Saturday, 30 May 2015

Fear no evil

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.


  1. some times no responce is the best responce of all and let the silence speak volumes this is one of them blessings and best wishes from all of us Blundell's

  2. Oh Debbie, what honesty and intimacy - you are truly and refreshingly inspirational. Sending, as ever, sincere love and masses of gentle hugs!
    May Jesus walk every step with you, in fear as much as in hope xxx

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  4. Perfect love casts out fear of being fearful. So glad you are feeling free of the need to be fear-free. That is an enormous burden you have been carrying, Debbie. We do get ourselves into some silly thought patterns, don't we? In the words of the great Fischy Music song; You are an inspiration (have you come across that one?!). My heart bursts with things I'd love to say but I fear it'd only come across as trite sh***, so I'll let you fill in the gaps yourself! Love you so much xxx

  5. incredibly, breathtakingly honest and wise. love and payers.

  6. Thanks Debbie, made me think... Emotions are tricky little wotsits to tease out, to unravel. For me, fear and anger share a table. They're pretty primal - essential to being human - and make us vigilant in new territory, cause us to want to protect ourselves and others, enable us to tread carefully in a new land, spur us to act against all manner of injustice etc. The older I get, the more I realise our emotions are not about opposites but partners - we might be fearful yet courageous (you are, hence this exploration), afraid while trusting in whatever source we view as helping us to sense that all shall be well, we have the capacity to feel sadness and joy without being dismissive of the cause of the sadness, be angry while still having hope. So frankly, I'd be more worried if you didn't feel fearful in this territory with its rudimentary map - you are being human. Maybe breaking the sum of fear(s) down into its constituent parts is helpful. As you say, there's a significant difference between now and 2011 - duration, grey areas and all that waiting. Lots of love xx

  7. This is turning out to be some journey...and now you've met your adversary, and he has a name. Perhaps being able to name him will help you to measure the damage he's doing, or whether in fact there are some positives about having him here. 'Know your enemy’ they say; study his actions, see the results of his activities. I'm not going to second-guess what you may find, but I am not sure they will all be negative. We have been created to feel fear, it’s part of being human, and as Christ was human, then surely he felt fear in Gethsemane as he prayed this cup would be taken from him.
    When Will was very young he asked me where he went when he slept. Without thinking, I said ‘You are held in God’s arms.’ And you are there as well, even in the darkest times while your brain twists and turns, and surely He will not allow you to be taken from him.

  8. I suspect this is turning out to be some journey for many of us who are inspired by your integrity, insight and sometimes brutal authenticity. I know it is for me. Your exploration and acceptance of fear as a companion on your journey and your realisation that to fear does not in any way compromise your faith is enormously helpful, an insight solidified by the context of your illness. As Helena Durham has commented above, fear and courage are not incompatible and you demonstrate this most astutely.

    We would know each other only by sight, maybe. I am the watcher on the wall, observing your journey, praying and learning and being inspired by the God-given insights you share through this painful experience, grateful for the courage you show in writing this blog. Fear can cause such cowering. You have shown such courage. From afar and with much love.

  9. Thank you, everyyone,, for such kind and encouraging comments. Means a great deal

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