THE WEBSITE of the Mental Health Foundation, in the midst of its campaign “Is fear holding you back?” (Comment, 9 April), has a small panel: “Skydive for mental health”. It might not have been intended as such, but it serves as a reminder that fear is a vital human emotion. The Foundation’s report In the Face of Fear concurs, but suggests that, in terms of the natural fear response, evolution has failed to keep up with environmental change. The report quotes Bruce Schneier: “We are very well adapted to dealing with the security environment endemic to hominids living in small family groups on the highland plains of East Africa.”
The report is informed by a survey in which 37 per cent of respondents said that they felt frightened or anxious more often than they used to, and 77 per cent thought the world a more frightening place than it had been ten years ago. One person in seven in the 18-24-year-old age range described him- or herself as a “generally anxious or fearful person”. The reasons given are various, but include financial insecurity, the terrorist threat, and the habit of “catastrophising” indulged in by politicians and journalists alike. Our inference from the report is that, in a country that is enjoying one of the longer periods of peace and prosperity in its history, the lives of millions of its citizens are unduly informed by fear. The number of those with a clinically recognised anxiety disorder, has risen by 800,000 since 1993.
The consequences of this for mission are significant. Fear of damnation no longer drives people into the arms of Mother Church, if it ever did. The little knots of cagouled worshippers who gather in shopping centres to proclaim good news to those who fear the Lord cannot have failed to notice their dwindling audience. Since there is already too much fear in people’s lives, adding another fear is counterproductive. The Mental Health Foundation report suggests that, because so much fear is attached to imaginary or exaggerated threats, people have no capacity to respond to real, serious threats such as that posed by global warming. How much less, then, will they heed eschatological warnings that are less susceptible to scientific proof.
A more successful missionary approach has been to demonstrate how the perfect love of Christ casts out fear. All sources of anxiety can be addressed by following his teaching and example — even the ultimate anxiety, fear of death. This is a message that must be learned over time (as many anxious Christians will attest); but its efficacy is sure. As the New Testament lesson at evensong put it on Tuesday: “If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men most miserable” (1 Corinthians 15.19). Anxiety levels will remain high as long as the Easter hope is missing from people’s lives.