This Matter of Fear
Written by Bill W for the AA Grapevine, January 1962; Reprinted in The Language of the Heart, 1988
As the AA Book says, “Fear is an evil, corroding thread; the fabric of our lives is shot through with it.” Fear is surely a bar to reason, and to love, and of course it invariably powers anger, vainglory and aggression. It underlies maudlin guilt and paralyzing depression. President Roosevelt once made the significant remark that “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.”
This is a severe indictment, and it is possibly too sweeping. For all its usual destructiveness, we have found that fear can be the starting point for better things. Fear can be a stepping stone to prudence and to a decent respect for others. It can point the path to justice, as well as to hate. And the more we have of respect and justice, the more we shall begin to find the love which can suffer much, and yet be freely given. So fear need not always be destructive, because the lessons of its consequences can lead us to positive values.
The achievement of freedom from fear is a lifetime undertaking, one that can never be wholly completed. When under heavy attack, acute illness, or in other conditions of serious insecurity, we shall all react, well or badly, as the case may be. Only the vainglorious claim perfect freedom from fear, though their very grandiosity is really rooted in the fears they have temporarily forgotten.
Therefore the problem of resolving fear has two aspects. We shall have to try for all the freedom from fear that is possible for us to attain. Then we shall need to find both the courage and grace to deal constructively with whatever fears remain. Trying to understand our fears, and the fears of others, is but a first step. The larger question is how, and where, we go from there.
Since AA’s beginning, I have watched as thousands of my fellows became more and more able to understand and to transcend their fears. These examples have been of unfailing help and inspiration. Perhaps, then, some of my own experiences with fear and the shedding of it to an encouraging degree may be appropriate.
As a child, I had some pretty heavy emotional shocks. There was deep family disturbance; I was physically awkward and the like. Of course other kids have such emotional handicaps and emerge unscathed. But I didn’t. Evidently I was over-sensitive, and therefore over-scared. Anyhow, I developed a positive phobia that I wasn’t like other youngsters, and never could be. At first this threw me into depression and thence into the isolation of retreat.
But these child miseries, all of them generated by fear, became so unbearable that I turned highly aggressive. Thinking I never could belong, and vowing I’d never settle for any second-rate status, I felt I simply had to dominate in everything I chose to do, work or play. As this attractive formula for the good life began to succeed, according to my then specifications of success, I became deliriously happy. But when an undertaking occasionally did fail, I was filled with a resentment and depression that could be cured only by the next triumph. Very early, therefore, I came to value everything in terms of victory or defeat — all or nothing. The only satisfaction I knew was to win.
This was my false antidote for fear and this was the pattern, ever more deeply etched, that dogged me through school days, World War I, the hectic drinking career in Wall Street, and down into the final hour of my complete collapse. By that time adversity was no longer a stimulant, and I knew not whether my greater fear was to live or to die.
While my basic fear pattern is a very common one, there are of course many others. Indeed, fear manifestations and the problems that trail in their wake are so numerous and complex that in this brief article it is not possible to detail even a few of them. We can only review those spiritual resources and principles by which we may be able to face and deal with fear in any of its aspects.
In my own case, the foundation stone of freedom from fear is that of faith: a faith that, despite all worldly appearances to the contrary, causes me to believe that I live in a universe that makes sense. To me, this means a belief in a Creator who is all power, justice and love; a God who intends for me a purpose, a meaning, and a destiny to grow, however little and halting, toward His own likeness and image. Before the coming of faith I had lived as an alien in a cosmos that too often seemed both hostile and cruel. In it there could be no inner security for me.
Dr. Carl Jung, one of the three founders of modern depth psychology, had a profound conviction upon this great dilemma of the world today. In paraphrase, this is what he had to say about it: “Any person who has reached forty years of age, and who still has no means of comprehending who he is, where he is, or where he is next going, cannot avoid becoming a neurotic — to some degree or other. This is true whether his youthful drives for sex, material security and a place in society have been satisfied, or not satisfied.” When the benign doctor said “becoming neurotic” he might just as well have said “becoming fear-ridden.”
This is exactly why we of AA place such emphasis on the need for faith in a “Higher Power,” define that as we may. We have to find a life in the world of grace and spirit, and this is certainly a new dimension for most of us. Surprisingly, our quest for this realm of being is not too difficult. Our conscious entry into it usually begins as soon as we have deeply confessed our personal powerlessness to go on alone, and have made our appeal to whatever God we think there is — or may be. The gift of faith and the consciousness of a Higher Power is the outcome. As faith grows, so does inner security. The vast underlying fear of nothingness commences to subside. Therefore we of AA find that our basic antidote for fear is a spiritual awakening.
It so happens that my own spiritual perception was electrically sudden and absolutely convincing. At once I became a part — if only a tiny part — of a cosmos that was ruled by justice and love in the person of God. No matter what had been the consequences of my own willfulness and ignorance, or those of my fellow travelers on earth, this was still the truth. Such was the new and positive assurance, and this has never left me. I was given to know, at least for the time being, what the absence of fear could be like. Of course my own gift of faith is not essentially different from those spiritual awakenings since received by countless AAs — it was only more sudden. But even this new frame of reference — critically important though it was — only marked my entrance into that long path which leads away from fear, and toward love. The old and deeply carved etchings of anxiety were not instantly and permanently rubbed out. Of course they reappeared and sometimes alarmingly.
Being the recipient of such a spectacular spiritual experience, it was not surprising that the first phase of my AA life was characterized by a great deal of pride and power driving. The craving for influence and approval, the desire to be the leader was still very much with me. Better still, this behavior could now be justified — all in the name of good works!
It fortunately turned out that this rather blatant phase of my grandiosity, which lasted some years, was followed by a string of adversities. My demands for approval, which were obviously based on the fear that I might not get enough of it, began to collide with these identical traits in my fellow AAs. Hence their saving of the Fellowship from me, and I saving it from them, became an all-absorbing occupation. This of course resulted in anger, suspicion and all sorts of frightening episodes. In this remarkable and now rather amusing era of our affairs, any number of us commenced playing God all over again. For some years AA power drivers ran hog wild. But out of this fearsome situation, the Twelve Steps and The Twelve Traditions of AA were formulated. Mainly these were principles designed for ego reduction and therefore for the reduction of our fears. These were the principles which we hoped would hold us in unity and increasing love for each other and for God.
Gradually we began to be able to accept the other fellow’s sins as well as his virtues. It was in this period that we coined the potent and meaningful expression, “Let us always love the best in others — and never fear their worst.” After some ten years of trying to work this brand of love and the ego-reducing properties of the AA Steps and Traditions into the life of our society, the awful fears for the survival of AA simply vanished.
The practice of AA’s Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions in our personal lives also brought incredible releases from fear of every description, despite the wide prevalence of formidable personal problems. When fear did persist, we knew it for what it was, and under God’s grace we became able to handle it. We began to see each adversity as a God-given opportunity to develop the kind of courage which is born of humility, rather than of bravado. Thus we were enabled to accept ourselves, our circumstances, and our fellows. Under God’s grace we even found that we could die with decency, dignity and faith, knowing that “the Father doeth the works.”
We of AA now find ourselves living in a world characterized by destructive fears as never before in history. But in it we nevertheless see great areas of faith and tremendous aspirations toward justice and brotherhood. Yet no prophet can presume to say whether the world outcome will be blazing destruction or the beginning, under God’s intention, of the brightest era yet known to mankind. I am sure we AAs well comprehend this scene. In microcosm, we have experienced this identical state of terrifying uncertainty, each in his own life. In no sense pridefully, we AAs can say that we do not fear the world outcome, whichever course it may take. This is because we have been enabled to deeply feel and say, “We shall fear no evil — thy will, not ours, be done.”
Often told, the following story can nevertheless bear repeating. On the day that the staggering calamity of Pearl Harbor fell upon our country, a friend of AA, and one of the greatest spiritual figures that we may ever know, was walking along a street in St. Louis. This was, of course, our well-loved Father Edward Dowling of the Jesuit Order. Though not an alcoholic, he had been one of the founders and a prime inspiration of the struggling AA group in his city. Because large numbers of his usually sober friends had already taken to their bottles that they might blot out the implications of the Pearl Harbor disaster, Father Ed was understandably anguished by the probability that his cherished AA group would scarcely settle for less. To Father Ed’s mind, this would be a first-class calamity, all of itself.
Then an AA member, sober less than a year, stepped alongside and engaged Father Ed in a spirited conversation — mostly about AA. As Father Ed saw, with relief, his companion was perfectly sober. And not a word did he volunteer about the Pearl Harbor business.
Wondering happily about this, the good father queried, “How is it that you have nothing to say about Pearl Harbor? How can you roll with a punch like that?”
“Well,” replied the AA, “I’m really surprised that you don’t know. Each and every one of us in AA has already had his own private Pearl Harbor. So, I ask you, why should we alcoholics crack up over this one?”
(c) AA Grapevine, January 1962
Reprinted in The Language of the Heart, (c) AA Grapevine, Inc., 1988.