Ancient Sage The shepherd of Hermas was an ancient spiritual father who lived at the beginning of the second century. In one of his writings, he speaks of a vision he had in which a giant beast was approaching him. It stirred up a cloud of dust so thick and high that, at first, he could not see the beast. “When the sun momentarily shined more brightly,” he saw that the beast was almost 100 feet long and resembled a sea monster. Terrified, Hermas cried out to God to save him. God’s response was to remind him not to be “double-minded”... to have singular focus. “Taking courage, I entrusted myself to the beast. And the beast came on with a rush as if it could destroy a city. I drew near to it and the...monster, great as it was, stretched itself out on the ground and...did not move until I had gone by it.”
Fear is our signal for danger. Like all our basic emotions, fear, in its appropriate boundaries, serves and protects us. Emotions are legitimate instruments intended to promote full and abundant living. It is only when we fail to use them as they were designed to be used that emotions enslave rather than free. When emotions bleed outside their legitimate boundaries, they cease serving us, and we begin serving them. Instead of being in control of our emotions, we find our emotions are in control of us.
God’s response to the Shepherd of Hermas’ fears, and Hermas’ response to the monster are both instructive to us. God’s instruction not to be “double-minded,” seems strange at first glance. When life-threatening forces are approaching, it is sometimes necessary to get out of the way. The flight impulse of fear is our body’s way of assisting us. The “fight” aspect of fear is designed to kick in when flight is not possible or when it is not advisable. The difficulty most of us have, not only with fear, but with all our emotions, is knowing when they are appropriate and what is the appropriate way to express them. Such understanding is the sign and gauge of wisdom.
Hermas’ impulse to flee seemed appropriate to the occasion. Fighting the monster was out of the question; what remained was flight. God’s surprising response suggests limitations to our understandings, not only of fear, but likely, of all our emotions. Here in this situation with the Shepherd of Hermas, God’s instruction seems to suggest a third way of approaching fear; neither flight nor fight, His answer is to face it. Don’t flee the monster. Don’t fight the monster. Face it. When Hermas “entrusted himself to the beast,” that is what he was doing. Embracing the present issue, neither fighting nor fleeing, Hermas “faced” it and the beast was tamed.
Face the monster; Approach it; Confront it; Embrace the fear and its messenger.
Fear is often the body’s signal that we are “double-minded.” Much of the time fear has to do with the future imposing itself on the present. With one eye we are focused on trying to deal with present realities, and with the other we are focusing on the unseen monsters that lurk out there; those whom we are fleeing. Fear means we are not giving ourselves fully to either the present or the real issues. Caught somewhere in between, we are split...double-minded. Snared in the impasse between fight and flight, fear abounds and bleeds outside its boundaries to immobilize us. The more immobilized we become, the more we are controlled, not by the event or even the monster, but by the fear of it.
The way of healing is to turn and face our monsters, to walk up to them and deal with them. We must open up the closet doors, turn on the light and let that which has been hidden in the dust and darkness be exposed...and dealt with. What has kept us from doing that for most of our lives is fear. When we avoid and deny, when we are anxious or fearful, it means we are running from something. It means that something is stalking us. _________________________________________________________________________
When I was a child, the winter bedding always consisted of a feather bed, flannel sheets, and quilts my grandmother had made many years before. I spent many cold evenings in my room happily playing or reading till I was ready for bed. When once I stood in the doorway poised to turn off the light, a strange transformation overtook the formerly safe and secure room. The anticipated darkness created monsters. Hesitating, I summoned my courage and then flipped the switch. Racing across the floor, I planted my right foot some three feet from my bed and took a flying leap. Three feet was as close as I dared come to the bed, lest a hand reach out from beneath, grab my ankle and pull me under. Turning in mid air, I would land squarely in the middle and let the feathers in my magical bed fold over me. If I lay motionless in my impact zone, the monster that hid beneath my bed would never know I was there. As long as the light was on, there was no monster at all. It was only in the darkness that the monsters grew. _________________________________________________________________________
If we don't turn around and confront the predators in our lives we will always be stalked by fears and anxieties. We’ll be snared by procrastination. We’ll avoid dealing with bills or returning phone calls. We’ll break commitments and fail to carry through with responsibilities. Our mind will want to do things one way. Our body will do it another. Life will pile up on us and we will feel overwhelmed or trapped. Facing that which has cornered us; confronting what lies hidden in the darkness that seems to summons or create the monsters, is the only way of getting past them and emerging into a new and freer place.
When we turn and walk toward what we fear, we walk from the darkness into Light, and the monsters lie down and let us pass. Our challenge is not only to face the monsters in our lives but deal with the dust they have left behind. Any other response will only intensify our struggles and increase our bondage. __________________________
F A C E - ing The Monster
Face the Monster. Name it. Admit the truth about the situation; acknowledge the facts...This is a reality check...a turning around and facing reality.
Approach it. Make a decision, a commitment, to do whatever you have to do to deal with the monster; to look at where it lies in you and why it is there.
Confront it. Look at the full issue: the dust clouds or symptoms of behavior and attitudes; the originating event or circumstances; those involved, etc.. Roll up your sleeves and do the hard work of healing...no matter how difficult it is: Counseling, journaling, reading, self-honesty, seeking truth wherever it lies, etc..
Embrace the fear and its Messenger. Don’t shirk back from the issue or the fear it generates. Let the fear be there, but don’t let it deter you from dealing with whatever realities are there for you. Move into the fear with resolve...move past it to deal with the monster, the problem or situation. The fear may persist....let it persist. Accept your fear...Acknowledge that it is there. Be aware of the body signals to your fear. Don’t run from them or avoid them...feel them...name them...then get on with the work of the monster.
“To heal our toxic shame we must come out of hiding. As long as our shame is hidden, there is nothing we can do about it. In order to change our toxic shame we must embrace it…The only way out is through.”
“Embracing our shame involves pain. Pain is what we try to avoid. In fact, most of our neurotic behavior is due to the avoidance of legitimate pain. We try to find an easier route. This is perfectly reasonable. However, as Scott Peck has said, ‘The tendency to avoid emotional suffering…is the primary basis for all human mental illness.’”
“The excruciating loneliness fostered by toxic shame is dehumanizing. As a person isolates more and more, he loses the benefit of human feedback. He loses the mirroring eyes of others…identity formation is always a social process…Remember, it was the contaminated mirroring by our significant relationships that fosters our toxic shame. In order to be healed we must come out of isolation and hiding. This means finding a group of significant others that we are willing to trust.”
“Since it was personal relationships that set up our toxic shame, we need personal relationships to heal our shame. This is crucial. We must risk reaching out and looking for nonshaming relationships if we are to heal…”