Fear: Flee, Freeze, Float or Flow


One of my first memories was eating from a tin Barnum Animals Crackers box, painted to resemble a cheerfully colored circus wagon. But that wagon was also a cage. The animals pictured on the outside of the box were majestic, wild, and untamed beasts. They were also behind bars. The cookies inside the box were shaped into believable copies of jungle animals. These were not comic Disney animals with smiling faces and human characteristics. These beasts were the real things. I remember a rhino, a lion, an elephant and a hippo, and they all looked the way wild animals should look. They were just like the animals I had seen at the Bronx Zoo.

But sadness stifled any pleasure I had in eating the cookies or watching the zoo animals, for they were prisoners. This seemed so unnatural, so wrong. Today, when I see animals cooped up or imprisoned, I still experience grief. I find it hard to push this sorrow down; such is my heartache for caged beings, animal or human.

Seeing animals in their natural surroundings without barriers or boxes is one of the joys of my life. I hope someday to go on a real safari in Africa or experience the Alaskan wilderness. I know the pure delight I shall feel in watching such unfettered freedom.

Living under the Thunderbird upon Mount Franklin as we do, such a rocky totem appeals to my idea of freedom. Although this bird never leaves the mountain, it has its wings outstretched, simulating majestic flight. Enormous and spectacular, covering hundreds of yards of a mountain face, it beckons at least some of those who see it to fly. Moreover, I like anything that stimulates one to a liberated life.

To the Native American the Thunderbird serves as a sacrament, an "outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace" (Book of Common Prayer, page 857) one of the first spirits created by the Earthmaker. They rule the sky and are divine helpers to humans. Their great flapping wings created the winds, lightning and thunder, blessing the land with inspires and inspirits the soul toward similar grandeur. The Thunderbirds were among the rain to water the earth. Their lightning also sparked the first Promethean fires given to humanity.

I recall that Jesus called himself living water (Luke 4:10) as well as fire upon earth. (Luke 12:49) It is no wonder that Ford Motor Company named a fiery car, The Thunderbird. A potent fortified wine carries the same name, as well as a squadron of Air Force jets. It would appear that these powerful Indian spirits have invaded our non-Indian consciousness. To me, the Thunderbird primarily stands for freedom.

Life without barriers has always appealed to me. A zest for emancipation is a powerful part of who I am. Along with this taste for liberty, I have always had an optimistic trust in the true and the authentic in all beings, including us human ones. This belief energizes my life for I have witnessed far too many human imprisonments of the soul.

Most of these incarcerated spirits, through the tyranny of others, have been living lying lives. Facts have been replaced with falsehoods. Personal integrity has been sacrificed upon the altars of compliance. And yet the wonder is that person after person reached out for new life, aching to be the real thing yet not knowing how or even who they are, exhausted with trying to build their lives according some other person's blueprint.

Seeking genuine selfhood is not easy. Whom do you listen to? What standards of thought and behavior do you accept? How does one distinguish healthy and truthful lessons from all that is unhealthy and incorrect? How shall we discern what is right and what is wrong, know good and bad, separate truth from lies, when all we have to go by is what we have learned from our culture, and our families? The communities in which we live can bless as well as curse our inner chambers of self.

Breaking free from our prisons of inaccuracy and deception is almost impossible without help. So many persons have become delusional, accepting lies as gospel truth, unable to tell the difference. A deluded person never recognizes the delusion until some opening is made for truth to break through.

Such can be the awesome responsibility of the counselor, speaking the life-giving truth in love. I have found great satisfaction in being able to facilitate a few such spiritual jailbreaks toward authenticity. Being an active conspirator in helping others find freedom and genuineness always brings me joy. Like a kid unlocking the cages and letting the prisoners escape, I love it when any being finds new and unexpected freedom and validity.


Forty-year old Bill certainly lived in a cage, though it had no visible bars. One of my most gratifying experiences was being his accomplice in finding new life and liberty. Bill's major issue was fear.

Fear is a protector feeling. It gives us important messages. Serving as an antenna for danger, fear comes in degrees from anxiety to terror and is proportional to the extent of danger. A yellow caution sign is less urgent than a red flashing railroad-crossing signal. We are born with fear, and in moderate amounts, it is useful. Only when we move on into fear overload do its emotional effects become destructive. The blessings of fear are wisdom, prudence, sensible avoidance and self-protection. The curses of fear are panic, falling apart, weakness and victimhood.

We often think of wild animals as predators or prey. In the animal world, we observe natural instincts to fight, flee, or freeze when in danger. Many animals react to threats by hiding, digging, bristling, or spraying chemical counterattacks. Many human beings react in the same ways.

Bill was counted among the prey. Always on the defensive, he taught himself to become a freezer frozen with fear. He longed to bristle and spray. He dreamed of fighting back, but he found such displays of standing up for himself swiftly swept aside. And so he became like a rabbit or a mouse, scurrying for protection down some hole. His main instinct was to flee, to escape. He told me often how he really wanted to get out of town and start a new life away from it all. Yet most of the time he became frozen, unable to fight or flee.

Like an animal caught in the headlights of a car, he was unable to move until he was dumbstruck or even struck down. He could not fight back. Words froze in his throat. To resist or even entertain the idea of defiance was to invite more overwhelming abuse. Often he described his feelings as being run over by a Mack truck.

Surprisingly, the major instigator of his fear was his bedridden mother, closely followed by his two older sisters. This trio dominated his life so completely that he did not know how to do anything but serve, help, care-take, and agree. He perfected the roles of chauffeur, cook, waiter, nurse, housekeeper, and servant to the three women. Sadly, he found a strange kind of security in accepting this process, fitting into their mold.

They were the only family he had. His father died when he was seven. He was left alone with his women. Knowing no other way, he accommodated and acquiesced. To Bill, it seemed only right to assume personal responsibility for meeting their demands. They were in charge, and he thought he believed in their commands. He felt guilty when he did not live up to their unreasonable expectations. Trying ever harder to please, he failed.

Rarely did Bill think of himself as important or worthy, except as the direct reflection of what was expected even as the expectations kept growing. Eventually he could not remember a time when he had performed adequately in anyone's eyes, including his own. Guilt and shame became his daily companions. "I can never do anything right [guilt] so there must be something wrong with me [shame]". That sentence became his habitual lament.

Seldom have I known a man so imprisoned in a cage of perceived inadequacy. When I first met Bill, he was pitiful and beaten down. His human dignity was so diminished that I thought caged animals retained more self-respect.

Where did he find the courage to come and see me for help? The pain he was experiencing must have been so great that he could no longer ignore it. Asking for assistance is the first; the hardest step in gaining liberty and release. But the journey to freedom begins with that first step.

How did Bill escape? By discovering his true self, which became his new self. Bill's authentic being had hidden and completely covered. He found that his habitual frozenness was false. It was a bad habit he had learned from others. Earnie Larsen defines unhealthy habits as "self-destructive learned behaviors" and Bill was an excellent learner. If he could learn self-damaging conduct, he could also do the opposite and learn to thaw out, letting his own healthy nature emerge.

First, he was able to accept the fact that he was not a born fighter. Second, once he accepted that his authentic life and style spontaneously impelled him to back off and flee, he began to trust and practice his innate defensive shiftiness. He started welcoming his capacity to be fast on his feet. He found that avoidance, stealth, and cunning could serve him well as he began to outmaneuver his jailers. At least for a while, Bill embraced what he had always thought was weakness and timidity. He adopted a manner of life based on his own free choices, instead of being compelled by others, choosing to make necessity into a virtue. He learned to love the role of the cagey convict who accepts his cage of imprisonmentfor the time being. He started to make his incarceration work for him as he worked his way around his mother and sisters in new and creative ways.

This new role touched his soul in such a profound way that he told me, "This is my true self, and I love it! It feels so right and so new!" Such a statement reminded me of the part in our Holy Communion which exclaims: "Let us give thanks to the Lord. It is right to give him thanks and praise" In older services, it has the phrase: "It is meet and right so to do." I like the older version better. Meet and right means fitting and proper. Bill was meeting his real self and this was proper, appropriate and genuine. He had finally made the right fit and felt just right for the first time.

To meet your true self is one of life's greatest joys. Bill conjured up Goldilocks for me, as she found her own special and correct porridge. When any of us can be face to face with our own souls and see the right and real person looking back at us, the event is rare and wondrous. Bill is now wearing his own uniform and it fits him to a T.

There is an old saying in sports: "Skill, guile, and craftiness can beat raw brute force any day." Bill stopped working harder and gleefully took on the job of working smarter. Like a boxer against a slugger, he could not overcome his prison guards, but he could outdance and outwit them. Soon he claimed and savored every moment of freedom he could find. Both of us delighted in this newly created busy and brilliant Bill. He was no longer frozen but burning with a blistering charm and good humor. The old matriarchal rules were being broken. Before long, each time we met, the two of us were exulting in the wily ways of William. I usually began our sessions with a playful question: "What win has wise William won this week?"

As time passed, this newly chosen self seemed so true and real that Bill regained a natural dignity that felt God-given to him. And so it seemed to me. Being made in the image of God, we agreed, was not only being like God but being as God likes us to be. God creates each one of us as special and unique. We are cherished as an image in the painter's eye and imagination long before the brush is put to canvas.

The selves God creates are our true and real selves, yet we drift far away from those originals. Like the jungle animals once roaming free and now confined to a constricting cage, we learn to live false and unreal lives, losing sight of who we are meant to be. In every generation, God's good beginnings are soon covered over with false images and distressingly inauthentic versions of what it means to be fully human, fully alive.

There are at least two sides of "image"...the godlike qualities he provided us that are comparable to the divine plus the special unique way he sculpted each soul's distinctive uniqueness. It is a double wonder - our way of becoming. We were imaged as art treasures formed by the master artist, reflecting the creator but also expressing our own inner beauty. A popular song from the seventies sang, "Everyone is beautiful in their own way."

Unfortunately, even the most gorgeous gardens can become infested with pests and enemies who see only a feast for their evil appetite. Therefore, what were once our natural human natures become our caged constricted human naturesour fallen victimized natures.

Victims fall quite easily and painfully. Each person is born into a Garden of Eden, which already contains evil. Falling and failing become common when our family and communal serpents begin their control and influence over us. In that sense, Bill and I came to see that original sin is still alive and powerful within our family gardens. Such evil originates early on.

The beginnings of neglect, ridicule and abuse in our human environments come from some source outside ourselves. Simple cause-and-effect leads us to ask Where, when, how and why did we become damaged goods? Original perpetrators are as real as original victims. All our gardens begin with our birth and with our first learnings. We are not born into vacuums but into gardens that often seem like jungles. These are our families and our communities, where our tutors teach us.

Yet, original righteousness is also alive and just waiting to be resurrected in these same jungle-like gardens. We can also share in our Biblical parents' triumph. Redemption, rebuilding, renewal, refreshment can all revitalize our soil and our plants. Pestilence does not have to rule or become a permanent inhabitant. The true God-made garden is still there, covered up by layered accretions of unhealthy happenings, plagues and disasters that simply happen and cannot be avoided.

These happenings take place as vulnerable persons are stigmatized, traumatized and victimized from infancy on. Such stigma, trauma and victimization come from without not within. Extreme abuse sometimes brutalizes victims into becoming brutal as well. Far too often, the beaten child becomes the child-beater. Not all our households are safe, secure and loving environments. Not all our schools provide consistent affirmation and approval. Not all our clubs, societies, colleges, groups or neighborhoods are benign and caring. Bullies and brutes find their victims. Every day innocent persons are crushed, physically and spiritually, by perpetrators and persecutors who seem to find gratification and delight in demeaning and even destroying those who are different, using and abusing them for their own selfish satisfactions.

Bill soon stopped accepting victimhood to embrace sonship. This was his choice. He would refuse to serve coercion. Victim no longer fit. It can no longer define him. Child of God and Member of Christ are meet and right for him now. The false Bill found the true Bill as he began his search for the true image by which the divine artist defined him, having known Bill, as the prophet Jeremiah tells us, while he was still in his mother's womb. (Jeremiah 1:5)

Now Bill's self-search has expanded into a greater awareness of the real Maker and Shaper of his life. Neither Bill nor I was satisfied with mere nature. We both conspired to find super nature and the supernatural gift of the God of Bill's understanding. Bill has been a Christian believer from childhood, so to him it made sense and showed respect for his own faith community that we should search out a scripture from the Christian tradition that would express and confirm his experience of spiritual rebirth. This is what we found:

"Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And all of us with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit." (2 Corinthians:3:17-18)

Bill still takes delight in fulfilling his role of Wily William, the blessed new self he has uncovered to replace his former cursed self. In reality, he is gentle, kind, and naturally pleasing. He pulls off his new act with genuine charm and confidence. This role is real, delighting his friends and confounding his old jailers, who have lost their power over him. Everyone acknowledges the miracle being wrought in this former timid, cowed person.

I believe Bill found strength for his journey at first in the powerful Twelve-Step motto, Fake it till you make it. Now, without a doubt, Bill is making it with no fakery at all. He makes choices, instead of allowing himself to be coerced. He is practicing responses with thoughtful actions and words, rather than reacting by freezing up. Whenever he feels the freezing coming on, he allows himself time to think and to plan his next word and next step with a new routine.

Now that fear no longer paralyzes him, he has even learned to float and to flow with the tides of life each day. He uses his anxiety for prudence and caution, as a natural signal of the possible danger of headlights ahead and oncoming Mack trucks. He is using his feelings of fear to guide him into watchfulness and wisdom, trusting his native ability to dodge and weave to avoid threats. Like a recovering alcoholic who knows the wisdom of staying out of bars, Bill now seeks out the safe places and safe people in his world.

Finding new playmates and playgrounds, he now goes bowling weekly. He has joined a new spirit-filled church. He attends a Twelve-Step meeting devoted to liberating relationships, called Codependents Anonymous. He has begun a new business. He has made new friends, male and female, without checking his choices out with anyone.

One day Bill shared a wild thought that if he were an animal he would be a coyote! Known as an escape artist, this animal is wily, clever, resourceful, persistent and irrepressible. Native Americans respect the coyote as the Trickster. I rejoiced with Bill's insight. He was reveling in being a coyote and welcoming this spirit of escape and cleverness to keep on liberating his life.

He has begun his escape. He has broken out and is over the wall. The escape plan was there all the time. We uncovered it together, yet he did most of the digging. Bill's new freedom still feels strange and unfamiliar to him at times, but he refuses to go back into his old prison. Now his fear has a purposeproviding preventive and precautionary wake-up calls. The fear energy is now experienced as excitement for the next adventure, instead of the anxiety that kept him stuck and frozen. His fear has somewhere to go nowtaking him out of harm's way.

Did Bill get out of town? Not yet. Not physically. He no longer needs a geographic cure. He is already free, free to be, free to become, and free to believe in the self he has found directly reflected to him from his divine source of meaning.

Throughout our journey together, I encouraged Bill by taking an old advertising slogan, "The best revenge is living well" and changing it to The best revenge is to be well - meaning no revenge at all. The way to accomplish this non-revenge revenge was to stop looking to his women as his de facto goddesses, his only source of life and meaning. His real source of wellness is the well of Christ and his living water.

Now he takes his thirst for identity and communion to a healthy and saving source. Bill is discovering that any revenge belongs only to God, whose revenge is love. He knows that as he is filled and refreshed by our Lord he will no longer live as a victim and can help set his former perpetrators free as well.

Bill's women and I have never met. If I were to meet them, I am sure I would find sincere and pleasant people, who have no idea of their role as offenders and abusers. I am also sure they would never consider themselves as powerful as goddesses. My prayer is that they too will become free and authentic and escape their imprisonment. I also pray God will intervene in their lives, bringing them more joy and love, redemption and renewal, just as has happened in Bill's life.

Today Bill trusts in a trustworthy God to love him, bless him, and keep him in his current state of being well, staying open to any major repairs that may become necessary in the future. The next time we meet, I am sure he will have many answers to my greeting, "what's new?"

~ * ~

Copyright by Rev. Dr. A. Philip Parham
All Rights Reserved. Used by Permission.
A. Philip Parham, is an Episcopal priest and counselor
who serves on the board of directors of the National
Episcopal Coalition on Alcohol. He holds a Doctor of
Ministry degree from the San Francisco Theological Seminary.

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