It’s called tonic immobility. Flip a lizard over on its back, and it goes limp. According to childhood lore, you have to rub its belly, too, but that’s not really necessary for the lizards teeming in my backyard. And this hypnotic reaction is natural to other species as well. Marine biologists report that even fierce tiger sharks will placidly drift off into deep peaceful slumber if you can gently turn them over. (But don’t try this at home, kids!) Apparently, when some animals find themselves in a vulnerable position, the fear of being eaten triggers this catatonic state. Play dead, and maybe you don’t seem so appetizing.
The lizard in my daughter’s hand was never in any real danger of being eaten (at least, I hope not!), but it was quite literally paralyzed by fear.
Fear has a way of doing that. Fear might keep us from taking action. Fear might keep us from speaking up. Fear might keep us from changing our minds. Fear might keep us from bridging divides, helping someone out, connecting with a person, seeing situations in a different light, discerning a way forward, overcoming prejudices, and questioning long-standing but callous ideologies and assumptions. Fear, it seems to me, produces an emotional and spiritual rigor mortis that keeps us from living with peace in our hearts and charity toward others.
Fear paralyzes the very best in us–paralyzes that part of us that connects with the Spirit of God.
We fear what people will think of us. We fear what we might think of ourselves. We fear people who are different. We fear people who fear people who are different. We fear what we don’t understand and what we think we understand all too well. We fear the known and the unknown and all the shades of partial knowing in between. When we find ourselves in vulnerable positions, we can become paralyzed by fear.
And because we are prone to fear, our world can be a perilous place to live, and vulnerable people get hurt.
So how do we wake up? In any circumstance, simply seek to love. That’s all.
“Perfect love casts out fear,” we say. And that phrase has a bit of a narrow meaning in its original scriptural context, but I believe the saying is true in a broad and powerful sense as well. Love undermines fear and sabotages its effects.
Love with that kind of power, though, must be more than a concept–it must be a disposition of the heart and an intentional action. When we are actively seeking a path that will extend communion between people and expand genuine goodness in the world, fear can lose it’s hypnotic grip. And when we are actively and intentionally loving, we just might find ourselves awakened to the pleasure of creating peace and joy rather than adding to the angst and anger that seems so overwhelming in our world.
So what are you afraid of? I’m not going to pretend that loving in the midst of fear is an easy thing to do. And I’m certainly not going to pretend that I get it right all the time. Overcoming fear can be a complicated matter in our complex world. It takes time and practice, and I think it especially takes connecting with people who can support, encourage, and model compassion in conflict and grace under pressure.
So don’t let fear paralyze your spirit. Don’t let fear lull you into sleep. Don’t let fear keep you unresponsive and immobile, especially when real people’s lives are at stake. To love is to wake up to compassion and to move with grace. To love is to have life and give life. And love casts out fear.