NOTE: This is the fourth excerpt from my upcoming book In the Midst of Madness: A Christian’s Experience with Anxiety and Finding Relief. The book will be available on Jan. 12, 2018.
“The Only Thing We Have to Fear Is Fear Itself.”
In November 1932, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, then the governor of New York, won the United States presidential election by a ridiculous margin: 472 electoral votes to just 59 for Herbert Hoover, and by more 7 million votes in the popular vote.
It wasn’t that surprising, with his predecessor Hoover overseeing an America with an estimated 20-plus percent unemployment rate and a huge stock market crash. During the campaign, “voters threw objects at (Hoover) when he was campaigning in public.”
With the country in dire straits, FDR’s inauguration speech was heavily anticipated. He had promised a lot during the campaign, and this was his first chance as the American president to assuage his constituents. He began with clutch words: “I am certain that my fellow Americans expect that on my induction into the Presidency I will address them with a candor and a decision which the present situation of our Nation impels.” He’s about to give it to them straight. He continued:
“This is preeminently the time to speak the truth, the whole truth, frankly and boldly. Nor need we shrink from honestly facing conditions in our country today. This great Nation will endure as it has endured, will revive and will prosper. So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance. In every dark hour of our national life a leadership of frankness and vigor has met with that understanding and support of the people themselves which is essential to victory. I am convinced that you will again give that support to leadership in these critical days.”
The words that have lasted from that address, as part of the italicized section above, are these: “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” The only thing to fear, in the midst of a nationwide economic depression, sky-high unemployment rates, was fear itself, the new president said.
The fact that FDR, or whoever his speechwriter was, addressed fear was evidence of the reality of fear in the American people. After the “Roaring 20s,” the Depression was crushing American wallets and American spirit. So he pointed out the dagger that fear is.
Google defines fear as “an unpleasant emotion caused by the belief that someone or something is dangerous, likely to cause pain, or a threat” (as a noun) and “to be afraid of (someone or something) as likely to be dangerous, painful, or threatening” (as a verb). It seems to me that fear shares a lot of similarities with anxiety, doesn’t it? Synonyms of fear include panic, distress, worry and unease. So it makes sense that fear and anxiety often go hand-in-hand. They are not the same, but one often begets the other.
An example: If you are afraid of a situation, you are likely to feel anxious about it. I feared getting into relationships and as a result had anxiety about them. If you are anxious about something, you’re likely to feel fear. I was anxious about how to handle my Italian class and as a result was scared to go to class and try to learn.
As FDR defined fear in his speech, for me and likely for you, it was “nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”
Fear is like the thief Jesus describes in John 10:10 — it “comes only to steal and kill and destroy.” As Jason Gray sings in his song “No Thief Like Fear”:
“Fear will take the best of us
Then come back for the rest of us,
Its raging hunger never satisfied.
It’s closer than a brother,
And more jealous than a lover
Who holds you while it swallows you alive.”
Think about the times when fear has held you back from doing something. I’m not even talking about things you have anxiety about. Maybe you don’t ride the roller coaster because you’re afraid of going upside down. I’m guilty of that one. Maybe you get out of your parents’ pool when frogs started jumping in late at night because you’re afraid of them touching you. Again, that’s me. It’s the arachnophobia (spiders) and the ophidiophobia (snakes) and the acrophobia (heights) and the claustrophobia (tight and enclosed spaces), the popular fears.
Those fears held you back from experiencing certain things that may or may not have been harmful. Sometimes fear can hold you back from dangerous things, and that’s helpful and good. I’m afraid of swimming in a pool full of poisonous snakes because that’s a terrible and most-likely fatal decision. But I know that I don’t have to be afraid of going on upside-down roller coasters because plenty of people do it just fine.
But I’m still not going on upside-down roller coasters. I don’t think I’m missing a whole lot.
It’s that fear that steals from us. It’s fear related to anxiety that steals us from so many things. And if we are to beat anxiety at any level, we have to realize that it is not a battle just to overcome the anxiety and the anxious thoughts, but also to overcome the fear that holds us back.
The only thing we have to fear in this situation is fear itself. Fear is what is holding us back. And thankfully, we have a reason to not fear.