The pelican papers

A big bird’s eye view

Thanksgiving 2015: Fear, courage, hope and love

Posted by Ron George on December 2, 2015

Hope, by Cheolho Shin

Hope, by Cheolho Shin

A dear friend writes that we have little to be thankful for this season and much to dread. What may have been worth affirming in 1986 (see this previous post) is obscured in our time by foreign and domestic terrorism. It’s heartbreaking, my friend writes; and, indeed, it is. How did we get here from there? How can we be thankful in such a time, when all we really have to be thankful for is that none of our own, so far, is among the victims?

I wish I knew.

1986, of course, might have been a year for wondering the same thing. There was terrorism and natural disaster, but it didn’t seem to be popping up so close to home. It was the year space shuttle Challenger exploded on national TV as millions of school children watched. Terrorism continued in Northern Ireland and civil war in Africa. The Chernobyl nuclear plant melted down, killing more than 4,000 people. The prime minister of Sweden was gunned down on the streets of Stockholm as he walked home from a night at the movies. Terrorists hijacked a Pan Am flight in Pakistan, and the same bunch claimed credit a day later for murdering 22 in an Istanbul synagogue. And then there was the Iran-Contra affair, in which our government supported anti-government terrorists in Nicaragua with funds raised by selling arms to Iran. (See Wikipedia, 1986.)

Still, it seems as though violence and hatred have increased just about everywhere. Just last week, a terrorist shot up a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs, Colo., killing a police office and two others, including a young military veteran; not to mention the Nov. 13 carnage in Paris, France.

We – and by that I mean all human inhabitants of planet Earth – seem to have reached a crisis; which, by definition, is a turning point. Which way will we turn and by what principles will we decide?

First, as my friend has done in her typically heartfelt way, we ought to acknowledge our fear, which is more than just being afraid of this or that. Existential fear is rooted in deep-seated anxiety that taints how we see and what we feel about the state of the world – here, there, everywhere. It’s the kind of fear that seeps into every corner of our lives. We fear for our loved ones and ourselves. It’s the kind of fear that can become mental and physical illness. It can kill us – not just the fear itself, which may drive us insane, but that which we fear, whether it be terrorists, infectious disease or climate change.

Deaths due to terrorism: On the rise again (Source: The National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START) Global Terrorism Database at the University of Maryland)

Deaths due to terrorism: On the rise again (Source: Global Terrorism Database at the University of Maryland)

Fear creates the crisis: Shall we flee (for example, by letting ourselves be driven mad) or shall we stand; fight or flight?

Key to appreciating moments of crisis is remembering that we’re all in this together as human inhabitants of planet Earth. We are members one of another, often whether we like it or not. None of us is able to stand alone and survive what ails the societies of our planet. It very well may be that Job One in dealing with the problems that beset us is to remember that our enemies as well as our friends suffer in times of calamity and violence. No one wins a war, ever. There are battlefield victors and those who have been defeated by being outgunned and/or outmaneuvered, but everyone loses something. Some lose everything – and all lose their human dignity.

Our hope in crisis is that human dignity may be restored. That takes courage and, finally, love; not the Hollywood charade but love perhaps best articulated as  the last full measure of devotion, the greater love wherein one is willing to lose one’s life for the common good. It’s the only thing that heals the broken societies of a broken world. It’s the only thing that ever has.

Our decisions in crisis will be made out of fear or by having the courage to hope and, finally, to love.

I’ve just finished the novel, All the Light We Cannot See. I’m no critic, and I’m not especially well read, but this is among the best pieces of literary fiction I have ever read. Among its many themes is the resilience of people young and old in time of total war; in this case, World War II.

Andrew Doerr’s novel is not a love story with a happy ending, but it’s a true love story about people who dig deep into their souls to find courage, who endure terrible deprivation, whose lives are intricately woven with human values – not all of them noble – that ultimately inform the direction of their moral compass.

Are they ever fearful? You bet. Are they ever beset by doubt, especially about their immediate future? Yes. Do they hesitate to love and, so, to hope? No. They are bound by cords much stronger than the hatred and violence around them, even if it means giving up their lives.

Mr. Doerr’s novel ends in a kind of contemplative sadness at heartbreaking outcomes that, given the circumstances, did turn out better than might have been expected. The story ends with the fulfilling contentment that all life, especially human life, which is always dangerous and contingent, is the ultimate value and affirmation we Earthlings have to offer; and, so, ought we not offer it courageously regardless of whether we live or die?

Christian tradition affirms this as a fundamental message of Jesus – the greater love of giving up one’s life for one’s friends. (John 15.12-13) Most of the time, it doesn’t come to that; but, when it does – and this is a question Doerr asks, though not in any religious sense – will we be ready?

May we desire that we would have the courage to say yes to that moment; yes, to acknowledge our fear and face the dangerous contingencies of our existence with courage, hope and love. Perhaps that’s what it means to be fully human by becoming part of something far greater than ourselves.

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One Response to “Thanksgiving 2015: Fear, courage, hope and love”

  1. Jim Abbott said

    Wish I could share this on my Facebook page

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