Kol ha-olam kulo gesher tsar meod, gesher tsar meod, gesher tsar meod, Kol ha-olam kulo gesher tsar meod, gesher tsar meod. Ve ha-ikar, ha-ikar lo lifachad, lo lifachad klal. Ve ha-ikar, ha-ikar lo lifachad klal.
The words are Hebrew, and they mean: The whole world is a very narrow bridge, But the most important thing is not to be afraid. The whole world – kol ha-olam – is a very narrow bridge, gesher tsar meod. But the most important thing is not to be afraid.
I learned this song in 1995, during the five weeks or so that I spent in Jerusalem. It was supposed to be the beginning of my junior year abroad, But a horrific bus bombing and an escalation in violence, in the long, costly war between Israel and Palestine, changed all that. Along with many students in the same program, I ended up going home; I spent my junior year in Canterbury, England, instead. But between the bombing and getting on the plane back to Indiana, I had a week-plus of living with fear, with an intimacy and intensity that was new to me. That’s probably why this song stuck – I needed it, badly. Those simple words became an anchor for me, in the storm of fear in which I found myself – along with Psalm 107, which I discovered in the little student edition of the Book of Common Prayer that my chaplain had given me before I left: Their hearts melted because of their peril, they were at their wits’ end. Then God stilled the storm to a whisper… and brought them to the harbor they were bound for.
The whole world is a very narrow bridge, but the most important thing is not to be afraid.
The disciples saw Jesus walking towards them across the water, and they thought he was a ghost; they cried out in fear. But Jesus said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” Then Peter said, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you across the water.” And Jesus said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat, and started walking towards Jesus, across the water. But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened. And beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?”
Preachers often use this story to preach about faith. But I think this tiny, important story is just as much about fear. In our translation, Jesus says that Peter “doubted.” That word suggests that Peter’s faith was faltering. Yet Peter cries out to Jesus for help as he sinks. The Greek word translated as “doubt” here is pretty interesting. It doesn’t mean questioning something you believe. The word, distazo, literally means something like being of two minds, being conflicted, wavering. What’s happening inside of Peter in this moment isn’t that his faith in Jesus is faltering; it’s that something else creeps in alongside his faith, and wreaks havoc on his balance and direction. Peter notices the strong wind, and he becomes afraid. Fear comes alongside his eagerness, his sense of hopeful purpose. He wavers; he begins to sink.
Take heart, says Jesus. The words “Take heart” appear five times in the Bible. “Take courage” appears 21 times, and “Be courageous” 12 times. Do not be afraid, says Jesus. “Do not be afraid” appears in the Bible 67 times. “Have no fear” appears another 11 times. That’s 116 exhortations to resist fear – and that’s only the ones that are easy to find in a text search.
The Bible treats fear as a spiritual challenge – one of the biggest spiritual challenges. God knows – and the ancient authors who recorded the holy stories of God’s people, knew – that fear shakes us, weakens us, holds us back, Turns us against one another. Fear corrodes our ideals, our convictions, our hopes.
What does it feel like in your body, when you’re afraid? Think about it for a minute; remember. I don’t know if it feels the same for everybody, though the biological processes are basically the same. Do you hear a kind of rushing in your ears? Does your gut clench? Does your heart race?
Scientists tell us that the fear response, what happens in our bodies when we feel threatened, is a deep-seated adaptive response. Something that helped our ancient ancestors survive, long before we first stood up on two legs. The fear response pushes us towards one of three actions: Fight, flight, or freeze.
Fight: That’s clear enough. That means our little primordial mammal-selves Are going to fight that predator tooth and claw. What does that look like in “civilized” society? When someone raises an idea that threatens our worldview, or a concern that challenges our plan, we respond with anger. We attack. We try to drive away the inconvenient truth or the challenging idea, by hurting or intimidating or silencing the person who’s raising it. I’ve done this. So have you.
Flight: That’s clear enough too. That means our little primordial mammal-self RUNS AWAY. Maybe we can outrun the predator, escape the danger. In our lives, that looks like getting out of a situation when it starts to feel challenging or threatening. Walk back that thing you said, and apologize; you meant it, but you’re not prepared to deal with the reaction. Decide not to put yourself forward for that opportunity, because you probably don’t have the right qualifications. Don’t buy that swimsuit; Good Lord, what if someone takes your photo and puts it on the Internet, and people laugh at you? I experience the Flight reaction in one very specific way: when situations become a certain kind of stressful, a child’s voice – presumably mine – in the back of my head says, clear as day, “I want to go home.” What does the Flight response feel like inside of you? You’ve done this, too.
And then there’s Freeze – that means our little primordial mammal-self goes totally still: maybe the predator won’t see me, will walk on by. You’ve seen rabbits and squirrels do this. In our modern, civilized lives, that looks like: not rocking the boat. Keeping quiet when your boss makes a racist joke. Sticking with the job you hate because who knows if you could find something else. Holding your truth locked up inside you because the people closest to you might hurt you if they knew. Don’t try that hard thing, that big daring thing, because failure would be worse than not trying. Wouldn’t it? Just… hold still and keep quiet, and maybe everything will be OK. I’ve done this, and so have you.
Fight, flight, or freeze – that’s what happens inside us, when we’re afraid. What happens among us, when we’re afraid? … Leaders discovered a long, long time ago that fear is an outstanding tool for managing and manipulating large groups of people. It’s easy to scare people, and hard to un-scare them. Our brains are lousy at probability: we will readily believe that a certain risk is orders of magnitude greater than it actually is, and we’ll allow that sense of danger to shape our worldview and drive our behavior. And once we’re afraid, as a society, we’ll tolerate all kinds of things if they give us the illusion of greater safety. The limiting of our freedoms and privacies. The demonization of people in a group that’s seen as a threat. The proliferation of weapons in our homes and neighborhoods, which, the data say quite clearly, makes us less safe, not more.
The French philosopher Anne Dufourmantelle wrote and spoke extensively about all this, in her book, “In Praise of Risk,” and elsewhere. She said, Risk is part of life. Danger, loss, hardship, challenge: it’s all just a given. It will come to you, and to those you love. Certainly you can make better choices – fasten your seat belt, take your medication – but human life will never be safe. In a 2015 interview, she said that the idea of “absolute security” is a fantasy – and not an innocent fantasy: one that’s often used as a political weapon of control. And it can become a feedback cycle: the visible apparatus of security, like armed guards on street corners, can feed public fear and thus make us even more subject to manipulation through the promise of security. She said, ”To imagine an enemy ready to attack… induces a state of paralysis, a feeling of helplessness.” There’s that “freeze” response…
Dufourmantelle argued, instead, for accepting risk as part of the human condition. The human response to risk can be noble, beautiful. She told the interviewer, “When there really is a danger that must be faced in order to survive, as for example during the Blitz in London, there is a strong incentive for action, dedication, and surpassing oneself.”
I’d never heard of Anne Dufourmantelle until her name cropped up in the news a couple of weeks ago. She’d been swimming at a beach in France, when the ocean currents suddenly intensified and became dangerous. When the alert went out, she saw two children nearby, and instead of heading directly for shore, she set out to try and rescue them. The children were saved, but Dufourmantelle drowned. Living what she professed. Rising to the risk before her.
Is that supposed to be an encouraging story? I hear you asking. She wound up dead. But imagine how it could easily have ended: She saved herself, and the children were lost. Is one’s own death the worst possible outcome in every situation? What would Jesus do?
Kol ha-olam…. The whole world is a very narrow bridge…
As I look back on it, It occurs to me that those weeks in Israel, when I was 20, may have been the crucible in which one of my fundamental spiritual practices was formed: the practice of resisting fear. Because I spent a couple of weeks living in terror, and I hated how it felt. I hated being so preoccupied with my basic physical safety. It was hard to think about anything else, to enjoy, to learn. I hated how selfish it made me. I hated how it made me afraid of people.
Sometime along the road of recovering from that dark chapter, I decided I didn’t want to be ruled by fear, ever again. It wasn’t until this week that it dawned on me to think of that as a spiritual practice. But it is; it really is. I practice it imperfectly, to be sure. But I try to live as a follower of a God who says, Fear not. Take courage.
Resisting fear doesn’t mean being naive or blindly optimistic, or pretending everything is going to be OK. Scripture and God and the saints nowhere claim that being beloved of God means nothing bad will ever happen. Instead, they insist that none of those dangers can touch your fundamental life in God. It’s hard to say it better than Paul does in our recent text from the letter to the Romans: “Who can separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, illness, poverty, danger, violence? No! I am convinced that neither death nor life, angels nor rulers, things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
So if security is a dangerous illusion, what are the alternatives to fear? Well, I can name a few, from my own practice. Maybe you have others; I’d love to hear about them. These are some of ways I manage myself, when I start to feel the urge to fight, or freeze, or flee. When I start to get distazo, when fear creeps in alongside my faith, my sense of hopeful purpose.
One alternative to fear is curiosity – approaching the things that scare us with curiosity and wonder. Charles Lafond has written a lot about fear as a spiritual challenge, in general and particularly in our relationship with money. He wrote this, last year: “Choosing curiosity over fear takes no small amount of courage. There is so much to fear. There are the many diagnoses, the possibility of plague, not getting my way in everything, the teetering economy, not getting my way in everything (it deserves saying twice), the Presidential Election, tooth decay, a melting ice cap, and my inability to smell bad salmon… But curiosity is so much more gentle than fear. It winks, for one thing. And it seduces, which is pleasant. And curiosity is the gift that keeps on giving, making life a treasure hunt if we let it.”
Another alternative to fear is compassion. Madison is seeing almost-unprecedented levels of gun violence right now. There have been ten homicides so far this year. One of the neighborhoods affected is not far from my home; kids who are living with occasional gunfire on their street go to school with my daughter. As a concerned citizen, I could react to this in a couple of ways. I could get scared, for myself and my family, despite the vanishingly small likelihood that this violence will touch us directly. Or I could be dismayed and grieved for those affected by this violence – including the perpetrators, who surely would rather have a safer and better path in life. It’s really hard to be both compassionate towards those affected, and afraid for myself, at the same time. We’re not cut out for that. I have to choose – and I’ve chosen.
Another alternative to fear is courage. I think of both curiosity and compassion as ways to sneak around behind the fear and find a different way of engaging the situation. But courage means facing the fear head-on. Looking it right in the face. Getting to know it. Befriending it, even. How do you take courage? For me the process goes something like this. I think about the risks, as calmly as I can. What’s the worst that could happen – and how likely is it, really? I think about the resources I bring to the situation. When making that inventory, remember, always, to count the basic things that nurture and sustain you: song and prayer, fresh fruit and evening skies, the love of friends, family, pets, whatever it might be for you. And I think about the hopes or possibilities that brought me to the point where I’m facing this fear. What’s important enough to make me undertake something hard and scary? If it’s really important – and especially if I feel God calling me towards it – well, then, forward.
I am not a master at the art of resisting fear. I’ve been practicing for a while, but only haphazardly. I would love to hear about your techniques. But I know it’s an important spiritual discipline for me – and I wonder if it might be for all of us, in this moment in the life of the world, when so much fear is circling among us.
Take courage. Don’t be afraid. God is here. Jesus and God and saints and prophets and angels say it, over and over and over again. Could it be part of the message we’re entrusted with, too? Words we’re given for the welfare and hope of our neighbors?
The whole world is a very narrow bridge, but the most important thing is not to be afraid… Take heart.
On Anne Dufourmantelle: http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-40703606
Charles Lafond on curiosity: http://thedailysip.org/2016/08/18/668/
Rev. Jonathan Grieser’s recent reflection on gun violence in Madison: https://gracerector.wordpress.com/2017/08/02/murder-city-madison/