I've been thinking a lot, over these past few days, about fear.
For a long time, you see, I've prided myself on not having a lot of truck with it. Fear in general, that is, but more particularly, fear of dying. That's been especially true since I had a near brush with death in 2011 following a brain haemorrhage. I went in to the operating theatre then aware there was a very good chance that I wouldn't wake up again, and I didn't feel in the least bit fearful. Somehow, I felt able to relax into what was happening, trust that whatever happened would be safe and good. When I woke up and discovered I was still alive, it was wonderful; but in a bizarre way, I felt quite smug about the fact that I'd been pretty laid back about the prospect of dying if this had, indeed, been 'my time'. Almost as if this was a sign of some amazing faith I could be proud of - something that made me strong and, yes, 'fearless'. To the point where, I realise, not being afraid has become a real point of pride for me.
And now, nearly 4 years later, the prospect of facing death has arrived again - apparently unrelated to the brain haemorrhage (though I'm not entirely convinced about that - but that's another story and another blog post!) But inevitably, the experience of 2011 has inevitably been part of shaping my reactions to the cancer diagnosis. And the script "I'm someone who's not afraid of dying" was there ready formed in my head - a comfort to cling to, but also, potentially, a point of pride which I could use to beat myself up with if the least inkling of fear began to creep into my mind. There's a fine line between not feeling fear, and condemning fear.
I guess it takes a lot to expose what's really there inside us. Part of the journey this last few weeks has been about realising how 'not feeling fear' - a gift given through experiencing the goodness and kindness of the Love I understand as God - can turn into 'condemning fear' - burdening myself with the need not to be afraid, as if God would be let down by me or disappointed in me if I was.
Which is all, of course, rather silly. Once you're able to look at it properly.
And there has been a lot of time, this time as opposed to in 2011, to look at death properly. I think when the cancer diagnosis came, I flipped into 'I've been here before' mode - "I've had the dress rehearsal, now this is it - I have all the tools for a fearless death ready at my disposal." And initially, it was relatively easy. The on-duty doctors who were landed with the job of giving me my original diagnosis were not oncologists, and the bare facts they were dealing with clearly looked like a pretty swift death sentence to them. I kind of knew what to do with that. Plan my funeral, write everyone a poem, put my affairs in order, and show everyone how brave faith in a God of Love could make you as I prepared to breathe my last. But then . . . but then, the offer of fragile hope was held out. This cancer might not - just might not - be as terminal as we had first thought. There might just be some way of holding it back, even - believe it or not - eradicating it.
Suddenly, I was not about to walk out on to the scaffold saying "It is a far, far better thing that I do now than I have ever done." Instead, I was sitting on death row, not knowing, perhaps for years, when or even whether I'm going to be executed. Cooped up indefinitely as a hostage, to a terrorist who is probably - but not certainly - going to shoot me.
Perhaps it's not so surprising that the wonderful, fragile hope of surviving should take me into a whole new level of encounter with fear.
Ad there have been other factors, too, at work to break down my pride in my own fearlessness. Something happened to my body during the radio-surgery which took my mind into a very dark and scary place. The brain, I suppose, isn't quite like any other organ. If you fire massive amounts of radiation into it it probably isn't very surprising if you end up feeling psychotic for a bit. I didn't even know what I was scared of, but for a few days I knew that fear was the only thing I could feel, and my pride didn't stand a chance.
Fear. I think he is the real name of my uninvited guest, my terrorist intruder. Not cancer. Not death, even. Just fear.
A few weeks ago, I remember writing that I wanted to look at the terrorist; I actually didn't want him to leave before I had received whatever he had to disclose to me.
Today he has given me something precious. The knowledge that to feel fear is not to let anyone down. Least of all the God who is Love. I do not have to be unafraid.
If you're following this blog you may know that I'm trying to write my 'Jesus Novel' at the moment. There is so much to explore in terms of what fear meant in his story; what it means to say " though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I will fear no evil", that "perfect love casts out fear." Did Jesus feel he couldn't be frightened? Was he frightened? How did he hold the balance - to be set free from fear, and yet not be afraid to be afraid?
More of all that in another post soon, perhaps.