Fear is a striking features of the time in which we live. Although heightened by the particular political, economic and social conditions, fear is not unique to our time or to our species.
Neither are fear and stress unique to human beings. Lower species of animals, the rabbit is a case in point, also experience fear.
Scientists tell us that rabbits experience fear and stress when they perceive a dangerous or frightening situation. In such instances a sort of chemical chain reaction takes place. Neurotransmitters (chemicals which affect many tissues in the body, but most importantly the adrenal glands) are released by the pituitary gland which is located at the base of the brain. The epinephrine or adrenaline that is released by the adrenal gland causes the blood pressure and heart rate to increase. Blood flow is directed to vital muscles and organs and away from those that are less essential in a dangerous situation.
In the short term, the chemical changes are beneficial. The rabbit is placed at a heightened level of awareness and is in a better physical state where it can better sense the danger and can run faster to get away. Humans, in similarly dangerous situations, decide whether to fight or flee.
But a heightened state of awareness or stress maintained over a long period of time ceases to be beneficial and is in fact harmful. Fear and stress are harmful for our physical well-being; they are also psychologically and spiritually harmful.
In the book, “Lifesigns: Intimacy, Fecundity, and Ecstasy in Christian Perspective,” the late Henri Nouwen wrote:
“We are fearful people…It often seems that fear has invaded every part of our being to such a degree that we no longer know what a life without fear would feel like…Often fear has penetrated our inner selves so deeply that it controls, whether we are aware of it or not, most of our choices and decisions.
“Look at the many ‘if” questions we raise: ‘What am I going to do if they fire me, if I get sick, if an accident happens, if I lose my friends, if my marriage does not work out, if a war breaks out?...
“When we consider how much our educational, political, religious, and even social lives are geared to finding answers to questions born of fear, it is not hard to understand why a message of love has little chance of being heard.”
“Fear engenders fear,” Nouwen adds. “Fear never gives birth to love.” He proposes that part of the answer to fear is to re-examine the often unexamined questions that govern our lives.
“Finding the right questions is as crucial as finding the right answers…A careful look at the gospels shows that Jesus seldom accepted the questions posed to him. He exposed them as coming from the house of fear. “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven? How often must I forgive my brother if he wrongs me? Is it against the law for a man to divorce his wife on any pretext whatever?”...To none of these questions did Jesus give a direct answer. He gently put them aside as questions emerging from false worries. They were raised out of concern for prestige, influence, power, and control…Therefore Jesus always transformed the question by his answer. He made the question new—and only then worthy of his response.”
Scripture suggests that fear and love cannot co-exist. 1 John 4:18 says, “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love.”
Nouwen sees in “Jesus’ farewell address to his disciples” a description of what “life in the house of love” looks like:
“Jesus says: ‘Make your home in me, as I make mine in you’ (John 15:4). This is an invitation to intimacy. Then he adds: ‘Those who remain in me with me in them, bear fruit in plenty’ (John 15:5). This is a call for fecundity. Finally, when he says: ‘I have told you this so that my own joy may be in you and your joy may be complete’ (John 15:11), he promises ecstasy.”