The Container of Fear

For me, fear has always been such an omnipresent and unavoidable participant in life. Between fear and love, there is a constant struggle, a struggle that seems as though it will be ever ongoing, never complete, until the ultimate end. And yet, it has been said that “perfect love casts out fear.” I think we all have an idea of what this means, and simply reading the words provides a certain level of comfort. But how far does this “perfect” love extend, and how permanent is this banishment of fear? Is it truly possible to “cast out” fear while in the transient and shifting world, or is it only a promise for another world to come?

I think it can be both, and that there are often unexplored depths to the profound relationship between love and fear. On a first and fundamental level, “perfect love” refers to God. Since God is love, any genuine display of love reveals part of His nature. Because of this, we can turn to Him and in His presence, experience the divine love, the “perfect love” that is stronger than and has no need of fear. This is the only way in which we can truly vanquish fear, or any kind of evil. By placing ourselves in God’s hands, the fear no longer belongs. It is no longer necessary. We can see clearly the distance between lies produced by fear, and Truth. Within these moments of clarity, fear is exposed for its powerlessness.

Additionally, perfect love excludes fear because it has transformative power. Love is the guiding force of life (since all life springs from love) and so it is more powerful than everything else. As a result, in the eternal battle between love and fear, fear does not have a fighting chance. The first and final word is love, and love is thus capable of enacting real change. Such a change might be the turning away from and rejection of fear.

But what about human love? We have been talking so far about love from an eternal or “eschatological” perspective, with a gaze directed toward the end and beginning of another world, rather than the “means” of this one. What ramifications does this phrase and this reality (the casting out of fear by love) have for human relationships and realities?

To be able to address this issue, I think we need to define “perfect love,” in the way it is used. These verses may be familiar, but they are worthy of infinite contemplation: “Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” (1 Corinthians 13:4-7). Every time I read this passage, I am struck by its beauty, by the beauty of this kind of love. And yet now, as I contemplate it in light of my reflection, I am also struck by the divide between this “perfect” love and human love. Surely human love is imperfect love and thus cannot shut out fear.

The above conjecture seems to be a truth, especially as we consider all the examples of “loveless” love, all the times when we have been hurt and the times when we have hurt others. But it is, in fact, a lie (one of the many) spouted by fear. And it overlooks a fundamental truth: though human love is always imperfect, it can harness the power of perfect love when it unites with its Source, and in doing so can cast out fear. If this imperfect love depends solely on its own power, it is detached from divine love and so still attached to fear.

If this union between the perfect and imperfect is possible, then how can it be realized in human relationships and how does it differ from a relationship influenced by fear? Before delving into these questions, I want to broaden the meaning of “human love” and relationships, as I’m referring to them here. I’m not merely talking about romantic love. In fact, I think that the idea of love is often confined to the sphere of romantic relationships. This could create a kind of stinginess, a limitation of the gift and giving, which is contrary to the nature of love. When I talk about human love here, I’m thinking of any kind of relationship- literally any relationship that has ever been, or could be experienced between two persons. This is, I think, an important distinction, because often when we have a close relationship with someone (perhaps a parent, a best friend, a spouse), we feel secure in their love for us and our love for them. We trust in that love and feel comfortable in the other’s presence without a constant need to prove our worth or merit. It seems there is no fear in such relationships; it seems very easy, in these cases, for love to cast out fear.

But what about relationships where there is not the same level of trust or safety? What about relationships that indeed do not seem like relationships at all but acquaintanceships, or maybe just a series of “human” interactions? In these encounters, love is probably the last thing on our minds. Love is a premature or inappropriate word. But the love that we speak about, that we have been speaking about, is not merely the equivalent of saying “I love you” to a person or counting them among our most loved ones. In these relationships (even though they may not seem like relationships, they still are relationships, and so I am going to continue calling them by this name), fear is the operative word, rather than love.

This fear does not always manifest itself as such. There are people we know (well or only vaguely) whom we do not like, whom, we might even be inclined to say (or at least, to think) we hate. But where does this hatred (or rage or irritation) come from? Often at its roots, if we dig deep enough, the hatred stems from fear. We fear many things when it comes to relationships. We fear being judged, criticized, rejected, or labelled as inadequate. Hatred may rise up as a wall protecting us from fear. A person has not made us feel accepted, appreciated, safe or loved. If this is a person that we have loved, or have reached out towards and made ourselves vulnerable in a gesture of love, the pain is much worse. The rejection of love wounds us at our deepest centre, the place where we yearn to be cared for and called the “Beloved.” If this person had loved us and made us feel safe or less lonely, we might forgive any number of wrongs or transgressions. But in the absence of love (love that feels genuine), our own unaccepted offer of love hardens and turns to hatred. It is easier to hate or judge this person than to turn inwards and hear the resounding echo of this experience of rejection: “they do not love me; they do not see me; maybe I am not enough.” Unwilling to face this frightening possibility, we build high the walls of hatred around us.

This contributes to a general fear of other people, not necessarily of interacting with them, but of opening up and loving, loving in a vulnerable trust. We want to love only the people we are certain will love us back, who will recognize and appreciate the outstretched branch of love and not leave it dangling there limply. But as fear continues to grow within our hearts, these people- the people of whom we can be absolutely certain- become fewer and fewer. In the face of this isolation, we patch together a solution combining both security and “love.”

We decide we can love, but only love until a certain point, love within the fortified walls around our heart. I think of this as a sort of “container of fear.” We place our heart into this container because fear disguises itself as safety. Fear says, “If you stay here, you will be safe. No one can hurt you in here.” So we hide in the container, seal it carefully, and yet we can still see out through the translucent walls at the rest of the world. We see out, but it is not with clear vision. In the container of fear, life seems like it will be better. Love seems like it will be better.

But they are not. The container does not simply contain or “keep” us securely; instead, it detains us. It becomes a constraint on love: limiting, confining and defining its potential. This might be alright for imperfect love- a self-interested, partial, unfulfilling love- but it is irreconcilable with perfect love, with real love. Perfect love stretches out of itself; it is without boundaries. It does not operate on a strict “supply and resource” kind of causality. When we place ourselves inside the container of fear, we stagnate, incapable of growing or giving. By attempting to keep love within our control and to manufacture responses, we deprive love of its fundamental ability to surprise and astonish, to produce wonder and to perform miracles. Such a love is not better; it is far worse, but the fear would have us cling to these false notions of security.

In truth, real love does involve risk and risk can (and often does) lead to pain. However, we are capable of taking this risk and dealing with uncertainty and pain if we make our foundation in the presence of God, where there is neither pain nor uncertainty. In the container of fear, we detach ourselves from the divine love and the working of the Holy Spirit in our lives. Though the Spirit still works through us and for us, and the divine love is still within us, we cannot see it for the fear.

Yet we are not compelled to live within these walls. It is not easy to step out of the container of fear, but I think we will be far more able to do so if we shift our focus when it comes to relationships. So often, we think only of ourselves and the potential damage that another person could inflict to the “self.” We ask, “What if they do not like me? What if they judge the things I do, the things I say; what if they hurt me, fill me with feelings of shame; what if I am not enough?” All of these questions involve self. When we think only of ourselves, fear can more easily enter and we cultivate our hearts for a self-interested love, if love indeed comes.

What if instead we stopped thinking of ourselves and channeled our thoughts towards the other? Instead of thinking of what we will get from the person, we begin thinking of what we can give to them. With this shift in focus, we start to love love. We desire to love only for the sake of love itself, apart from the subject or object or source of the love. We do not think, “I will love them if they will love me,” or even, “I will love them if they want me to love them.” Rather, we seek to love, and in striving towards it we strive towards perfect love. It is this love, this enfolding of self into love for the other, that can truly cast out fear. Although it is not easy and will be frequently impeded by self, it is this love that unites us with its Source and harnesses a transformative power able to lift us above the grip of fear even on the most basic and human of levels.