The Gift of Fear

The Gift of Fear

Father Sebastian McDonald, C.P.
Father Sebastian McDonald, C.P.

Are fear and fright the same thing?  Are they rare experiences, or do we experience them frequently?  Does everyone undergo fear and fright, or only certain types of people?  Is fear and/or fright good for us, or injurious?

Fear and fright seem to be different.  Fright is apparently uncontrollable, whereas fear is somewhat under our control.  There’s usually a surprise element connected with fright; we are caught off guard, usually suddenly, when we are not expecting it.  By the same token, fright is often momentary; it is not lasting, once we see what it is that frightened us.  But fear can be an ongoing experience, a kind of life situation in which we find ourselves over a period of time, and which we cannot easily dismiss.  We can be afraid of a person whom we can’t easily avoid: a relative, a neighbor, a schoolmate.  Fear can imbed itself within us, so that it is difficult to escape.  Though fright can be hard on the nervous system and even one’s health (“I was scared to death” literally, as, for instance, should it cause a heart attack), fear, especially when long-lasting, can be even more debilitating and engender depression.

Most people try to avoid fear because of these effects on us, and, in general, fright too is something many of us dislike.  However, some people seek out fright, for the “thrill” associated with it, such as a haunted house.   But it is difficult to live in a state of fright over a long period of time since one’s system cannot usually sustain something like long-lasting fright.  Fear, on the other hand, can be an ongoing  ordeal and, for that reason, “bad for our health”.

We can control fear, to an extent.  Usually we’re able to move away from a fear-inducing situation, though, admittedly, often at some inconvenience to ourselves.  On the other hand, fright is frequently uncontrollable, and there’s not much we can do about it since it often catches us off guard, surprising us.  But, as just mentioned, we display some control of it by deliberately seeking out frightening situations.

There’s a moral or ethical quality to fear, to the extent there is something we can do about it.  But since fright is usually uncontrollable, we are not responsible for it, except in the occasions described above.  We look to Jesus and ask: was He ever afraid and fearful?   On the other hand, was He ever frightened?  It seems that He had a foreboding sense of His impending death, from the three different occasions He mentioned His coming passion and death to the apostles.  And when we recall His plight in the Garden of Gethsemani  just prior to His death, we remember that He sweated blood at the prospect of what was about to happen to Him.  Was this not fear?  Yes, but He was likely never frightened

And what about Mary at the moment of the annunciation, when the angel appeared to her unannounced and she was apparently alone?  “But she was greatly troubled at what was said and pondered what sort of greeting this might be…”  “Then the angel said to her, ‘Do not be afraid, Mary…’ (Lk 1.29, 30).  Whereas  Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, was also visited by an angel: “Zechariah was troubled by what he saw and fear came upon him.  But the angel said to him. “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, because your prayer has been heard.” (Lk 1.12-13)  This difference in the angel’s response to Mary and Zechariah (even though the word “fear” is used in each case) seems to parallel the difference between fear and fright.  Mary had a wholesome fear; Zechariah had a paralyzing fright.

So we hopefully can fear like Jesus and Mary, while avoiding the paralysis of fright.  How?  By remembering that fear, that is, fear of the Lord, is one of the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, but fright is not.  Fear can be wholesome and life-giving: there are some situations which we should fear.  As a gift of the Holy Spirit, fear can lead us along life-giving ways.  Among the sacraments we especially look to confirmation for this gift of the Holy Spirit.

One thought on “The Gift of Fear

  1. Thank you for another great article Fr Sebby! Some good examples to distinguish fear from fright. Your writing makes this blog very interesting and I find myself looking forward to your next one! Thanks again!

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