The Fear Inside

My last blog post focused on supporting the governmental recognition of gay marriage from an evangelical Christian perspective. It sparked several series of Facebook comments and a wide-ranging discussion that hasn’t stopped. Outside that public light, several people reached out to me individually, to talk more or simply to encourage me for posting it. In all, this foray of my blog into a political hot potato has gone even better than expected, and I’m encouraged by the way it’s brought people from different parts of my life together.

To continue this objective, I thought I’d try to describe a sort of meta-worldview that I noticed popping up in the discussion, and in some other contexts. Yes, this is going to be another one of those posts, where each section describes a different angle on the same topic. Stick with me.

I’ll start by recounting a sermon illustration I heard once. A group of hunters (I think they were supposed to be Native Americans) found some ducks which regularly floated in a river to be safe from predators. They released a pumpkin in upstream which would float down the river, but when the ducks saw it, they all freaked out and flew away. They kept releasing the pumpkin past them, though, and eventually the ducks realized that it would just float on by and nothing would happen. So they stopped flying off and just continued sitting there as the uneventful pumpkin would go on past. The next one wasn’t be a pumpkin, though: it was a hunter in the river wearing face paint and a pumpkin for a helmet, and they were all… sitting ducks.

I probably don’t need to spell out how this is directly related to concerns about gay marriage, but in case it helps, we’re the ducks. There are threats out there to destroy us, which will attempt to lull us into a false sense of security. Once we stop reacting to new things, they’ll be used against us. When I heard this illustration, I was reminded of another more common folk saying that if you put a frog in a pot of boiling water, it’ll jump out. But if you put it in a pot of room temperature water and heat it up slowly, it won’t notice until it’s dead.

The duck story illustrates the fear with a bit more specificity, though. It’s important that the evil here is personified, and stronger or smarter than us. To defeat an evil like that, we have to trust our gut instinct, because that’s what’s kept us alive as a species so far. Trying to carve out exceptions for pumpkins is only inviting hunters into our midst.

I don’t really like to perpetuate any stereotypes, but if the US were divided into a Red America and a Blue America, which one do both sides think would be smarter? Who would be the ducks and who might they fear are the hunters? What responsibility do those of us who think of ourselves as smart have to prove our trustworthiness?

Last night, I watched Disney.Pixar’s Inside Out, as a part of an “American” date night with Grace (we also played Threes (red, white and blue!), watched bad reality TV, and had burgers for dinner beforehand). It probably doesn’t surprise you that I absolutely loved the movie, given its 98% fresh Rotten Tomatoes ranking and that IMDb currently ranks it as high as Lord of the Rings. Or if you know me a bit better, you’d recognize that I’ve recommended a story with a similar conceit (“Inside Out is the most rationalist movie ever. I can’t even think of what would be the #2 runner-up” says its author), or that I’ve advocated (spoiler) essentially the same message as the movie in a different context. So maybe it shouldn’t be surprising that I want to watch it a second time soon, even though it’s the first movie that I’ve thought that about in a while.

Anyways, I was intrigued by one aspect of the movie which you can already see in the trailers, so I don’t think it spoils much to mention it here. It’s easy to gloss over, but Riley’s parents have the same sets of five emotions, which work together as a team in a more functional way than they do in Riley’s head. For the dad, the leader of the bunch is anger, in red, and for the mom, the leader is sadness, in blue.

Walking back from the theater, I reflected on those same emotions my own life. As I heard a siren pass, as well as some other pedestrians talking loudly, I noticed Fear hesitantly raising his hand to speak. “No, there’s nothing to worry about!” Joy instantly burst in (with Amy Poehler’s voice), and indeed, there wasn’t. And then I realized that this summarizes exactly the emotional content to my reaction to gay marriage. Joy is indeed my primary emotion, and along with Anger, has made a practice of minimizing the effect of Fear. I even have a Core Memory to point to from when I was 10: We were at the Grand Canyon, and my dad was getting “too close” to the edge, at least according to my mom. Well, I joined him, and we got a spectacular view and no one got hurt. “See?” said Joy. “You don’t belong here.”

Today, I mostly let my Fear preoccupy himself with my schedule and to-do list. “Is there anything I forgot to do?” is his question to answer. While eating burgers at dinner, I got a call from a friend who was confused about which day the fireworks were on. Before hearing him clearly enough to understand that, Fear went straight to my calendar in memory and wondered if I had forgotten an event I was supposed to be at. I’ve made enough mistakes like that before to know that he’s right to worry about that sort of thing.

Let me be clear out front: I’m not arguing that a life run by Joy is better than a life run by Fear. I’m also not claiming that every reaction to gay marriage, or any other issue, is entirely driven by emotions. What I am trying to articulate is some of the emotional content that is key to engaging with where others are coming from.

Specifically, much of what I’ve seen of the pro-gay marriage message has imagined that the primary emotion guiding their opponents is Disgust. While this is undoubtedly true for some people, those that I’ve interacted with seem to raise concerns more related to Fear. Where is this taking us as a society, and what unintended consequences lie not far down the road?

Speaking to gay marriage supporters now, this is an important distinction, because how you respond to each should be different. With Disgust, the strategy of arguing that gay marriage is socially normal and reducing any associated stigma through exuberant Pride events is generally the way to go. But with Fear, beyond directly addressing their concerns, you need to calmly comfort them and give your assurances that you also have the issues that they care most deeply about (in this case, children) in mind.

Grace and I recently finished reading Lamentations, part of our devotional time every morning. Lamentations is the Sadness book of the Bible, and to be honest, that was a bit of an emotional disconnect. Fortunately, as we realized going in, it’s a short book, so it gave us enough transitional time to settle on reading Acts next, an important book I haven’t studied in detail in a while.

Before Lamentations, we read Isaiah, which definitely shows the full spectrum. Anger at injustice plays a role, as does Disgust at immorality, and there are the hopeful Joy verses that we read every Christmas sprinkled in, like Parmesan cheese. But the biggest enigma to me was the first half of the book, basically a Middle Eastern geography book that expected to become obsolete, given how much death and destruction it foretold.

What I eventually realized as a result of all of this discussion is that I’d been approaching those passages as Anger passages, when in reality, they’re Fear passages. I kept looking for the specific things that every city or country had done wrong, and feeling disappointed that they didn’t seem to be deserving of their impending doom. But really, it’s expressing a very real fear that God would judge their people by sending another invading foreign army.

Of course, I also didn’t find that part of Isaiah very emotionally captivating. I don’t emotionally fear China’s rise, or Ebola, or ISIS or any other nation-threatening headline. Part of me recalls how worried people were about Y2K or Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction and how much of a letdown those potential apocalypses were; maybe that’s my relevant Core Memory, while others remember 9/11. But I can definitely improve at appreciating the important role that Fear plays, as Inside Out puts it, keeping us alive.

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