I had reason to see my friend Aftab last week. I asked him how he was. He said that he's been spending time exploring the difference between being personally affected and taking things personally. When he said it, I felt my breath open up. Because while there are certainly plenty of things we ought to take personally, whatever that means, there are so many things we take personally that maybe we don't need to. Maybe that particular way of holding things can actually make it harder for us to act sanely, nobly, honestly.
The particular place where I would like, tonight, to explore the distinction between being personally affected and taking things personally, is in the area of fear.
Because fear has been in the air. It is in the air. I am personally still feeling shadowed by what happened in Orlando, and I know other people are feeling that too. Queer people now looking over their shoulders where once they felt safe in their bodies and their communities. I myself have been having fear dreams, which I don't need to narrate to you except to say that obviously if I'm not giving voice to my fear by day, my fear is giving voice to itself by night.
Fear is not in itself a bad thing. We are hard-wired for it, us humans, both as individuals and as human communities. It is an evolutionary adaptation, a survival mechanism: identify danger, feel something, act. And – fear can get the better of us, without our even knowing it. Unrestrained, unmoored, our fear can affect how we act, what we say, how we listen, how we love, how we vote. Our fear can be selective, so that fear of one thing can make people choose to leave the European Union or have Donald Trump as their candidate, without noticing that the consequences of those actions are equally fear-worthy or more so.
Fear can have a disproportionate effect on us. Of all our many emotions, all our many tools of discernment, all our strategies for coping, fear is but one. But it has a really loud, pervasive, maybe hypnotic voice.
We see it in this week's Torah portion, Shlach Lekha. The Children of Israel have gathered close to the border of the Promised Land. God has Moshe send 12 scouts across the border to assess the Children of Israel's chances and to get the lay of the land. After 40 days the reconnaissance party returns. They report that the land is flowing with milk and honey. And as evidence they reveal the large, beautiful clusters of grapes they had collected.
Then they begin to tell about the various people that live there. Amalekites and Hittites and Jebusites and Amorites. Two of the scouts declare, "We are ready to go in and make this land our own." But the other ten scouts get caught up in a snowballing litany of fear. "There are Anakites, too," they say. "Giants. Next to them we looked like grasshoppers. We felt like grasshoppers. This is a land that devours those who dwell in it."
Of course this last bit couldn't be literally true, because the land was full of undevoured people. But at this moment, it was no longer their reason speaking, but their fear. And they ignited the same unbounded fear in the Children of Israel, who began wailing and asking to go back to Egypt.
Because they listened to the voices of fear, our story goes, they were doomed to wander for 40 years in the desert. Forty years until a new generation could approach the border and not be overcome.
This is the danger of fear. It seizes us. It immobilizes us. And it is contagious. The two dissenting scouts, Caleb and Joshua, certainly understood the perils in the land as well as they understood the bounty. But they kept their fear in proportion. They understood how they were affected by what they saw, but they didn't take it personally. They didn't see themselves as smaller. They see themselves as grasshoppers. They didn't feel like it was all out of their control.
We all spend time scouting our Promised Lands. The futures we want to have. The country and community and nation we want to live in. All of those futures are filled with great potential. Beauty. Bounty. And peril too. So how do we keep our fear from outspeaking, outshouting every other thing we can imagine or dream? How do we keep our fear from driving us to stupid decisions?
How do we fear in proportion with our vulnerability, and not in proportion with our wildest, scariest imagination? When I come bounding up the road and see deer or rabbits or other animals that startle quickly, scattering at my approach, I wonder how they can live under the crush of constant fear. But no, it seems they're being guided by more than just fear. There is experience, hunger, other stimuli in the environment. The deer are personally affected by dangers in the environment, they are aware of my car and move away. But they're not exactly taking it personally. They are not spending time, worrying and being terrified and considering a move to another ecosystem. They recognize a potential danger, they act, and it is done.
Okay, deer and rabbits might be a bad analogy; who knows what they experience? But for us, when we become deeply invested in our fear, it ironically makes us less safe, less effective, less honest, less heartfelt. My friend Jane will often in discussion ask the question, "What is it you're afraid to say?" Because so often there's something making us less honest than we could be. And generally honesty about it is much better for everyone than talking and acting around something that we're afraid of. And generally, once it is said, the fear stops controlling you. You have perspective. You see how whatever it is affects you, but you are no longer in thrall to it. How many of our relationships are deeply affected over time by the thing we are afraid to say, or afraid to admit to ourselves? How much deeper could our love be if we stopped letting our ability to love be controlled or steered by fear?
Fear is so powerful! Moses' scouts voted 10-2 for fear, and the entire body of Israel, the entire soul of Israel, got caught up in that wildfire of panic. There was no discussion that could have led them back to a vision of their actual potential. No talking points that could have turned them back toward the Promised Land.
As the aftermath of Orlando has rippled, I've noticed different fears playing different roles. There is a fear of violence that is unavoidable and needs to be reckoned with. And then there is the fear of conflict in responding to this tragedy.
The Human Rights Campaign put out a very beautiful video of 49 celebrities giving small biographical sketches of the 49 young people who were killed. There is no way to watch this without your heart breaking, without your heart breaking open. There is no way to watch it without feeling deep grief and mounting outrage. And after the 49th is described, the celebrities are scripted to ask the viewer to join them in demanding "sensible laws to protect the LGBT community and all Americans from hate violence." They never speak the words "gun" or "gun control." And as I watched this I felt almost betrayed. There was a lie here. Something untrue. It could only be explained by fear. Not a fear of violence. But a fear of opposition, a fear of the NRA. A fear or shame of giving voice to true indignance. "Sensible laws" do not a rallying cry make. Imagine a demonstration with people chanting "sensible laws!" As if there were anything sensible about having a gun. The slogan I wanted to hear was, "No one needs an assault rifle." And if someone in the NRA says, "See? They want to come and get our guns," I'd want to hear the answer, "Yes, we are coming for your assault rifles." Because enough is enough. Because every reasonable thought leads to this end. Because the ways we are personally affected demand it. And the only thing that keeps us from this outcry is an unreasonable fear that the NRA or the Right or the Republicans or who-knows-who are more powerful than we are. We take that fear personally, and we feel like grasshoppers, and we turn them into giants. And we ask for crumbs.
The only way to make it to the Promised Land is to recognize the perils and the promise. Not to give free rein to our fear but to hold it in proportion to our desire for something better and our ample abilities to achieve something better. May we fully feel our power and our wisdom. May our fear shrink to an appropriate size. And may we, with great joy and resolve, step forward out of this wilderness.
It was a lively week of conversations. Many thanks to all the people who said interesting and thoughtful things to me, especially Suegee Tamar-Mattis, Oren Slozberg, Anne Tamar-Mattis, Orren Perlman, Jane Herman and Aftab Omer.