The movie, A River Runs Through It, opens with a young man telling us about his brother, whom he describes as “a beautiful person, who was never afraid of anything!”
That description certainly wouldn’t fit most of us. We’re afraid of a lot of things, too many things. Our lives are almost always coloured by fear. What are we afraid of?
Most everything: At a more obvious level, we fear for our physical safety but, more deeply, we fear for our emotional safety. We’re afraid of getting hurt, of having what’s precious to us violated, of being misunderstood, of being rejected, of ending up alone and lonely, of looking bad, of disappointing others, of being perceived as not being good and generous, of having our inadequacies revealed, and of simply not being good enough in body, soul, intelligence, and virtue.
But there’s also a certain beauty in that. A River Runs Through It depicts the beauty of a life without fear, but there is also a special beauty in a life with fear. We saw that, for instance, in Princess Diana. At her death there was a stunning outpouring of affection from all over the world. Why?
The reasons were deeper than first meet the eye. It wasn’t just her physical beauty that made her “the peoples’ princess”. Many people are physically beautiful, aren’t much loved, and their beauty triggers more envy than affection. What made Diana special was precisely the fact that she had obvious weaknesses tied to her beauty. She lacked self- confidence, was too self-effacing, was too anxious to please, and was forever afraid that she wasn’t good enough. That vulnerability marked her and gave her a rare, emotional beauty.
Conversely, not everyone who lives without fear is beautiful. Sometimes we look at those who have an enviable self-confidence and wish, for everyone’s sake, that they were a little more insecure. Self- confidence too easily expresses itself in self-centredness, in lack of sensitivity, in aggressiveness, in a sense of entitlement, and in exhibitionism. Lack of fear can be beautiful but it can also be ugly and boorish. What we see in some people who fear nothing is the insensitivity of the person who carelessly and thoughtlessly tosses a priceless Rembrandt off the back of a truck, laughing, (What’s everyone worried about?) even as what’s precious is being ruined.
But, even so, fear is a bad thing. Jesus makes that plain. Our light, he tells us, is not meant to be kept under a tub; it’s meant to shine forth. Fear inhibits our light from shining. Simply put, too often we are so afraid of telling others that we love them (for fear of being misinterpreted) that we go through life too-timidly, too rarely expressing our love, affection, and gratitude. Sooner timidity than misunderstanding.
So Jesus constantly tells us to not be afraid. His very mission is to liberate us from fear. When we are too sensitive, too timid, too fearful, and too self-effacing, too much of what is best in us stays inside, light under a bushel basket, and everyone, our loved ones, the world, the gospel, and we, ourselves, are short-changed.
Nelson Mandela, in his inaugural address, said: “There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are born to manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us. It’s in everybody, and, as we let our light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”
A strong self-confidence and lack of fear can, indeed, be a beautiful gift to the world. We see this in people like Nelson Mandela, Mother Theresa, John Paul II, Martin Luther King, Jean Vanier. But, in them, and this is the secret, that self-confidence is linked to enough maturity so that their lack of fear becomes a beautiful and life-giving thing.
But most of us aren’t so mature, and most of us aren’t so self- confident. So what do we do?
Some years ago I was counselling a young priest who was generous to a fault, possessed rare depth, was scrupulously faithful in his moral life, was a gifted healer of souls, and was much loved by his parishioners. But he also was over-sensitive, lacked self-confidence, was self-effacing to a fault, and often hovered at the edges of clinical depression.
After listening to his litany of fears and self-doubts one day, I told him: “Because of your sensitivities you will always struggle, but at least you’ll never be a jerk!”
Until you and I reach the maturity of a Nelson Mandela, Mother Theresa, John Paul II, Martin Luther King, or Jean Vanier, perhaps it’s not a bad thing, like Princess Diana and this young priest, to struggle with some fears, timidities, inhibitions, and depressions. That way, you’ll never be a jerk – and there’s a special beauty in that too.