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The only thing to fear ...

While the image I carry of myself as a backpacker may no longer align with reality, from experience I know the validity of these words: “We pack for our fears.”

More than once I have come out of the mountains or back from the Boundary Waters Canoe Wilderness Area and unpacked clothing or equipment that was never used. “Better safe than sorry” had been the driving force behind my preparations. When going into the outback, this may seem like a reasonable guiding principle, but it has its down side: weight.

Having to put forth effort is part and parcel of moving through the world self-contained and self-reliant. Any of us who have done it, know that. There comes a point, though, when being prepared for every contingency requires the traveler to carry so much weight that the enterprise of just getting through a day becomes more trouble than it’s worth.

Afraid of the cold, and you will take more clothes than you are likely to wear. Afraid of hunger? You will return with days’ worth of untouched food. Afraid of getting lost? That GPS or satellite-communicating device will have added unnecessary weight when your map and compass would have sufficed.

Fear can, and often does, drive how we engage with much of our life, not just in the outback. It can drive how we live individually and as a people. And when it does, it limits our capacity and burdens our days as well as our relationships.

So, of what are you afraid? Failure? Being alone? Not having enough of whatever? The next minority group to show up in your neighborhood? Death?

Well, guess what. Madison Avenue has you pegged. And it has the solution to your fear, marketed, packaged and ready to ship.

It’s one thing when we as individuals succumb to our fears, fears that are often unnamed. It’s entirely another when we do it collectively. The havoc that can be wreaked in a single life is tragic, whether that is overwork, jumping into bed with the next person we meet online, shopping ourselves into debt or just the constant anxiety that comes with living with fear.

But when fear is collective, the outcome can be dangerous. Entire populations can become “the enemy.” The environment can be commodified. Preparing for (and going to) war can become the focus rather than education and health care that are necessary for a stable populace.

I wonder if “Be not afraid” – the words of Jesus, the heavenly beings most religions reference and all the great spiritual teachers – are not words that we would do well to heed, whether we are religious or not. Christianity, at least, teaches that we were made for freedom from all that can hold us in bondage, from those fears that besiege us.

It would be easy to think that walking away from our fears would be the first step in approaching that freedom. But, if you’ve ever tried to talk yourself out of being afraid in a situation that seemed so clearly to warrant it, you know how hard that is. Maybe freedom is more about what we do than what we feel. If, intentional step by intentional step, we stop packing for our fears and begin to unpack our lives, we might find that our fear diminishes. And as a society, that might open for us a path into our future whose hallmarks are peace, inclusion, generosity and mutuality.

We’ve been sold a bill of goods that we should be afraid and prepare for all contingencies. Carrying around a backpack that we fantasize will save us from the next boogeyman of which we could be afraid (and there will always be another boogeyman) will only weigh us down.

There will always be “bad” things. There will always be difficult and painful things. There is no charmed life. But when we live a burdened life, we limit our capacity to respond creatively and adroitly and, let’s admit it, smartly to the difficulties that we will face.

Leigh Waggoner is priest at St. Barnabas Episcopal Church. She can be reached at 565-7865, or rector@stbarnabascortez.org.

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