Reframing Fear

I’ve always loved this image, which I got from the Improvised Life website, an early “conversation partner” for my book:


I feel the truth of it, and also the incredible challenge of it. The world we live in seems supersaturated with fear these days. I admire people who can transcend that anxiety. How do they do it? I confess I often carry around my fear and anxiety over the state of the world like a banner: Look how vigilant I am. (Can I get an Amen?) 

What would it mean for us to reframe our fear, from “Oof, that’s scary,” to “Wow, that’s interesting”? And to follow up that curiosity with open-hearted response?

I was reminded of the shift from fear to curiosity recently, when I ran across a story by author Anne Fadiman about her father, essayist Clifton Fadiman. In the latter years of his life, he developed extreme vision loss that was so debilitating, so frightening to contemplate, that he begged his daughter to help him end his life. She urged him to at least try to adapt to what was happening to him. He finally agreed to attend a program, called VIP, that taught independent living skills to adults experiencing full or partial blindness. 

It was tough for him, but he found himself surprised and even captivated by the many tricks he learned for getting along in the world. Anne remembers his phone call after the first lesson. Her father, who had led a stimulating and remarkable life, surrounded by fascinating people and deep ideas, said, “That may have been the most interesting day of my life… Except for the first day of my life, it was the most novel.” He learned to fold paper money in particular ways so he could tell them apart. He learned to open milk cartons, and cook. 

The “final exam” for the VIP program was a trip to a simulated McDonald’s, where the participants would make their way through an entire transaction unassisted. Anne speculates that McDonald’s was chosen because everyone was familiar with the place—everyone except, as it turned out, her father. “My father had spent decades complaining about American pop culture without experiencing any. Finally, his opportunity had arrived! …What man can predict the form in which his enlightenment will present itself?” 


Clifton Fadiman cultivated what Zen Buddhists call “beginner’s mind,” in which even a trip to McDonald’s can be a source of wonder—an opening to greater self-awareness and abundance. Anne concludes her reflection, “My father completed the VIP program and never mentioned suicide again.” 

Life offers us countless opportunities to move from fear to curiosity. Many of these opportunities are much less dramatic than the one facing Clifton Fadiman. Yet they hold the potential for transformation nonetheless. 

What might you get curious about today?



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A Warrior Against Fear: Patty Wetterling

Screen Shot 2017-01-26 at 11.46.27 AM I've been riveted to the podcast In the Dark by American Public Media. It's a nine-episode series exploring the 1989 kidnapping of Jacob Wetterling, an eleven-year-old Minnesota boy. The case remained unsolved for 27 years for a variety of complicated and unfortunate reasons.

If you only listen to one episode, make it episode 6, Stranger Danger, which zooms out from the Wetterling case and looks at sex offender registries. Such registries didn't even exist before Jacob was abducted; in fact, his case helped spur them:

A handful of states had offender registries already, but there was no national registry. Nor was there a requirement that all states build and keep registries. The 1994 Jacob Wetterling Crimes Against Children and Sexually Violent Offender Registration Act created just such a requirement. But that was only the beginning. Over the years, the notion of keeping track of sex offenders has grown into something much larger and harsher. The Wetterling Act opened the door to a nationwide crackdown.

In 1996, a new law mandated that the police go beyond tracking offenders and notify communities of their presence. In 2006, yet another law expanded the list of crimes that could land a person on a registry and required the most serious offenders to remain registered for life.

On the surface, such registries seem like a no-brainer. Parents should know who their neighbors are and whether they could be out to harm their children. But there is very little evidence that these registries actually keep children safe, and the burden on the offender can be enormous. Producer Madeleine Baran interviewed a Miami man who'd served his prison time for soliciting underage girls for sex--a crime I certainly find deplorable--but who is now forced to sleep in his car because of the restrictions on where he can live.

Again, it's not like I have a lot of sympathy for these guys. Maybe such restrictions and labeling would seem justified if the registries did what they purported to do--keep kids safe--but they do not. In fact, such a registry would not have helped in the case of Wetterling's son, who was abducted, assaulted and killed by Danny Heinrich--a man who was not listed on any sex offender registry.

I consider Patty Wetterling an everyday hero, simply by virtue of putting one foot in front of the other for 27 years. But I admire her for a more specific reason. Given everything she's experienced--the most horrific nightmare a parent can endure, I'd say--nobody would blame her a bit for digging in, doubling down, and throwing her full support behind laws that are as punitive as possible for sex offenders. But even with grief as a constant companion, she is able to step back, examine her assumptions, and change her mind.

She says:

Right now we're stuck. It's a trap, We want people to be angry about sexual assault, and then when they're angry about it they want to toughen it up for these people, these "bad boys" who do this, and if we can set aside the emotions, what we really want is no more victims. So how can we get there? Labeling them and not allowing them community support doesn't work. So I've turned 180 from where I was.

And here's producer Madeleine Baran:

Patty wanted her legacy to be a world that was better for kids. A safer, happier world. But she said she worries that what all those laws have actually done is made people reject that idea, and instead view the world as fundamentally violent, dark and suspicious, with danger lurking behind every corner. 

Wetterling concludes:

Fear is really harmful. You're more likely to get struck by lightning than get kidnapped. But the fear of sexual abuse is huge. And [parents] think that making their kids scared is going to keep them safer and that's absolutely not true. It's probably the opposite.

Fear is really harmful.

George Orwell wrote, "To see what is in front of one's nose needs a constant struggle." I admire Patty Wetterling for interrogating the evidence and her own heart. I'm not sure I could do it.

But we'd better all learn how.

I'm thinking about Patty constantly this week. This week, with all its talk of border walls, and slamming our doors to refugees, and "American carnage." I don't have any illusions that the world is all rainbows and light. But I'm inspired by Patty Wetterling, and people who've been through fearful experiences, and yet refuse to be consumed by fear. 

Madeleine Baran again:

Even when Patty learned all the awful things that Danny Heinrich had done to her son, she didn't ask people to be more vigilant, or pass tougher laws. Instead, she asked people to play with their children, to eat ice cream, to laugh, and to help their neighbors. She asked people to celebrate living in the kind of world where Jacob lived before he was kidnapped...

A world where people weren't so scared of each other. 

And that's what I intend to do.

"I Know What I'm Doing and I'm Fearless."

Note: This post uses Barack Obama as an example to discuss a broader point, though it's not a post about his policies. However, if you are someone for whom any mention of the President makes your blood boil, you may want to skip this post. Go in peace. 1-lhRmngHGRYZJTmkA9SZ58Q

I've always admired the university tenure system. Academic tenure's original purpose was to guarantee the right to academic freedom: it protects teachers and researchers when they dissent from prevailing opinion, openly disagree with authorities of any sort, or spend time on unfashionable topics. (That's Wikipedia's explanation of tenure--whether it works like that in practice or not, it's an admirable concept. Good scholarship depends on it.)

For many years, my friend Gini and I have talked about what we call "spiritual tenure." Spiritual tenure is not granted by any external body--you grant it to yourself. Spiritual tenure is being able to speak the truth as you see it, with integrity and without fear. Spiritual tenure does not shield you from consequence, like academic tenure might do. But it does give you the personal strength to recognize when it will cost you more to shrink, to keep your opinions quiet, to keep your self to yourself, than it will to stand in your own truth and let the chips fall where they may.

Perhaps you saw this image make the rounds on social media recently:


Meryl Streep has oodles of spiritual tenure.

When Gini and I were younger, we did a lot of work around the spiritual lives of young women, mainly because we were annoyed by the Oprah-esque, "life-begins-at-50" messages that we saw all around us. As if we were merely women-in-training, biding our time until our moment of enlightenment arrived. We didn't want to wait for wisdom, we wanted to seek it out and celebrate it even in our tumultuous 20s, imperfect though that wisdom may be. I remember a book came out around this time called The Quarter-Life Crisis, talking about the sense of drift that people can feel in their 20s. When the authors were interviewed on the Today Show, Katie Couric sniffed, "What, do you guys have an aunt in publishing?" Nice attitude.

Now that I am solidly in my 40s, I'm reluctantly realizing that the Oprahs of the world have a point. Spiritual tenure is something I've been able to grant myself gradually over time. (At the same time, the young women I know are so much more evolved and self-possessed than I was in my 20s. My hat is off to them. Maybe they'll get tenure sooner than I did.)

Anyway, I thought about spiritual tenure again this week when I read about President Obama's interview with Marc Maron in which he said, "I know what I'm doing, and I'm fearless." Indeed, the man has had a pretty notable week, what with the Supreme Court's decisions on the Affordable Care Act and marriage equality... and his soaring eulogy for the Rev. Clementa Pinckney. There's something very attractive about a leader who operates without fear. I'm not talking about bravado or over-confidence. And certainly fearless leaders still make mistakes. I'm talking about being purposeful, even graceful, with the actions you take as a leader.

In fact, Obama's entire quote has even more power. He was talking about what he's learned about himself and compared his experience to that of a professional athlete past his prime. "You might slow down a little bit, and you might not jump as high as you used to," Obama said, "but I know what I'm doing, and I'm fearless."

As I continue in this transition period, in which I'm not currently a pastor but am exploring other identities and callings, I'm thinking a lot about this fearlessness, and cultivating a sense of spiritual tenure. I'm trying to speak up more and qualify my words less.

I'm curious what your own milestones and markers have been for this kind of work.

There's a coda to all of this. That quote in the Meryl Streep photo? Didn't come from her. It's from a Portuguese author named José Micard Teixeira. He's quite a bit younger than Meryl Streep, which goes to show--some spiritual tenure committees work fast. May yours be swift too!


Image: Pete Souza captures Obama's reaction on hearing the Supreme Court decision about the ACA. Official White House photos.


walt-disney-world-half-marathon_t268 So I'm registered for my first marathon---the Walt Disney World in January---and am starting to freak out about it.

I'm also very excited. Disney is supposed to be a great beginners' marathon. The course is flat, the weather is usually mild, and it's Disney, which means it will be well-run and entertaining. You have to finish in under 7 hours, which is very doable. My brother will run with me, and our whole family will be there for the biennial Florida sibling reunion, which will be great.

But it's going to be hard.

It's going to be hard physically. I did a half marathon in March and finished fine, but there's quite a leap from 13.1 to 26.2. The half marathon was hard, but while I was doing it I never had the sense that I might not make it. By contrast, I remember seeing the course split around mile 12 and thinking, Oh heck no.

I'm also getting antsy. The training program I'm using doesn't start until fall, so my goal for the summer is simply not to lose too much ground. But I don't love the treadmill, and it's hot outside. And I get headaches after I run in hot weather. (Which frankly is a potential problem on race day. It's Florida.)

It's going to be hard emotionally. I have many decades of self-talk to overcome about being the brainy one, not the athlete. My inner harpy tells me I'm slow and should've stayed with shorter distances. I remember the time I did the Turkey Trot with my mother while I was in junior high and came in last. Last.

Part of the emotional baggage is having a friend who was my age who dropped dead while on a run. I think about him often while I'm running. By all outward appearances, he was in excellent physical condition, not to mention naturally athletic (which I am not, and please don't argue that point with me).

And there's also Dad, who died suddenly of cardiac arrest. Unlike me, he did not exercise regularly, but still---I have half his genetics. (And yes, in terms of physical maladies, I'm much more likely to blow out a knee than to keel over. But hey, if you're gonna catastrophize, do it RIGHT.)

2013-wdw-marathonAnd it's going to be a logistical challenge. Honestly, carving out the time to train will be the biggest issue. Remember when I ran the half, my favorite sign along the course was "trust your training." Well, you have to do the training in order to trust the training. By the time January 12 rolls around, if I follow the program, I will have run 500 miles.

Remember "factorial" in math class? It's represented with an exclamation point and involves multiplying the number by all the other whole numbers less than it. So 5 "factorial" is:

5! = 5 x 4 x 3 x 2 x 1 = 120.

Well, Marathon! = 500.

That's some intimidating math right there.

But that's the math of life, isn't it? Whether it's changing careers, sticking with your marriage, raising kids, finishing grad school, relocating to a new city, the worthwhile stuff is hard. The worthwhile stuff is a grand mashup of physical endurance, emotional labor, logistics, and dumb luck... or grace if you prefer to call it that, and I do.

And of course there's this:


So off I go.

Would love to hear your own stories of Life, factorial!

P.S. That Turkey Trot in which I came in last? I was the only one in my age group, so I got a blue ribbon. Importance of showing up? OK, universe, I get it.

Worry is the Work...

Many years ago, I ran across this pithy quote:

Worrying is like being in a rocking chair. It gives you something to do but you don't ever get anywhere.

I have no idea how it came to me. I was a young teenager and my parents were separated. They later divorced, and we kids moved to Dallas with Mamala. I was to enter a new school halfway through my eighth grade year.

Remember junior high? The painful awkwardness? Add a traumatic family experience, then throw in a dash of being the new kid amid people, many of whom had known each other since kindergarten. And do all that with just a semester to get one's bearings before high school.

There was plenty about that that was worrisome.

But I tried to put it all out of my mind, because it doesn't do any good to worry, right? Even Jesus says so.

Wrong. (Sorry Jesus.)

Fast forward almost 20 years, when I was pregnant with Caroline. My favorite book about pregnancy and childbirth had a chapter called "Worry Is the Work of Pregnancy." In it the authors made the following counter-intuitive case: Worry is actually useful and helpful. And when well-intentioned people advise us not to worry, they are actually keeping is from doing very important psychological and spiritual work; namely, to mentally picture ourselves in that situation, to plan for contingencies, to prepare for the unexpected.

This chapter was a tremendous relief.

I am a talented worrier, and there are all sorts of worrisome aspects of pregnancy and labor. What if the fetus isn't healthy? What if I get preeclampsia? What if I don't have the kind of birth I want? What if the baby needs to go to the NICU? What if we can't ever get breastfeeding to work?

Making worry one's work means taking these fears to their logical conclusions by asking, "Well... what if I need a C-section? What will that be like? What do I need to know in order to feel good about that outcome?" That felt so much more sensible than trying not to think about all those unlikely scenarios because "there's nothing you can do about it anyway." Yes, there is. Even the practice of seeing one in the situation is a help. Even if the worst-case scenario never comes to pass, it is not wasted effort. You are stronger for looking at the fearful possibilities and saying, "Here is how I will handle that with strength and courage."

As you can see, this is a productive kind of mental exercise. Worry is not the same as fretting. It's not healthy to let one's life be consumed with anxiety. Rather, worry is engaging Shel Silverstein's Whatifs and saying, "Show me what you've got."

I know a dear family with three sweet children. Their oldest contracted a disease that required a bone marrow transplant. Unfortunately, his body was too compromised, and he died. Their other son also has this disease, though he was asymptomatic for a long time. One night the mother asked the father, "What are we going to do if this disease progresses in J?" The husband answered, "We will go back to Minnesota and go through the bone marrow process again." He was kind, but matter-of-fact: That one's easy.

And in fact... they did have to go back to Minnesota. And things are going very differently for their other son. It's not my story to tell, but he's doing well.

I had my first mammogram last week. On Friday the doctor called and asked me to come in today for some additional views of a spot they couldn't see clearly. Statistics were on my side; genetics were on my side. I knew that chances were good that the additional tests would reveal nothing of concern. And that's exactly what happened.

But I did spend some time with the Whatifs. What would I do if there was a problem? Whom would I tell? What would I need? And those questions did not consume the days between the doctor's call and the appointment. They gave me something firm to stand on today.

So I guess you could say, I worried...

But because I worried, I wasn't afraid.

Ten on Tuesday

A rich lather of lateral thought, all wrapped up in a top ten list:


1. Click here for my first byline with Religion Dispatches! (And welcome to any RD readers clicking over here.) We Presbyterians were even the lead story for a brief shining moment, but alas, that Michele Bachmann is an unstoppable force of nature!


2. I'm also excited to be writing the Fellowship of Prayer for Lent 2012 for Chalice Press, my publisher for The Sabbath Year. I'm thankful for the opportunity to get my name out there just a few months before the book will be released... because I know that people are very attuned to the authors of those things, aren't they? Aren't they?!


3. We had no water in the house when we got home from our vacation. This was the second time in less than a week that I've gone without water (the pump that services several cottages in Maine was hit by lightning and had to be replaced). It really is a gratitude reset. Even when we were without water last night, we were better off than a significant percentage of the planet: we have a great plumber, and neighbors who let us fill our camping jugs during the meantime.


4. I'm going to follow up Mt. Washington with Old Rag this fall.

There's something very powerful about climbing up something tall and finishing a book manuscript in the months leading up to my 40th birthday, coming up in January.


5. What kids of different ages do upon coming home from a long trip:

three year old: gets reacquainted with the cars and trucks he left at home

five year old: goes with her dad to liberate the cat from the vet

eight year old: calls BFF, plays piano


6. I finished three books during my trip:

Bossypants by Tina Fey: So, so funny. So, so good. Here's a great review.

Jesus, My Father, the CIA and Me by Ian Morgan Cron. A funny, touching and exceedingly well written memoir about the author's father, who lived a double life as a CIA agent and was a raging alcoholic to boot---as is Cron himself, though now in recovery and an Episcopal priest.

Angels at the Table: A Practical Guide to Celebrating Shabbat by Yvette Alt Miller. I'll be reviewing this for the Englewood Review of Books.


7. Yesterday morning I discovered in my Google Reader two distinct posts about fear, from Seth Godin and Donald Miller. I've been thinking about fear ever since my hike. Going up Mt. Washington is a pretty minor thing on the fear scale, but there definitely is some danger involved. Tuckerman's Ravine is rather steep and many of the rocks were slippery from a recent rain. I found it easy to get into a fearful place, especially as I plodded up the mountain while people lightly picked their way through the rocks all around me, breathing easily as they told each other their life stories. (Seriously. VERY little heavy breathing from the tanned and toned set. We hate them.) About ten minutes after my boot self-destructed on the way up, we ran into a family with a ten year old girl coming down, and the girl had just bruised her leg scrambling down one of the steep, slippery sections. She was crying in that "I am DONE" sort of way. I hear ya sister.

But you can't stop.


8. I sure would love Google+ to really take off so I can get off of Facebook once and for all. Here's a slogan I proposed last week: "Google+. For people who want 47% less sleaze in their social networking company."


9. The fear thing is powerful on many levels right now, because our congregation is discerning what to do with our manse, and one of the options is to renovate it for use as affordable housing as part of the campaign to prevent and end homelessness in Fairfax County. This feels like one of those heck-yeah-Jesus things and is SO much more compelling and life-giving than simply fixing it up and renting it out for $2500 to help us pay our bills. In terms of living a good story, a gospel story, there's no contest in my mind. But it's hard. And the anxiety and fear over money may be too great. Or it may not be ours to do for reasons having nothing to do with fear. So it's feeling a bit like picking our way over Tuckerman's Ravine.


10. I leave Sunday morning for Minnesota, where I will spend a week writing at the Collegeville Institute. Again I am filled with gratitude---thankful for the opportunity to return to that lovely place for a second year, grateful to my spouse for supporting me in these damn fool idealistic crusades, and heck, grateful to the inventors of Skype and FaceTime so I can see my kids' beautiful faces each day.

Photo: the view from my apartment in Collegeville last summer.

How Do You Decide?

How do you decide what's "yours to do"? I've got an invitation in my e-mail box to do some writing for someone. It's a paying gig, which is a rare and wonderful thing... though let's not kid ourselves, it's not much. And I try not to break it down by the hour.

I've written for this outfit before. It's not hard stuff, and I believe in what they're doing, but it's not exactly what I want to be focusing on right now. There are two large projects I want to work on that I really feel energy for, but there's no deadline on them, and if they take a little longer because of side projects, well, nobody will care but me (and perhaps my writing group).

The invitation came right before I left, so I mulled it on my trip. As often happens, I came home from our travels invigorated, and resolved to be intentional about the things I take on, to avoid doing things just because they're expected of me by others. Again I link to the Christian Century and the article about the power of travel.

Our church also suffered a sudden, unexpected loss of a pillar member while I was away. I will miss T and her caring spirit. Such losses always invite us to consider our lives and make course corrections if necessary. Life is short and we are each irreplaceable.

So this morning I started to write a "no thanks" e-mail... and then something stopped me. I started to think about how the project really wouldn't take that much time, and it's far enough out that I could plan my time to get it done and also work on my personal projects. It's a slightly different focus than the work I've done for them before, which makes it enticing. Besides... I'm a writer. I serve a church part-time so that I can work on projects just like this one.

Those are all valid points, but I wonder if they are really what stopped me. Maybe I stopped because of fear. Maybe I am worried that if I start saying no to stuff, people will stop asking. Or maybe it's ego---I want to feel important and needed. Or maybe it's competitiveness---they'll ask someone else and like his/her stuff better.

First John talks about "testing the spirits" to see if they are of God. If I am leaning toward yes, and and that comes from a place of trust and joy, then I want to go that way. If I am working primarily out of fear or shadow stuff, then I want to check that. Unfortunately, most decisions are a muddled mix of both.

Interestingly, Bruce Reyes-Chow (the former moderator of our denomination) just announced today that he's letting go of two projects he's been working on. I admire his discernment and am sure it was tough. I believe in saying No when it allows you to work on the larger Yes, but discerning what that is isn't easy.

How do you decide to say no to worthy invitations? How do you determine what's "yours to do"?