ONE of the most provocative theories about the inner life — and the longer and more complicated story of fear’s origins — comes from the French philosopher Michel Foucault’s writings on the development of the self.
Foucault explains how fear-inducing authorities taught us how to understand ourselves through a fascinating observation: that, at least in cultures dominated by Christendom, humans took a leap forward in defining ourselves through the repetition of confessing our sins to a priest, to whom we ascribed the very power of God.
Thus we reinforced the notions that what is most important about ourselves is a bunch of things that we are ashamed of (or that we have been told we should be ashamed of).
This story taught us that to feel ashamed is a “sacrament” and therefore good for us and that there is a higher power who is more interested in punishing our mistakes than in affirming our beauty.
Keeping guilt and fear bottled up inside is no good for any of us. As Leonard Cohen says, the crack is where the light gets in, so it’s worth noting that healthy confession — in conversation with an emotionally mature, non-shaming confessor — is indeed good for the soul.
There is healing in facing our inner darkness and making amends. Healthy confession includes the liberation of knowing you’re not alone, the opportunity to learn from your mistakes, and the forging of new agreements so that you can walk a little taller next time.
But unhealthy models of confession, Foucault contends, have created the self as a little shame receptacle, unable to take responsibility for its actions and needing a magician in the sky to pronounce it clean.
Many people experience confession merely as a mental checklist or a superficial game, a kind of spiritual tallying we employ to feel better about ourselves or because it fits the norms of the community we’re desperately hoping will accept us.
The lenses through which we identify “sin” or “darkness” derive from the whims of the authorities. This means giving away what Simone Weil called our greatest power: the power to say “I.”
Given the power we cede to religious and other authorities as our surrogate decision-makers, many of us have inherited shame-filled notions about ourselves, and we have a lot of unlearning to do about when to surrender power and when to take it. Confession, for me, was first equated with naming my darkness rather than my light, my shadow rather than my gold.
As a result, I am prone to overread the darkness and curse it rather than noticing the million candles already lit. Some say we become what we pay attention to. It’s no wonder, then, that when my vision was restricted by the culture of confessing only the shadow, darkness was all I could see.
It’s no wonder that I thought that I was ugly, and greeted the concept of innocence as a sign of weakness rather than understanding innocence as a sign of the true immensity of what it is to be human. As both beginning and destiny.
WE ALL have the experience of an authority figure or institution of whom we’ve been afraid. For some of us, it’s a parent, whose love became confused and twisted in harsh discipline, or whose own brokenness had not been tended and who acted out their shadow on us.
For some, it is a religious culture that bound us up in ropes, tightly knotted at one end but with enough freedom of movement that we could flagellate ourselves with the other — a culture in which well-meaning people were still transmitting the dehumanising and broken ideas about original sin and the depravity of children. For some, it is the fear that the authorities will break their promises, or of systems that enforce the heresy that some lives are worth more than others.
Some recoil from the very image or idea of God. And that’s OK — knowing these things allows you to begin to be gentle with yourself. So let me say something more about God — or, if I’m to be accurate, God.
The word cannot contain what it seeks to convey. No word can, but let’s face it, God is one of the biggest — so big that its very gravity is easily disregarded. It’s too hot to handle. We do so much talking about God without ever touching the wisdom of the concept, never mind experiencing it.
So let’s try this: I don’t think God is a cuddly bloke with a nice beard, sitting in the clouds. But I do think that if you find that image lifegiving, you are welcome to it, and may it bring you joy.
WHEN I use the word God, I mean something like what is conveyed by the phrase “Reality with a capital R and more.” Let’s imagine that God is Reality and that Reality is bigger than the universes, known and unknown; it is the Ground of Being, which itself initiates the very possibility that we could imagine anything at all.
God induces the rules of logic and reason, is the explanation of everything, permeates every molecule, and is almost completely revealed in every human face. Pure Love. You have been born into a world full of people trying to get it right, but whose imperfect conclusions gave you a gift: the need to figure things out for yourself.
So, you get the chance to consciously choose how you will participate in the next stage of human evolution rather than parroting the mistakes of the past. (Apologies to any parrots who may be reading. I’m sure you have something original to say, too.) What that conscious choosing looks like, of course, is up to you. It can be no other way.
Fear of external authorities can be transcended only by the human being taking authority for herself. Imagination, in the end, may be the only thing that cannot be held prisoner except with the prisoner’s consent.
The bittersweet opportunity for you, for me, for everyone we know is to realise we are our own jailers. And, from your jail, where you shackle yourself to a vision of the world that ascribes power to invisible spiritual forces that can create wars, poverty, political oppression, and the DMV, the amazing gift is that no one holds the key to your prison but you.
You can take steps to free yourself by nurturing the authoritative voice within. In fact, nurturing authority within is the first step toward overcoming fear. Consider this: If you lack mercy for yourself, imagine becoming more merciful to others.
Do it for long enough, and you will start to forgive yourself. If you are a harsh critic, offer yourself feedback by first identifying what you did well, and then identifying one suggestion for a better way to do it next time — without dwelling on what you think you did badly.
If your community tends to curse the darkness before lighting candles, consider buying some candles. If you have given power over your own life to external authorities, try to retrace the journey that led you there, and take back one piece of power at a time. If you need help, learn how — and from whom — to ask for it.
This is an extract from How Not to Be Afraid: Seven ways to live when everything seems terrifying by Gareth Higgins, published by Canterbury Press at £14.99 (Church Times Bookshop £11.99); 978-1-786-22318-0.
Listen to Gareth Higgins talking about his book to Cole Morton on the Church Times podcast here.