“Empty space tends to create fear. As long as our minds, hearts, and hands are occupied we can avoid confronting the painful questions, to which we never gave much attention and which we do not want to surface. ‘Being busy’ has become a status symbol, and most people keep encouraging each other to keep their body and mind in constant motion. From a distance, it appears that we try to keep each other filled with words and actions, without tolerance for a moment of silence.” 1
—Henri J. M. Nouwen
On a breezy, rainy evening a few weeks ago, I sat on my porch, thinking. It was too dark to read or write, too Beautiful to do anything but sit still in the ferocious gloaming. It was an evening empty of plans—a dangerous thing for one’s thoughts. On such occasions, I tend to corner my thoughts and make them own up to what is lurking behind various façades. This particular evening, I had a sore head, having hit a soft spot on a metal beam at work that day. Without warning, my thoughts strayed to the fear of my own mortality.
I have vaguely considered that ‘one day’ I will die, and I am not afraid of what lies beyond this life. . .But this was different. I came nose-to-nose with the reality that I am mortal, terminal. Fear bristled in my head, blossomed in my heart. Why, I could easily fall on the uneven stairs leading to my cabin and hit my head. I could be incapacitated for life—or even die. All it takes is a moment—a wrong step, not looking twice in my car mirrors—suddenly all of my vitality is shown its frailty.
Fear spread its talons in my thoughts, surging on to think of my parents, now in their sixties. My parents are not immortal. Tears pricked my eyes. I will not borrow trouble! I told myself. I began to tell God my fears, not to give them a rigid reality, but to name the fears so they could be defeated. Yes, I am temporal, I could die on my stairs or in my bathtub or whilst driving—but the possibility of death is not going to stop me from living. You may breathe a sigh of relief, I still plan to shower. . . And to walk to work, drive my car, and hike as I please.
Rather than allowing fear to paralyse me, I choose to let it galvanise me—to dare to live life. In the face of fear I have fresh appreciation for hearing my parents’ voices, in giving thanks for my beating heart. I will not live in fear’s shadow, I will not allow it to dog my steps. I will enjoy this evening’s sunset, this summer’s wildflowers, this hour of thinking and writing. Daily I take it for granted that I will awake in the morning; that my heart will keep beating—even if I forget that it does so and don’t remind it to keep on. In this instant I am thankful for the organ that circulates my blood, that allows oxygen to flow to my brain so I can think of the right words to pen.
The fears and questions I often push down with daily tasks, with reading copious amounts of Harry Potter, with unceasing strains of music—these questions and fears surface in empty moments. I am the one who chooses the still evening on the porch, to sit under a tree on my walk and marvel at the burnished clouds. But I am not the one who brings to mind the thoughts, the fears. Those come unbidden. The fears of being alone or not being enough. The questions about why I chase freedom or attention from various individuals. Questions I cannot answer—like why I still crave sin when I know it doesn’t satisfy. I would rather avoid “confronting the painful questions”, the craven fears—but if silence is part of my life, I cannot stop them coming.
It is here, in the stillness, that I disagree with one word in Nouwen’s quotation: create. Empty space does not create fear, it only gives it the time and place to bob up in the stream of our thoughts. I can distract myself at work, around others, with my reading and correspondence—but not in the silence. Our culture is one that fears silence first, because from it, deeper fears arise. Yet how can any of us meet our fears head on with truth, with life, with hope if we suppress those petrifying questions? We must allow silence in our lives in order to know the fears and questions that motivate or manipulate our actions. Only then can we confront fear with truth and life. I find, indeed, that the antidote to fear truly is the perfect love of God giving me courage to live, to do, and to make room for stillness.
- Nouwen, Henri J. M., Reaching Out (New York, Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group) 73