A White Elephant in the Room

There is game that is frequently played this time of year called the White Elephant Gift Exchange. While a game of many adaptations, one version states that each participant finds something at home she no longer wants and brings it as a wrapped gift to the party. As the gifts are placed in the center of the room, each person receives a number to determine the order of the opening of the gifts. Player one chooses one of the gifts to open, but player two can choose from either player one’s opened gift or take a chance with an unopened gift. Player three has three options: the opened gifts of players one or two or risk opening another gift. If player three chooses player one’s opened gift, player three selects another gift from the pile for player one to open. The game, has unpredictability and mystery and can be hilarious, providing uproarious fun.

I want to talk about another kind of gift. Like the saying, “There is an elephant in the room,” it is a gift that is ubiquitous but silent, and like a white elephant gift, it is one that is unwanted and/or traded for something else because of the unpredictability that surrounds it.

It is the emotion of fear.

It is often unspoken. Think about it. How many of us told someone today, “I am afraid”? Did you post on social media, “I am fearful”?

If you are man, you are more than likely conditioned in our society to not reveal fear but to be the strong, silent type. As women, we may not want to portray too much fear in an age where we are striving for equality and mutuality. Let’s face it: whether we are men or women, showing fear could result in being victimized—bullied. It may come as no surprise, then, that our American independence fosters a strong and fearless persona that says, “I will pick myself up by my own bootstraps.”

Fear is unwanted, and so we have a tendency to attempt to trade fear for another, more acceptable emotion in our society, such as anger. Psychologists tell us that anger is usually not the primary emotion but a secondary one. Could it be that the primary emotion is fear? This causes me to wonder if this is the reason anger seems to be more prevalent in our fractured culture. Could it be that many rants on social media stem not from anger but from fear?

Recently, it was mentioned in grief group that men may express their grief through anger, masking the sadness or even fear. Fear can be a part of grief. Who am I to become now that I have completed my degree and graduated? Who am I after the death of a dream? What will I do now that I am unemployed? Who will I be without this person by my side? How will I go on now that this person is gone? If a house was shared with the person, there may be a fear of being alone that is coupled with a fear of participating in a couple’s world. Fear, or an anxiety, is evident in some grievers who go to ER with the presenting symptoms of a heart attack, only to learn they are having a panic attack as a result of grief. As I write, I am reminded of C. S. Lewis’ comments in A Grief Observed that his grief manifested itself in a manner similar to fear.

I, too, am aware of fear in various degrees and forms in my own grief. Six months ago my father died, and I am in a new space that is larger than that to which I am accustomed (to borrow from Tara Mohr’s Playing Big). In the natural order of things, Dad’s life served as a buffer to my own mortality; however, with both of my parents now gone, I belong to the next generation in line to die. The awareness of the transience of my own life has been magnified. A couple of weeks ago, my husband retired which intensified this realization. Since he is older than I, I am more cognizant of my future of being his caregiver and his eventual death, demonstrating how various forms of fear (e.g., anxiety, apprehension, concern, angst, dread,) is a part of grief.

Yet, fear in some forms may also be a gift. I believe that Tara Mohr’s discussion on fear may be helpful here. She references two kinds of fear that exist in the Hebrew language. The first one develops out of our anxiety as we conjure up in our imaginations possible future scenarios. What if the cruise ship sinks? What if he divorces me? What if I never find a job? I think you get the picture. In relation to my last blog, this type of fear may be the jackal voice, the voice of the inner critic who demonstrates a lack of a secure base. It is here we inquire, “What need is going unmet? What is frightening my inner critic?”

The second one is an emotion that occurs: when we find ourselves in a space that is bigger than that to which we are accustomed; when we suddenly experience more excitement and/or energy than what we had previously; or when we encounter God. For example, my husband and I have entered into a new adventure. Since our caregiving responsibilities for my father have ended, since my doctoral studies are successfully completed, and since my husband has retired for the first time, nothing is keeping us in our current location. The world, in some respects, is our oyster. This is a larger space than I have previously occupied, and it is generating energy and excitement while being frightening. As Christ-followers, we have been praying and asking God for direction, and we sense God leading us, but the path is not completely clear. I find myself anxious and energized at the same time. Attachment theory reminds me that I long for that secure base, but my trust in God says, “Embrace the uncertainty,” which produces both an exhilarating and a grateful affect. I believe I experience both types of fear mentioned above in that I move back and forth between the two. My actions demonstrate the trust in God while my own finitude longs for a secure base.

In some sense, both types may be viewed as a gift. Both reveal our need for others. Fear portrays in attachment theory our need for a stronger, wiser one to come alongside, to comfort us. A child cries in fear when there is a loud clap of thunder until the caregiver comes and soothes the child, providing that sense of security, enabling the child to explore his world. While we may learn as adults to self-soothe, we never outgrow this need for the other— there will always be things that are bigger than we are. God created us as relational beings, and attachment theory powerfully portrays this characteristic.

Fear also reminds us of our vulnerability and of our humanity. Fear taps us on the shoulder, saying in a sing-songy voice, “Hello? Don’t forget. You are finite.” Maybe that is why some of us work so hard to mask it. We attempt to overpower fear by using anger as its cover. Hostility gives the pretense that we are powerful and in control. It presents itself as formidable. It pushes people away while protecting ourselves. If fear remains unrecognized, it can be an instigator of conflict, division, and war.

In the church, we learn that admitting one’s fear is taboo. We are told, “Perfect love casts out fear,” or “We have not received a spirit of fear.” Despite platitudinizing such Scriptures, the fear frequently remains, becoming the banned white elephant that is still in the room but is hidden as it is expressed in other ways. If our fear is masked as anger, then those outside our circles are unable to witness the love of God that we profess. In reality, fear is not cast out but persists in clandestinity.

As I ponder the emotion of fear, I am reminded of familiar text that is read multiple times during the Christmas season.

And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” (Luke 2:8-12)

Verse 10 says, “Do not be afraid.” A commonly repeated phrase in the Scriptures.

A phrase that reminds us that God is aware of our vulnerability and our finitude. If we were to encounter messengers from God, such as did the shepherds, we would be immediately aware of our own human limitations. To say that we would be outside our comfort zone is putting it mildly. In that moment, we are in need of a secure base, but there is none to be found. No self-soothing will generate enough comfort to alleviate the fear produced by such an experience! We have come face to face with unpredictability and mystery. Yet, this phrase underscores God’s acknowledgement of humanity’s longing for security. It is God’s soothing voice (or in the Lukan case God’s messengers) that provides comfort. In essence, God is exposing the hidden elephant in the room—a core emotion for humanity—our fear. By bringing it to the surface, God not only reveals our limitations but also provides the comfort for which we long. God recognizes our need for a stronger, wiser one, and in this case, it is God.

This Christmas may we recognize the gift that is present in fear—the need for another and more importantly, the need for a Savior.


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