Friday, September 9, 2011

Contours of Fear: Tillich on anxiety, fear, and courage

Day 29 of my 30-day challenge--inspired by a TED talk--to share on fear. Almost to the goal line.

I credit my husband, Ernesto, for today’s post. He recommended Paul Tillich’s book, The Courage To Be. Tillich draws several distinctions between

• anxiety and fear
• anxiety of death, anxiety of meaninglessness, and anxiety of condemnation
• existential (ontological) anxiety and neurotic (pathological) anxiety
• being and nonbeing
• courage to be as a part, courage to be as oneself, and courage of confidence
• individualism and personalism rooted in God

Though my book on fear is largely experiential and theological, it has philosophical and psychological elements. In reading Tillich, I’m reminded of how the ontological crises of ‘nonbeing’ and ‘meaninglessness’ that we as human beings face reveal our inherent anxiety. Tillich points out the difference between anxiety and fear, saying that anxiety drives us “to establish objects of fear. Anxiety strives to become fear, because fear can be met by courage” (39).

My experience in reading The Courage To Be was that of a sponge. For I read it through the lens of my own circumstances—ongoing fear over my son’s diagnosis of NF1, an incurable tumor condition. Tillich mentions the mind being “a permanent factory of fears” (39). I had never considered that perhaps my mind has produced all of this fear to escape the reality of what is.

In saying that, I am aware that Tillich’s book is mainly on fear of death and anxiety of nonbeing from an ontological perspective rather than on the experience of pain and suffering. With death, says Tillich, fear’s object is being killed in an accident or dying from an illness whereas anxiety stems from the inability to preserve one’s own being, especially after death (37–38).

Anxiety, like courage, is a state of being. Unlike fear that needs an object, anxiety is for the most part ‘objectless.’ Tillich says, “Fear, as opposed to anxiety has a definite object . . . which can be faced, analyzed, attacked, endured. . . . But this is not so with anxiety, because anxiety has no object, or rather, in a paradoxical phrase, its object is the negation of every object” (36). Further, anxiety “cannot be eliminated. It belongs to existence itself” (39).

My object of fear concerns my son’s NF1. An element of pain and suffering tags along, knowing full well that if my son were to die a piece of me would die. Whether I can eliminate such fear, I know not how. For certain, I struggle against defining my son by his condition and fixating on it. As I watch him play, eat, laugh, patch, run around, and grow, I cannot help but think, “You have NF1.” It’s as if his very existence is a steady reminder of his diagnosis.

I have much to learn from Tillich on courage and transcendence. These require something beyond my individualistic self. My experience of the human-divine Jesus who abides ‘in,’ ‘with,’ ‘for’ is a place to start. As is following Luther’s example: being courageous “in spite of” (161, 172).


David Scott Brown said...

I'm reading the book now, and I ran across your post through Google. I'm fixed on this idea of finding courage in life. Do you know the poem "Courage" by Amelia Earhart? She wrote about "the dull gray ugliness" that can only be overcome by the price we pay with courage. I'm writing a sort of philosophical novel in which the characters are struggling with their own ideas of courage.

In my own life I experience this vague, nondescript, nagging anxiety that I cannot clearly identify. In some ways I envy those who do not think so much about the uncertainties, but rather choose "escape from freedom" by firmly embracing a certain ideology or way of life. For me, the unresolved doubt and anxiety can be overpowering -- even debilitating.

Best wishes for you son.

Lace said...

Thank you for sharing your thoughts, David Scott Brown. I appreciate you taking the time to respond to my post on Tillich and anxiety. I don't know Amelia Earhart's poem, "Courage." I will now look it up. Also, I like the topic for your novel.