We hear and read a lot of fear these days in psychological and spiritual circles. Mostly, fear is painted in a negative way as the energy that we have to wrestle with and overcome in order to live a life of joy. Most of the statements and quotes we read about fear pin it in the position of the enemy, the obstacle, the dark road. These quotes are accurate, but they’re only talking about one kind of fear. There’s another face of fear that needs and deserves our attention.
Recently, while reading Rabbi Naomi Levy’s book, “Einstein and the Rabbi”, the phrase “holy fear” leapt out at me from the page. She writes:
“There are two divine attributes that emanate toward us: they are love and fear. Love and fear are always keeping each other in check like yin and yang. Love is an outpouring that flows from the soul, it pours and spreads like water. But love also poses a danger. Love unchecked can smother, like a parent who can’t let a child grow up. Like a river with no levee, it overflows and floods everything in its path. Love unchecked is a sea without a shore to give it boundary. Without a dam to contain it, love’s waters can engulf us all.
“That’s where the second attribute, fear, comes in. Fear is here to counterbalance love. Not lower-level fear that cripples us and prevents us from fulfilling our potential. But holy fear, holy fear is restraint, awe, trembling. The fear of losing it all. It is a force within that says, “Stop!” Holy fear is a voice that says, think before you leap, weigh the consequences before you act, take a moment to contemplate before you hit “send.” Recognize the beauty of what you have before you trample all over it.” p. 153
Do you recognize yourself in this description? Those who find my way to my work are almost always highly sensitive people, which means they have a good dose of healthy, holy fear. Wisely, they weigh their decisions carefully before they act. With great consciousness, they’re aware of their actions and cognizant of all possible outcomes and consequences, including negative ones. They’re cautious people and, thus, do not enter into major decisions lightly. These are all positive attributes that have served individuals and communities extremely well for thousands of years. The problem arises when healthy fear devolves into what Naomi Levy calls “lower-level fear”; when we can’t stop analyzing, ruminating, and worrying the fear begins to cripple us. A significant part of our learning curve when we’re on a healing path is to grow a strong enough loving inner parent so that we can discern the dividing line between holy fear and lower-level fear and step in to say “enough!” when we’ve done enough contemplating and list-making and poll-taking. We want the holy fear so that we don’t make reckless decisions but we need know when to let love’s gates open so that we can receive its flow as well.
So here we are making a place of fear at our dinner table as we recognize that there is some aspect of fear that is holy. This idea probably appeals to me because so much of my work is predicated on the concept that we need to befriend every aspect of ourselves in order to heal and move toward wholeness. We live in a culture that encourages us to push our “shadow” characters into the dusty, dark corners of psyche, which means that “ugly” feelings like jealousy, envy, anxiety, loneliness, restlessness, frustration, anger, and fear are pushed away a hundred times a day. So when I came across the phrase “holy fear” I tingled with the excitement of resonance. Yes, this is how I talk about fear, but I had never gone so far as to name it has holy. Holy fear. I like it.
Again, the key is to be able to discern between holy fear and unholy fear, as Father Ron Rolheiser writes about here. As I understand it, holy fear is healthy fear that stems from love and is connected to respect. It’s the fear that women who are trying to conceive feel around the prospect of not being able to carry a child, the fear as they bow to the timetable of the force of Life that is so much bigger than their desire to have a baby right now. It’s the fear that young parents feel around their babies as they realize the awesomeness of the task of caring for this new, vulnerable, angelic life. It’s the fear of standing in front of a loving partner, one who has the capacity to create a shared life with you, someone with whom you can learn about the vulnerability and bliss of real loving. It’s the fear we feel on the precipice of change as we peer into the edge of darkness into the vast unknown. This is primal fear. This is human fear. This is holy fear, and it fills us with “restraint, awe, trembling.” And there’s no way around it.
When we make room for holy fear, unholy fear begins to wither. When we recognize that there are forces bigger than us at play, we can more easily move our small, fear-based ego minds out of the way and surrender to the wisdom of the universe. In other words, when we stop fighting what is – when we accept that fear is one of the primary ingredients in the recipe of being human – anxiety, which is an offshoot of fear, quiets down. When I’m walking alongside a client on the arduous road of trying to conceive, for example, I often find myself saying something along the lines of, “Of course you’re terrified. You want this more than anything in the world. Make room for the fear as there’s no way around it when the longing is this deep.” These words are a balm to these women’s souls as it’s an antidote to the cultural message that says, “Let go of all your fear! It only causes stress, which will interfere with your chances of conception.” This is a lie, and there’s no faster way to inspire fear than to tell someone that being afraid will limit their chances of creating exactly what they want to create.
Of course, we don’t want to indulge in the fear, even of the holy variety. This is where it gets tricky: we must learn to honor fear in its rightful place in our human life while simultaneously relying on our daily tools that help us to lift out of the fear-state so that we’re not living there. Nobody is served by living in fear. What I’m suggesting is that honoring holy fear may allow us to shift out of fear’s hold faster.
One of the most common fears I hear among my clients and course members who are struggling with relationship anxiety is the fear of hurting one’s partner. It usually sounds something like this, “What if I’m just leading my partner on? What if I realize down the road that I don’t want this relationship and I end up hurting my partner? Or maybe I’m already hurting my partner by staying in a relationship when I have so much doubt and fear?”
Do you hear the love wrapped inside the fear? Why would you feel so worried about hurting someone that you didn’t love?
It’s what Father Ron Rolheiser writes about here:
“Holy fear is love’s fear, namely, the kind of fear that is inspired by love. It’s a fear based upon reverence and respect for a person or a thing we love. When we genuinely love another person we will live inside of a healthy anxiety, a worry that our actions should never grossly disappoint, disrespect, or violate the other person. We live in holy fear when we are anxious not to betray a trust or disrespect someone. But this is very different from being afraid of somebody or being afraid of being punished.”
In this way, instead of expecting fear to completely disappear, we make room for it in all of our most meaningful love relationships, whether with a partner, a child, or a friend. We bring fear out of its dark corner as the chastised, “bad” part of our psyche and realize that being fully human isn’t about eradicating fear. There’s a cultural idea that people like Jesus or Buddha or the Dalai Lama never experience fear, or that lack of fear is, in fact, the sign of a fully evolved spiritual master. But what if it’s not that at all? What if we have it all wrong and the truth is that these spiritually evolved humans, instead of eradicating fear, learned to discern between “holy and unholy fear”? What if we set a place for Holy Fear at our table and, by doing so, the grip of unholy fear begins to loosen? Instead of clumping fear into one category, we take time to discern its threads and pay heed to those that are praiseworthy while letting the others dry up and wither away, thus allowing love to assume its rightful and balanced place in the order of things.