Monday, September 15, 2008

Fear, Pain, and Wisdom

The Reading Terminal Market is a charming farmers market and lunch joint in the heart of Philadelphia. An entire section of the Market is run by Amish for half of the week. In a way, I feel like I'm visiting Lancaster again when I eat at one of the Amish lunch places.

Up above the cash register, they have this sign:

The fear of the Lord is the first step on the path to wisdom.
~Proverbs 9:10.

It really struck me.

Fear leads to wisdom?

Interesting concept. It got me thinking about how many ways fear is an organizing principle for humans. An engine for behavior control. Here are some examples:

  • Children's fear of parents and teachers.

  • The fear of being ostracized/being different.

  • Fear of government/rules/punishment.

These societal fears have something in common. First, each one is a conscious decision to use fear as a pressure to change actions. It is purposeful fear.

Second, humanity expressly or implicitly consents to be afraid. Take the fear of God, for instance. For the Amish, the fear of God's punishment dissuades them from doing or not doing certain things. The Amish then consent to this fear by believing that it's for their own good. They encourage each other to be afraid.

For the sake of clarity, we should distinguish societal fear from personal fear. Personal fear is born from individual pain. Once a person experiences pain, he or she wants to avoid its sting again. For example, the fear of intimacy is created by ripping away safe and healthy relationships, often by substituting harmful ones. Positive relationships are desired, but as soon as one comes along, the fear of losing it ignites. Emotions conflict. The person says, come closer, get away from me. The line between the desire and fear is razor thin and unstable. Personal fear can become poison.

Societal fear is different. It's not merely a reaction. It's a choice.

So what do you think? How pervasive is fear as a societal force? Does fear serve an essential purpose, or is it shortsighted? Or how about the deeper question? Is societal fear really personal fear in disguise? Does it all boil down to the fear of pain?

If so, maybe avoiding pain is the path to wisdom.


But first, we should make sure the pain is real. And right.


Anonymous said...

Fear is extremely strong in our society. Fear is why we had another four years of President Bush. I'm absolutely certain of this.

As for the fear of God, I tend to interpret it a bit differently in my worship. For me, it's more of a respect. After all, those that are repentant are forgiven. Anyhow..

Good post and :) for the "Reading Terminal Market". I've only been there once, but I need to get back there.

Charles Gramlich said...

I think we definitely start out afraid. But I'd like to think as one's faith matured you'd have less fear of god and more a respectful relationship. I still see in many folks I know, a real terror of the Lord. It bothers me.

The Anti-Wife said...

I think we start out unafraid and over time others teach us to fear because they have been taught the same. Once fear has been ingrained in us it's difficult to purge it and it can produce a lifetime of prejudices.

Geraldine said...

Perhaps that 'fear factor' that the bible seems to reinforce throughout is one of the reasons that so many people have been turned off by conventional western religions. Hellfire and brimstone....Interesting post Jason and thoughts to ponder, thanks. G

Stephen Parrish said...

Fear of getting bad grades made me study, so maybe fear leads to wisdom after all!

You're from Lancaster? I lived there for two years in the late 1980s. I loved it.

The Grocer said...

It could be argued that much of our religion is based on fear, the fear of death being an end to life. The oldest form of control through fear of not reaching heaven or the afterlife.

*~*{Sameera}*~* said...

I agree with the proverb.At the end of the day,whether we fear anyone or not,we have ourselves to answer to,our conscience to be cleared.And that indirectly is guarded by Him.

If everyone had a clear conscience,then the society and hence the world,would surely be a different place :)

Sarah Hina said...

Fear is a powerful tether, and motivator. Somewhat of a contradiction, really. It can encourage us to do the "right" thing, if for the wrong reasons. Do we treat people well because they're human beings and we empathize with their plight? Or do we fear breaking a rule, and suffering the consequences. Maybe both. But if we rely too much on fear to control ourselves, we risk constant guardedness and possible isolation. Closing off, instead of opening up. Falling backward out of wariness, instead of seizing opportunities.

But what do I know? ;) I fear personal pain, and societal consequences, too. I suppose it's in the individual's considered response to that fear (and, dear lord, not in her blind obedience!) that she proves her wisdom.

Anonymous said...

Strugglingwriter, Charles, Anti-Wife, Geraldine, Stephen, The Grocer, Sameera, and Sarah, thank you all for your excellent insights!!

I was thinking about this issue more today. About whether fear is constructive or destructive. The direction of my thoughts was that fear as a tool is expedient. It's efficient. It gets results. Perhaps knowing how deep a motivator personal fear can be, society sometimes decides to evoke personal fears to get clear and predictable results. For example, you can entice a herd of cattle to move into pasture with carrots or simply wait for them to go on their own accord. But yanking out the cattle prod gets it done fast and without a doubt.

Personally, however, I'm suspicious of short cuts. I prefer to tackle the full complexities of a situation rather than plow through in the belief that the ends justify the means.


Very enlightening post JE! You are absolutely correct, there are different types of fear, yet I think it all stems from the same place: fear of rejection of not being loved, of being on the outside.

If you tell someone that fear of god will make them wise, you got them. They will now listen to everything you preach and believe it is the lore; the answers to all their trouble. Fear becomes an instrument of submission. If you fear a higher authority, you no longer feel responsible for your choices. The people or objects or superpowers you fear are now in control. If you mess up, they will clean up for you.

Belief and "fear" of god removes burden of the human condition, hence why it's so easy for people to "submit" to his will.

It's those who can conquer fear and rise above it who are truly on the path to wisdom. The path of wisdom isn't to avoid pain but rather to embrace it as part of life. Responsibility means making sometimes painful decision and accepting the consequences for your own actions. Therefore if you accept pain rather than fear it, you have nothing to fear at all, which then puts you on the true road to knowledge and success.

Miladysa said...

I do not agree that avoiding pain is the path to wisdom.

Pain is a part of life, I think we need to experience life not avoid it.

I'm not saying that we need to court or embrace pain. Rather that personally I have always been able to learn something and gain some kind of insight no matter how painful the experience may have been.

I do not believe that we should allow fear to rule us either. We should overcome fear wherever possible.

I believe that G*d will not punish us for living our lives and if we fail to live we are only punishing ourselves.

Lena said...

I think fear brings hate and sooner or later it will show. Especially when it is societal fear. In the end you are the only one responsible for what you do, a human being always has a choice, to be driven by fear or rather stand up and fight it and the pain it brings.
Not all are able to do this, but thats another aspect of it.

Merely Me said...

I grew up living in fear. I feared my mentally ill mother. I feard my poverty and not having enough to eat. I feared going outside to play because I might get beat up because I lived in a bad neighborhood. No...I don't believe fear did me any good whatsoever. I want my God to be a being I run to...and not run away from out of fear. I want to make my choices consciously and not like some scared animal.

Love your blog...very insightful posts.

SzélsőFa said...

I loved this post and the comments as well.
I too, think that fear is a motivator, but definitely not a good one.
When I think of God, fear would be the last thing to come into my mind...The Bible is a strange thing...O don't know much about it, but I reserve the notion that many things were lost, or turned for the worse during translation

Anonymous said...

Eating Poetry and Miladysa, I believe that acceptance of all things and not turning away from any knowledge or emotion, is the path to wisdom. It seems to me that fear is about steering away. How can we gain understanding when whole regions of human existence are forbidden?

Lena, so true. While fear may be expedient in the short term, I don't think it holds very well over time. Sooner or later, the yoke breaks.

Merely Me, I understand. And having those elements of pain thrust open you (especially as a child) brings more pressure toward fear. When those emotions begin growling and feel like they're hunting you down, I hope you can stand firm. Or begin. When you stand and face them, fears have a way of eroding.

Szelsofa, I'm with you. Fear seems to be a very human tool. I have deep doubts about whether any deity would have need to turn to such things.

Posolxstvo I said...

Thought provoking question. And actually one of the reasons why I am now, in essence, a functioning agnostic.

I don't have any interest in taking something that works away from anyone, but it has been my experience that "fear of God" is usually a fear of being shunned -- of being excommunicated by a group that one identifies with. One's clan, if you will. Of losing one's friends. Of losing one's family. Of losing one's bearings. Of being thought of poorly.

Needless to say, I'd not have made a very good Amish man.