In the midst of these angst-filled final days of our presidential election, our society is filled with fear. Fear about the future. Fear about the opposing presidential candidate. Fear about those who don’t see the world as we do. Fear of the strangers. Fear of the foreigner and immigrant. Fear of the extremists, whether right-wing or left-wing. Fear of our former friends who have now become our enemies because they are voting differently than ourselves.
Fear threatens to overwhelm us and endangers to divide us more and more from one another. It jeopardizes our sense of community and love for one another, leading us to bunker down into our own self-made shelters with people who are like minded. We keep away from the other, whom we fear. We separate ourselves from those whom we feel are different, and thus dangerous.
Yet, fear is not from God! When we allow fear to control us, we are betraying our faith in the Almighty. St. John tells us in Holy Scripture, “Perfect love casts out fear.” So, why do we allow fear to eclipse love in our hearts. Here lies the answer to overcoming fear! Here lies the path for a hope-filled future.
By turning to one another in love, by sticking together with one another, even with those who are not like-minded, we can overcome fear. Why can’t we focus on all that unites us as people instead of on what divides us? We are social beings who were meant to journey through life together. When we are with one another, we are emboldened and overcome every fear. When we stay isolated, we magnify the false caricatures of the fearsome other, feeding our fears and anxiety.
Just the other day, a dear friend of mine sent me a TED talk by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, the former Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations in Great Britain and an international religious leader, philosopher and spiritual writer. He offered a fabulous talk entitled “How We Face the Future Without Fear, TOGETHER.” I sent it out in my daily email and posted it on facebook, recommending everyone to listen to it. I’ll offer a brief summary of what he said because it’s central to what we teach in our faith!
Rabbi Sacks noted the obvious, that our society continues to promote a path of extreme individualism which leads to excessive isolation. From our time-consuming preoccupation with social media to our obsession with self-help, self-esteem, self-value, self-care and the all fixation on the infamous selfies, we keep our focus inward turned.
Separation from the others is fertile ground for fear. When we stand together, we embolden one another and face whatever the future brings with courage and hope. When we isolate and stay alone, focusing on self, real and imaginary fears flood our minds and threaten our beings.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks suggested that we find a solution to such fears by increasing three things – the “us” of relationship, the “us” of identity, and the “us” of responsibility. Basically, he notes that society promotes, and we embrace, too much of “I” and too little of “we.”
We are social beings. We are meant to journey through life together. When we isolate ourselves, or when we allow our ego to take precedence over our communal identity, we all suffer. I love a beautiful African proverb that says, “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” To overcome whatever fears threaten society, we can overcome them together!
How do we increase the “us” of relationships? By not isolating ourselves with only those who think like us, look like us, agree with us, and act like us. Here is the grave threat that social media and partisan news stations promote – surrounding us with only like-minded people. This leads to isolation in our worldview and extremism. Why do we fear those who disagree with us or those who are different from us? Don’t we realize that people not like us can help us grow in new ways? By being challenged, by listening to views opposite our own, by treating people with respect even when we vehemently disagree with them, we expand our minds, we learn new ideas, and we discover that these other people are still people, just like us. We are a part of the same human family, who have many of the same end goals, even if we may disagree on the path that leads to these goals. We need to appreciate the “us” of relationships!
Then there’s the “us” of identity. Who are we? How do we identify ourselves? Do we identify ourselves in too narrow of a way and thus limit our connection with others, or we can identify ourselves in the broader picture of life and realize the common identity we have with one another.
For example, are we simply Greek-Americans? Or white Americans? Or diverse Americans of all colors, ethnicities, beliefs, and practices?
Do we limit our identity as Orthodox Christians? Or are we a part of the 2.5 billion Christians in the world? And can we even see all people of the world as children of God, each one created in His image and likeness just as we are?
Are we satisfied to limit ourselves to our own political party? Are we simply Republican or Democrat? Liberal or Conservative? Trump or Biden supporters? Or are we neighbors and co-workers and Americans living in the same country who all desire a common good for all people.
Can we be courageous and bold enough to not limit the “us” of our identity and instead encounter the beauty and richness of expanding our identity by sharing the lives, listening to the stories, and discovering the treasures of those different from ourselves.
Finally, there is the “us” of responsibility. The US Constitution begins with the words “We the People.” Our Faith teaches us that we are our brother’s and sister’s keeper. We share a collective responsibility for our shared future. God works in synergy with us, and He expects us to work together. No politician or individual will solve our problems. We have to do it together. We have to discover the politics of our communal destiny. We will overcome the fears of our divisive spirit by seeing one another as our colleagues, our co-workers, our brothers and sisters regardless of where we disagree with one another. Together we are strong to face life’s challenges. Divided we are weak and fear will overwhelm us.
Rabbi Sacks ended this brilliant talk by highlighting, “A nation is strong when it cares for the weak. It becomes rich when it cares for the poor. It becomes invulnerable when it cares for the vulnerable. That is what makes great nations… Thus, I challenge you to do a search and replace operation on the text of your mind. Whenever you encounter the word “self “substitute the word “other.” Self-help becomes other-help. Self-esteem becomes other-esteem. And if we do that, we will begin to feel the power of one the most moving sentences of all religious literature – “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil. For you are with me.” We can face the future without any fear so long as we won’t face it alone.” God is with us. May we also be with one another.