On fear

by Stephanie Johnson Blomgren

I am trying to decide how far back to go. To remember the imagined foes of my closet? In residence, intent on my undoing. Child, under the covers, turning this way and that, dodging a quiverful of shots. Every minute, saving my own life. Every breath, a choice on whether to cry out.

Do I begin in the mystery of childhood dreams? Visions in sleep, so difficult to articulate; sufficient to say that once the dream begins, it must finish. I wake reduced, always in the dark. How far back to go? What is fear in a child? Perhaps the relevant fear comes later in youth. At slumber parties, where fear mingles with bravery. Brave midnight expeditions: the fear of getting caught. Quasi danger, yes. But real, legitimate fear — instructing fear — that I ignore in favor of valor.

Or to the clearer memories of college: the fear of walking a campus at night. Always hurrying in the dark. The real fear of confrontation: brazen it out. Stare it down. See the faces of men known, unknown. Know in those faces the blindness of too much beer, too little thought. Or too little power, breeding too much hate. It’s always dark. Even in the twilight.

I learn this in dawning adulthood: darkness is resident in all of us, in me. A fiber of my being, not a cloud above me. Fear is not chance. It is my beating heart. The gut of me.

I go too far back.

Let’s dive off that cliff, let’s embrace a future unknown — quit our jobs, strike our camps.

Anticipation. Exhilaration. Fear, yes. This is my heart. It prevents me from moving forward; it moves me forward. I dive, I launch, I land again. Despite my fear. Despite myself; because of the sum of it.

This is fear: A tiny life cupped in my two hands, hours old and only three-and-a-half pounds. Like holding water. Every breath is terror. I am too afraid to sleep, to dream, to stop watching her. Fear, like no fear I have ever known. In everything, I breathe God in.

Those long moments between fear — the waking moments, perhaps, when light and reason fill the space — are full of cogent prayers, full of lyric worship, churning anger, confusion, full of life. None of it adds up to the breath in and out that is God in my fear. You see, I am not against fear. How do I hate what hovers at the edges? I turn and it disappears. Fear is not in us; it is us.

No point in beating yourself up.

I am not against fear. But I try not to cultivate it. I see it. I recognize it. I pull it out of my mind and I imagine it: a delicately-wrapped gift. No, that’s too neat. It is neither a gift, nor the nightmare of a child. Fear is not a beating heart, nor is it the heavy dread I feel in my gut.

Fear is a cloud, a mist — shapeless and undulating in perpetuity. It looks at once solid and ineffable. Immediate and far away. I hold the fog close and it falls apart. I ignore it and an oppressive fear surrounds me. I am not against fear. I do not cultivate it. I do not look into the faces of strangers and wonder what evil resides there; I move beyond fear into communion.

I breathe in the Book of Romans. Overcome evil with good. That is not easy. It is like tearing my heart out. It is like kissing my daughter goodbye every morning; it is fumbling for my son in the dark, pushing the panic of his night terror down into my own body. I breathe out: the practice of hope in the face of experience, because that is my birthright.

There. You see? I do not go back far enough.

The seed of me in my mother’s womb: God’s breath in motion, my life beginning in the sacred dark. Potential and the fear of the unknown all resident in my burgeoning life. We feel too much. No telling what thoughts were swirling out of the bland, murmuring darkness, the world of no experience.

There is only the fear of God, I think. And grace.

Stephanie Johnson Blomgren is an editor of Pietisten.

See all articles by Stephanie Johnson Blomgren