better world? …

One major reason for our mutual distrust, for our propensity to gang together in mutually exclusive groups, is that most of us experience love in only the most imperfect way. When I discover that I am accepted and loved as a person, with my strengths and weaknesses, when I discover that I carry within myself a secret, the secret of my uniqueness, then I can begin to open up to others and respect their secret. The fear of others begins to dissolve; inclusion, friendship, and a feeling of brotherhood/sisterhood begins to emerge …’. – Jean Vanier


‘ … the substitution of rhetoric for thought, always a temptation in a national crisis, must be resisted by officials and citizens alike. It is hard for ordinary citizens to know what is actually happening in Washington in a time of such great trouble; for all we know, serious and difficult thought may be taking place there. But the talk that we are hearing from politicians, bureaucrats, and commentators has so far tended to reduce the complex problems now facing us to issues of unity, security, normality, and retaliation’. – Wendell Berry


  1. Such deep wisdom in all these quotes, Jason. Thank you.
    The backlash rhetoric in our community against Muslim refugees (e.g.”IS is here amongst these people who take our state homes and our jobs!!”) I’ve heard in the last few months whilst supporting Syrian refugees, I hope and pray is diminishing. I’m committed to countering that rhetoric at every turn by saying I would trust my own life and that of my dearest ones to these people now living among us.Always I have to remind myself that perfect love casts out fear!


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