Do you know what fear looks like?
Of course, you do.
You’ve seen frightened children, so scared they don’t believe that even Mommy can save them from the monsters in the closet. You’ve even seen fear exhibited again and again on the movie screen and on television, as actors open their eyes wide and let their mouths stand agape in terror at the appearance of some malevolent creature, extracted from the dark corners of a writer’s imagination.
I know all about that kind of fear, either the honest reaction from an innocent, untaught yet in the arts of deception, or the feigned emotion of a hardened pretender.
The fear I wonder about tonight is the fear all around us. I’m wondering what the terror of disasters imagined, or the memory of catastrophes which really occurred in the past looks like.
Do you know? Can you describe the face of fear—real fear?
I am coming to realize that I cannot, because I don’t know what it really looks like. All the stereotypes of the looks of fear I know are false—or at least lacking in understanding.
On a recent day, a couple hiked along the ridge on a mountaintop. The beauty of the morning was so real, you could almost have grasped it between your fingers. Swallowtail butterflies flitted from blossom to blossom of the wildflowers beside the trail, along with a buzzing honey bee or two. Every so often, a clumsy bumblebee would come humming by, intent on claiming his portion of the sweet nectar in the blossoms.
The air was cool and a gentle breeze carried the chant of songbirds, oft repeated and frequently elaborated upon, to their ears. The deep greens of the leaves and the azure blue of the skies, which could be seen almost below their feet, were brilliant.
What would one need fear up on that mountaintop?
The trail led to a lookout point, an outcropping of boulders solidly set upon the side of the ridge. They stood beside each other and marveled at creation and also at a Creator who could imagine such a place and then speak it into existence. Just then though, something caught the eye of the man.
Fifty or sixty feet to the north of the lookout upon which they stood, a promontory jutted out, the sheer fall below it dropping down many feet to the valley floor.
It was an invitation not to be ignored.
She wasn’t happy about it, but agreed to be his photographer, waiting patiently as he made his way over to the point. There was no trail to it but, slipping and sliding a little here, creeping down a boulder there, and in between steps, keeping an eye out for snakes, he eventually arrived at the destination.
Feet spread far apart, he stood atop the pile of rocks with hands on hips and arms akimbo, looking for all the world as if he had just discovered a new land. In that stance, he waited to ensure that photographic proof existed of his courage and daring. She snapped the picture.
It’s not possible to see his face in the photograph. It doesn’t matter. He is smiling.
With a quick glance down to the bottom of the chasm before him, he turned and climbed back to the marked trail, laughing as he rejoined his lovely wife. He shrugged off her repeated objection to his foolish insistence of making the risky tramp out onto the rocks. He was proud of himself.
Until that night. In the dark, he closed his eyes to sleep, falling instead to his death again and again in the visions that filled his mind. Behind closed eyelids he could see nothing but the edge of the abyss, and the ground coming up to meet him as he tumbled through the air.
He was terrified. No, not just as he lay sleepless in his bed. He had been terrified as he slid and stepped clumsily to the edge of the precipice in the light of day.
Standing arrogantly and smiling, his spirit was, in truth, melting into jelly inside of him.
The face of fear smiles. It smiles.
I wonder then—what about the other emotions we feel so deeply? What does sadness look like? Or depression?
I stood and talked with a woman today about her two-year long bout with depression, still ongoing. I have seen her often in the last two years, but never had an inkling—not an inkling.
Sickness, abuse, stress at work, cruelty of friends—all have surrounded her spirit and informed her very soul that she is of little worth and that nothing will ever change.
Still she smiles and jests, the facial expression and jokes a thin covering over a festering wound that will one day destroy her and those around her.
The face of depression doesn’t just mope, doesn’t only frown—it also smiles broadly.
Is it any wonder we think we are alone? If fear smiles and depression tells jokes, surely pain shows a false face to the world as well. The hurts of a lifetime are penned up behind the facade of impenetrability. And, we believe we are alone in this world.
Surely no one feels as badly as I. Certainly no normal person deals with my pain, my sadness, my fears. How easy it is to believe the lie which deception tells.
I sat with friends tonight and admitted for the first time my fear of the edge, of the heights above which I stood on that recent excursion onto the mountain. As we talked I found, to my surprise, that I was not alone in that fear, even in that small group of people.
The magnitude of the truth hits me where I live tonight.
How many smiling faces I see every day are hiding terror? How many happy-go-lucky folks are concealing their deep sadness behind the jocularity? How much pain have I missed in folks with whom I shake hands and exchange light-hearted greetings daily?
Do you suppose ten percent of the people I see are hiding feelings such as these? Thirty percent? Fifty?
It’s time for us to stop lying to each other. Time for us to stop hiding behind faces frozen into smiles and laughs which tell a different story than the truth of what lies within. Time for fear and sadness and pain to be brought to the light of day.
Jesus stood at the pinnacle of the temple looking down and the tempter told Him not to be afraid of falling from that great height. He stood at the tomb of His close friend and wept tears of sadness. He knew the pains of the heart—friends who abandoned Him and a people who refused to listen, and the pain of physical torture—yet He conquered both.
We’re not alone. Even if no one in the world is ever honest enough to admit their fellowship in our condition, we have a Savior who walked where we walk, and who felt the things we feel. He hasn’t forgotten who we are, nor has He lost His ability to touch us where we live.
And, He has given us the ability to help each other. Even the empathy we feel for others comes from His great love for us.
It all starts with the truth of who we are. Facades will have to tumble before changes are made. Truth doesn’t imprison us, nor allow us to stay in that state.
We will know the truth, and freedom will be ours.
Love takes off masks that we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within.
(James Baldwin ~ American writer ~ 1924-1987)
Therefore, having put away falsehood, let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbor, for we are members one of another.
(Ephesians 4:25 ~ ESV)
© Paul Phillips. He’s Taken Leave. 2015. All Rights Reserved.