Transcending Fear Itself:
A Journey from the Personal to the Political
Patricia Adams Farmer
“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”
--Franklin Delano Roosevelt
--Franklin Delano Roosevelt
When I was young seminarian, I suffered from anorexia nervosa. I learned to starve myself for sake of unnatural thinness. And this was long before eating disorders became a contagion on campuses around the world. I suppose you could say I was on the cutting edge of a deadly neurosis, a pioneer in taking things to extremes.
My absolutist-oriented anorexic mind was of the opinion that if you ate one cookie, it was like the Domino Theory of Vietnam: “If Vietnam falls, so goes all of Southeast Asia!” (We all know how well that worked out.) Letting my guard down for even one cookie meant my whole world could fall into utter chaos, overrun by barbaric hoards.
Of course anorexia is not so much about food and thinness; it’s really about fear and control. What did I fear? I feared being fat, yes, but that was just the surface. What I really feared was not being liked, not being loved, not being good enough—that deep, dark, basic human predicament that Brene Brown calls “shame.” Only if I exercised rigid control over my food could I trick myself into feeling worthy—even special. Starving myself gave me a false sense of superiority, a kind of self-righteousness characteristic of rigid people.
I felt imprisoned in a tiny cell. Of course I wanted to be free—I could see happy people through the bars of my window—but I was too afraid to open the door and walk out into the wideness and sunshine. What if I lost control? Worse, what if I discovered that I was really just mediocre, nothing special? Fear was starving me, body and soul. And it affected everyone around me like an invisible poison infecting the air.
When fear takes on a life of its own, it becomes contagious. And when there is a contagion of fear, there is the danger of a full-blown famine of the collective soul. You could say that anorexia is analogous to what’s happening in our own country and in the world today. I see a form of social anorexia: rigid ideologies, soul-shriveling theology, and thin-thinking Us vs. Them worldviews—all issuing from that dark place called “fear itself.”
Fear itself is fear that has taken on a life of its own, separated from reality. Fear of what? Fear of the Other, fear of scarcity, fear of change: all of this excess of fear starves the soul, leaving us vulnerable to the soul diseases of self-righteousness, racism, misogyny, homophobia, Islamophobia, xenophobia, and on to inevitable violence—both physical and spiritual.
Fear itself creates a starving, shriveled soul with distorted perceptions. There is no debating a person held hostage by fear. We wonder why facts roll off the backs of the rabid extremists, why they seem immune to reason. Starving souls perceive things in a garbled, confused way, like an anorexic. They simply can’t see straight.
I can empathize. I remember standing in front of a full-length mirror and declaring myself hopelessly overweight, when in fact I was skin and bones. My mother said I looked like a victim of a death camp, while I saw a fat person. I simply could not see—or face—reality.
I see this same self-deception among the soul-starved today, so damaged by shame and fear that they can’t see straight. And what happens when people are waylaid by fear itself?
Naturally the fearful are drawn to fear-mongers who feed their delusions. Since fear cries out for control, they seek a “strongman” to step in and save them by bullying, scapegoating, and coercion. It has always been this way, and we are very close to another cycle of such evil --that is, if we vote our fears rather than our hopes.
The Domino Theory of the Soul—I get it, I survived it, I know its pain. Misplaced fear leads to tragedies like anorexia and Vietnam and Donald Trump. I say “misplaced” because fear is a survival trait; it serves us well when driving a car or being aware of our surroundings or avoiding dark alleys. I personally fear guns, having been mugged once at gunpoint. And I fear the proliferation of guns in our society. I think it’s madness, and we ought to be concerned.
But why are guns proliferating? Because of fear. Excessive fear. Irrational Fear. Fear itself.
Fear itself—misplaced, irrational fear—leads to an obsession with control, black-and-white thinking, scapegoating, and a need for absolutes at any cost. For the anorexic, that cost may be death. For a nation or the world at large, it’s the same thing, utter self-destruction and folly--like wide-eyed fear-mongers running around haphazardly with military assault rifles, believing it makes them safe.
God of Control or God of Love?
But back to seminary. If I was studying the Bible and theology, how could such a disease of the mind take over? Where was God? Well, to be honest, God was only making things worse. That’s because at the time, I was studying at a seminary in Texas that was falling into the black hole of Christian fundamentalism. Thus, the theology I studied with such diligence focused on an all-controlling view of God, a God to be feared. This made perfect sense to my anorexic, absolutist mindset. I needed a “strongman” sort of God to take care of things, to take care of me.
But when I got well—when my vision cleared and I could see reality—only then could I begin to question the “strongman” view of God. I fell, in fact, into a rather freeing agnosticism, allowing me space to study broadly and and inquire courageously and imagine wildly--this time with a healthy mind.
I discovered the key to health was to face my fears with acceptance, love, and courage. I also discovered, with a great deal of help, that I was a mere mortal, and that was okay, because I was surrounded by host of other mere mortals who are all struggling like me to make sense out of life. By coming down the lonely mountain of self-righteous superiority, my judgmental attitude fell away, replaced by a deep compassion for others, as well as for myself.
And when it came to God, I knew I did not need a God of fear and control. I needed a God of love, a God of beauty, a God who—if I opened the door to my little cell—would meet me not with judgment but with open arms.
The courage to re-think everything, even theology, is part of the work. One of my friends, Thomas Jay Oord, recently wrote a remarkable and controversial book called The Uncontrolling Love of God. This book, along with his courageous teaching of a fresh theology of love, got him—a tenured professor—fired from his teaching position at a conservatively religious university. To me, he is hero.
Courageous love: This is what it takes to change the world, to challenge Fear Itself.
Acceptance, Love, and Courage
Acceptance, love, and courage—these I learned to embrace slowly and with great struggle: Acceptance of reality as it is, unconditional love toward myself as well as loved ones, and the courage to walk out into the light and embrace the Other—whether it be the Other within my own shadow side or the Other who is different from me.
Those of us who choose to widen out in love rather than shrink back in fear can make a difference in the direction of our world at this crucial time in history. Fear tempts us into thin, rigid, and judgmental worldviews. Love lures us to go wide with compassion and courage and imagination.
I have learned to let the dominoes fall, to eat a cookie when I want one, and to exhilarate in the beautiful world outside the prison of absolute control. In this spacious world of complexity, possibility, and freedom, we can change the trajectory of the world in our own little spheres of influence.
A Spirituality with Girth
As a spiritual metaphor, there is nothing more satisfying than a soul well-fed and constantly expanding in girth: "My soul is content, as with marrow and fatness" (Psalm 63:5). I also discovered that such a contented soul, a soul free of judgment towards oneself or others, can help restore physical well-being, too. (Yes, I think over-eating or under-eating can both be symptoms of a starving soul. Take care of the soul and the body will find its way home.)
Once freed from the thin-souled theology of fear and control, I discovered a spirituality of S-I-Z-E from theologian Bernard Loomer, who was famous for asking the question: “How big is your soul?” He wrote in a lovely essay:
"By S-I-Z-E I mean the stature of [your] soul, the range and depth of [your] love, [your] capacity for relationships. I mean the volume of life you can take into your being and still maintain your integrity and individuality, the intensity and variety of outlook you can entertain in the unity of your being without feeling defensive or insecure. I mean the strength of your spirit to encourage others to become freer in the development of their diversity and uniqueness. I mean the power to sustain more complex and enriching tensions. I mean the magnanimity of concern to provide conditions that enable others to increase in stature."
It was on this broad and beautiful landscape of love and magnanimity that I found myself whole in body and spirit. Some of us playfully call this way of thinking “Fat Soul” and enjoy engaging with others in the Fat Soul International community as we seek to embrace diversity, compassion, and gladness as an alternative to Fear Itself. As our manifesto says, “we reserve our fear for saber-tooth tigers.” As an interfaith community, we seek to nourish our souls with beauty, music, art, humor, and religious/spiritual experiences of love and mercy.
That, my friends, is a wide and wonderful way to live.
Patricia Adams Farmer (patriciaadamsfarmer.com) is the author of Fat Soul: A Philosophy of S-I-Z-E, Embracing a Beautiful God, two novels, The Metaphor Maker and Fat Soul Fridays, and an anthology, Replanting Ourselves In Beauty with Jay McDaniel. She is one of the co-founders of Fat Soul International. She lives with her husband Ron Farmer in Albuquerque, New Mexico.