Casting Out Fear
By Alexis Mausolf
“Perfect love casts out fear.” – 1 John 4:18
Have we ever needed to hear this truth more urgently? We live in a climate of division, reaction, and uncertainty – all rooted in fear. While musing on this the other day, it occurred to me that a liberal education also casts out fear. Obviously it does not rival the perfect, heroic, self-giving love of Christ that inspires martyrs with pure exalted joy. But (if you will permit the parallel, imperfect though it is) formation in the classical tradition can lighten the burden of daily fears and open minds and hearts to the workings of grace that might eventually pave the way to perfect love.
Students educated in the liberal tradition are readers, exposed to rich texts – stories, myth, poetry, and history – which broaden the imagination and form the moral understanding. At a tender age, a reader of fairy tales and legends has already fought ogres, slain dragons, rescued maidens, set off on quests, and championed the weak. Along with the characters in our favorite historical accounts we have tested our mettle, proven our courage, fallen in love, grieved the death of friends slain in battle, and defended our homes and families; we have charged with the Light Brigade, shivered on the streets with the Little Match Girl, outwitted the Sphinx, and felt the agony of Brutus’s betrayal. Thus, avid readers process a myriad of possibilities without having to experience them in reality.
In the midst of a good story, a reader is unconsciously asking himself, “How would I behave in this situation? Would I be able to endure?” The empathy readers experience helps them understand and navigate life outside of books, so that they can approach its vicissitudes with less trepidation and more understanding, more context. The heroes and heroines of our books teach us how to show and receive mercy, how to sacrifice, and how to choose the Good; exposure to rich literature broadens the mind and strengthens the spirit.
Consider the situation of a teacher at a Catholic school who chooses not to teach the book Hatchet because the story mentions divorce. She (very laudably) wants to protect her students and guard them from distress, but trying to keep children ignorant of all the unfortunate realities of the world may not be the wisest course. For one thing, it is dangerous to imply that some things ‘must not be named’; we should be able to examine all things in Creation by the light of truth and reason (at age-appropriate intervals, of course). For another, it is virtually unavoidable that children will learn about divorce anyway because of its pervasiveness in our time, and who knows what form this lesson will take? However, if children experience fallen human behavior first through the pages of a story and through guided classroom conversation, they can reflect on it from a safe distance. The sufferings of a protagonist can teach young readers through their imaginations how to cope, how to be flexible, how to withstand hardship, and how to forgive, so that they can face life with less fear and a little more knowledge – of themselves and of others.
The liberal tradition also frames the world in wonder, which makes fear simply evaporate. Fear makes us want to run away or hide, but wonder makes us want to linger. Exposure to art, nature, music, philosophy, and all of the staples of a liberal education fosters the habits of observation and contemplation which naturally grow into wonder. The old adage says that familiarity breeds contempt, which may be true in some cases, but in my experience, familiarity can also breed wonder and affection. In his book The Four Loves, C.S. Lewis makes this same point concerning other people:
Growing fond of “old so-and-so,” at first simply because he happens to be there, I presently begin to see that there is “something in him” after all…In my experience it is Affection that creates this taste, teaching us first to notice, then to endure, then to smile at, then to enjoy, and finally to appreciate, the people who “happen to be there.”
In order to reach a place of appreciation and of peace, first we must notice. All it requires is an attitude of openness and attention. This leads us through our fear. The things we fear are often things that are different or unfamiliar. It is their mysterious nature that raises doubts and anxiety in our hearts. But these apprehensions can be dissipated by study, exposure, and familiarity – by letting in the light. In “Cultivating Apprehension: Beauty and Kid’s Lit,” Kirstin Jeffrey Johnson writes:
There once was a man who did not like spiders. At all. But one day he began to watch one. One that looked just like this. He became attentive. And in that space of attentiveness he began to see what a wonderful creature it was, and, what a skillful weaver. So unobjectified became that spider in his perception, that he even decided to name it. Wanting to share the beauty that he had discovered, he wrote a story …
She identifies this man as E.B. White and his story as Charlotte’s Web. His initial revulsion to spiders was conquered by the awe that was born in him through observation. Experience shows that fear dissolves in wonder. Whether a person dreads the works of Shakespeare or a particular medical procedure, a growing familiarity with the source of fear breeds wonder, and fear is cast out. Incidentally, what can humans not achieve in the name of wonder? People go scuba diving, they chase tornadoes, and even fly to the moon because their sense of wonder has overcome their fear.
A liberal education exposes students to different perspectives and opinions, whether from the texts they study or from participating in seminars and other Socratic discussions. Becoming comfortable with rational, civil discourse banishes certain commonly-held fears too. Students learn how to discuss ideas and not be threatened by them. They learn to focus on the issues, and not misinterpret a debate as a personal attack. They gain confidence in expressing their own thoughts and in communicating effectively with others. This grounding prevents the fear of healthy debate and an exchange of ideas becomes easy and natural.
The western tradition also dispels fear by placing any personal events within the broader context of history and human experience. Any study of the past reassures us that no matter what is happening, humans have survived greater crises, and our own conflicts shrink by comparison. We are able to have a more balanced view and see the light among the shadows. Heroes will rise, battles will be won, discoveries will be made, and tyrants will eventually fall. The pendulum will swing again. A true student in the classical tradition gains hope in humanity and trust in the providence of God.
Finally, a liberal education can free its adherents from fear by its attention to the Transcendentals. Whether through study of brilliant oratory or natural philosophy, exploration of mathematics, cultivation of virtue, or artistic endeavor, an emphasis on Goodness, Truth, Beauty, and Unity draws one closer to their Source. This return is made more obvious with a helping of humility and an open mind, but through a classical education we are brought necessarily— and some would claim inevitably — to God.
Which brings us back to perfect Love – and, as Scripture reminds us, “perfect love casts out fear.”