Reflections

Martin Luther King, Jr. on Fear

Fear is essential to our lives. Without it, we would be deprived of our basic needs. Fear is biologically ingrained in all of us. It protects us by giving us an adrenaline response in dangerous situations, allowing us to survive.

Fear is also necessary for our progress. It has motivated our greatest inventions and most creative endeavours.

But much of the fear we face today is a different kind of fear. It’s the fear of the unknown. The fear of failure. The fear of being called an imposter. The fear of rejection. The fear of not being good enough. It’s fear based on hate, envy, and insecurity. It’s a fear that poisons our lives.

In his sermon, “Antidotes for Fear,” Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. describes these two types of fears as normal and abnormal fear. He illustrates the differences between them through an example from Sigmund Freud:

“Sigmund Freud spoke of a person who was quite properly afraid of snakes in the heart of an African jungle and of another person who neurotically feared that snakes were under the carpet in his city apartment. Psychologists say that normal children are born with only two fears—the fear of falling and the fear of loud noises—and that all others are environmentally acquired. Most of these acquired fears are snakes under the carpet…

Normal fear protects us; abnormal fear paralyzes us. Normal fear motivates us to improve our individual and collective welfare; abnormal fear constantly poisons and distorts our inner lives. Our problem is not to be rid of fear but rather to harness and master it.”

Dr. King continues his sermon by providing four antidotes to harness and master fear: acknowledgment & awareness, courage, love, and faith.

Acknowledgment & Awareness

We must “unflinchingly face our fears” because ignorance and blame do not make them disappear. Many of us deal with our fears by not dealing with them at all. The easiest thing to do in the moment may be to suppress our fears, but the world will likely throw them back at us with even more impact later in our lives.

The better thing to do is to honestly “ask ourselves why we are afraid.”

Much of our fear is rooted in a particular incident or a lack of something during our childhoods. I feared trying new creative things for much of my life because of one specific incident with an art teacher when I was five years old. Understanding that opened many creative doors for me that were locked before.

“By bringing our fears to the forefront of consciousness, we may find them to be more imaginary than real. Some of them will turn out to be snakes under the carpet.”

Courage

Once you understand the cause of your fear, you need the courage to overcome it. My creative doors opened once I acknowledged that my fears were imaginary, but it took me a long time to walk through them.

“Courage, therefore, is the power of the mind to overcome fear…fear has a definite object which may be faced, analyzed, attacked, and, if need be, endured…

Courage and cowardice are antithetical. Courage is an inner resolution to go forward in spite of obstacles and frightening situations; cowardice is a submissive surrender to circumstance. Courage breeds creative self-affirmation; cowardice produces destructive self-abnegation. Courage faces fear and thereby masters it; cowardice represses fear and is thereby mastered by it. Courageous men never lose the zest for living even though their life situation is zestless; cowardly men, overwhelmed by the uncertainties of life, lose the will to live. We must constantly build dikes of courage to hold back the flood of fear.”

It takes courage to show yourself. It takes courage to create and share. It takes courage to speak your mind. It takes courage to be honest with yourself. It takes courage to face the realization that your fear many be rooted in jealousy or insecurity. But the other choice is cowardice, and that is not a choice at all.

Love

People often say that most things in our lives are based in fear or love. Therefore, it’s obvious that love is the natural antithesis to fear.

“Hate is rooted in fear, and the only cure for fear-hate is love…

Hatred and bitterness can never cure the disease of fear; only love can do that. Hatred paralyzes life; love releases it. Hatred confuses life; love harmonizes it. Hatred darkens life; love illumines it”

Responding to fear with more fear only increases the fear. History is a great example of that. MLK wrote this sermon during the height of the Civil Rights Movement and the Cold War when the nation’s fears were rooted in racism and war. Dr. King believed that fear was a major cause of conflict and prescribed love as its remedy.

Dr. King’s thoughts on love as a counter to fear still holds true for our fears today, regardless of how big or small they may seem. All fears can be harnessed and mastered.

“This truth is not without a bearing on our personal anxieties. We are afraid of the superiority of other people, of failure, and of the scorn or disapproval of those whose opinions we most value. Envy, jealousy, a lack of self-confidence, a feeling of insecurity,and a haunting sense of inferiority are all rooted in fear. We do not envy people and then fear them; first we fear them and subsequently we become jealous of them. Is there a cure for these annoying fears that pervert our personal lives? Yes, a deep and abiding commitment to the way of love. ‘Perfect love casteth out fear.’”

I have responded to others’ creative projects with criticism, but in truth, that criticism was due to jealousy caused by my fear of creativity. It didn’t benefit them and it definitely didn’t help me. The only thing it contributed to was my own growing fears.

So don’t respond to trolling with more trolling. Don’t react to jealousy with more jealousy. Face your fears with loving kindness and not through more negativity.

Faith

Dr. King’s faith was in his Christian God.

But faith can mean many things. Some of us maintain faith through religion. Some through secular meditation. Some through the belief in the balance of energy in the universe. Some through no one and nothing at all.

Whatever your faith may be, in order to overcome your fears, you must acknowledge the things that are out of your control. You must have enough faith to develop hope.

“This faith transforms the whirlwind of despair into a warm and reviving breeze of hope. The words of a motto which a generation ago were commonly found on the wall in the homes of devout persons need to be etched on our hearts:

Fear knocked at the door.

Faith answered.

There was no one there.”

Once you share your work, it is out of your control how people will react. Once you show yourself, you may lose some people in your life. But have faith in yourself, in your God, in the universe, or in your work to keep moving past your fears. You have the power to master and harness your fears, and when  you can’t eliminate them, you have the ability to endure them.

………………

You can find the full text of “Antidotes for Fear” in Strength to Love, a collection of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s sermons .

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