Eco-Justice Ministries  

Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Mindful of Fear
distributed 5/3/02 - ©2002

Last week, I learned a vivid lesson about fear.

I was on a long-anticipated backpacking trip to the Grand Canyon. All of us in the group are capable hikers who wanted to experience the solitude of the canyon's backcountry. And so we chose one of the most demanding trails in the park -- not to prove how tough we are, but to steer clear of the crowded routes and the noise of helicopter tours.

I knew the trip would be hard, both physically and psychologically. It turned out to be easier on my body than I expected, but harder on my mind.

Two sections of the trail were especially difficult for me. On the first day, a 1/2 mile long section of the poor-quality trail runs along a steep, gravely slope, about 40 feet uphill from a 500 foot cliff. We'd all read about a hiker who slipped on that part of the trail, slid half-way to the edge, and was stopped by crashing into boulder -- breaking her ankle and saving her life.

Day 2 had a stretch that follows a 2 foot wide rock shelf for a hundred yards or so. The right side of that shelf drops directly into a 300 foot vertical fall.

Long before reaching those trail sections, my mind dwelt on the risks they posed. When I finally came to each place, I leaned my forehead on my walking sticks, and announced to the world, "I can't do this."

Both times, I finally did do it -- slowly, carefully, looking only at the next 5 feet of the trail, and with a knot in my guts, sweat on my palms, and prayers on my lips.

On the second day, after I inched my way across the rock shelf, another member of our group came to the same spot, sat down with his feet dangling over the edge, and changed the film in his camera. Then he strolled across the section that had turned me to jelly.

The fear was in my head. It was powerful and real, and almost entirely of my own making. It lived in the back (or front) of my mind for most of the trip, and it profoundly shaped the experience.

Yes, the trail was hard. There were places that took real concentration and care. There were other places that could be very dangerous only for someone who can't walk down a sidewalk without stumbling onto the grass. But, in my fear, I reacted the same way to both parts of the trail.

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Part of the message that Eco-Justice Ministries brings to churches has to do with addressing pastoral issues. We are aware that powerful emotions -- such as grief, guilt, hopelessness and fear -- can paralyze people in their attempts to do the right thing for the environment and for social justice.

Some of our fears, of course, are appropriate and realistic. A woman's fear of an abusive husband. The fear of being laid off by a company that has been driven to financial ruin by stock manipulation. They have to do with very real threats to life and livelihood. The problem is in the situation, not the mind of the beholder.

But other fears are more products of our mind than of the situation. Giving in to those fears can keep us from achieving our dreams, and can even place us at greater risk. A few examples:

  • Fear of what might be found can keep people from exploring the realities of a potentially dangerous situation. We've seen it in people who don't go to the doctor to check out a lump or chest pain. It is there in those who don't want to know about the dangers of their tap water or lawn chemicals.

  • Fear can keep people from speaking up about their beliefs and convictions. They laugh at a racially offensive joke. They don't argue with a co-worker's ignorant comment about immigrants. They don't call or write their Senators about legislation that is critical to environmental protection or social justice.

  • Fear keeps people from looking at options. It seems that the United Auto Workers so fears the loss of lucrative jobs making SUVs that they don't explore what options exist for employment in making other sorts of cars. Communities built around a single industry -- logging, fishing, oil or ranching -- cling to that way of life rather than explore a more diversified and sustainable economy.

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The group hiking with me accepted and understood my fears, even though they did not share them. They helped me through my fear, and into action. There was no ridicule, no trying to talk me out of it. They encouraged me, and guided me through the tough spots.

The same can be true of the church in guiding folk through the paralyzing fears of their lives. With love and encouragement, we can help our members deal creatively and effectively with the situations they now fear. That is a healing ministry for our people, and an empowering ministry for our communities.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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