Fight, Flight or Freeze?

Beth Hoffman Faeth June 30, 2019

Scripture: Psalm 27

When I was a little girl, maybe 8 years old, my Girl Scout troop went on a day-long field trip to a local state park. The agenda for the day was a hike and picnic lunch. The wooded area was dense, the wildflowers were abundant, the path winding but well-marked. Our destination was a large clearing in which stood an old fire tower, multi-leveled and built of wood. I don’t really know how tall it was, but my 8-year-old brain determined it had to be, at the very least, 10,000 feet high. The tower was solid and open to the public. My friends and I, along with our leaders, began our ascent.

I can still hear the happy little girl sounds of the other scouts, who sped up those stairs determined to win an unplanned race to the top. I began climbing with the same enthusiasm, excited about what I might see when I reached the pinnacle and could look above the trees of the park. At the first landing I was no longer excited. I was worried. Nothing felt as it should. Gone was any carefree confidence I had when anticipating my climb. Instead I felt like I was going to cry. I could see the ground between the slats of the steps and I grew concerned that I would fall through. The effect was dizzying, and I still recall the rapid beating of my heart and sweat on my palms. Clinging to the rail for dear life, I took one step at a time, very slowly, to the next level. I wasn’t even halfway to the top, but as I looked over the guard rail I was paralyzed with fear. Above me I could still hear the sounds of joy and delight from the other girls. I was panicking. I was terrified. And I also felt defeated. I did not know until that moment my intense fear of heights. I did not know while standing unsteadily on that fire tower how that fear would follow me through life and confine me in many ways. All I knew in that moment was that if I did not return to solid ground the earth was sure to open up and swallow me. I believed that if I traveled just one more step upwards, I would die.

God, You are my light, my salvation; whom will I fear?
You are the stronghold of my life; of whom will I be afraid?

In 1999, for a period of many months, I developed a fear of leaving my house. My life was only grief then, time marked by how many hours and days had passed since the first week of December 1998. Grief invites many aspects of fear into one’s heart, but for an extrovert like me the newfound dread of going anywhere alone sucked the breath out of my existence. Finally, one day, I mustered up enough courage to go to the grocery store. I do not remember anything about that store except for the produce section. I can still see quite clearly the bins of fruits and vegetables.

As I was gazing at the red peppers, trying to compel my hand to actually move to the bin and lift one out I felt a breeze behind me as someone rushed to my side and exclaimed “How’s the baby?!” I stopped breathing. It felt like hours passed before I could turn my head to the side to look at the source of the voice, an unfamiliar young man who quickly exclaimed, “my wife and I, we were in your Lamaze class. How’s the baby?” Again, after what seemed like an eternity, I forced my mouth to form the words: “She died.” I don’t remember hearing my voice, but sound must have come out because I will never forget the stricken look of this unfamiliar man. He muttered his apologies and fled. Again, I stood paralyzed with fear, staring at the red peppers, tears streaming down my face. When I could feel my heart beating again, I abandoned my cart and fled to the only sanctuary I knew, my home. It took a long time to muster up the courage to go out again, and it was months and months before I could return to that grocery store.

I have confidence that I will see the goodness of God in the land of the living!
Wait for God—stand tall and let your heart take courage!

Of what are you afraid? Whom do you fear? The Wisdom writer of the Psalm today invites us to the tenuous places of our hearts, asking us to both acknowledge our fears and trust in the constancy that is God. Is that really possible? The little girl standing on a fire tower landing believing her world was going to end didn’t know God in those moments. Instead she froze as fear overrode all other sensibilities. All the other girls climbed to the top and returned safely to the ground below, even testing fate a bit by leaning way over the top ledge. No one was hurt; no one fell through the stairs or was catapulted over the guard rails. But fear is anything but rational, and it can take our minds to places we never want to visit.

The other scene displays an older, wiser woman during the most vulnerable time in her life. During that year, my whole life was built on fear: Fear of being alone, fear of going out, fear of having to tell the story one more time, fear of trying again, fear of losing someone else I loved. Fear was a way of life, and, although it was reliable, it stripped away everything I had believed about life and love and . . . God. When fear impedes our lives, God seems very distant. And when we allow fear to take over, God ceases to exist. We flee. Or we freeze. Or we become incredibly defensive and we fight.

About a century ago, a physiologist named Walter Cannon described what he called an acute stress reaction based on the increase of adrenaline in the body when one is confronted by an emergent threat: the fight or flight response. In the years since then, physiologists and psychologists have continued to study this phenomenon and build on and refine Cannon’s work, and the theory has broadened to include “freeze” as another bodily response to how one might react when a situation overwhelms ones coping capacities and therefore envelops one in fear.

Flight and freeze are easy for me to understand, because as I already described, I have experienced both in my life in a variety of ways. Never much of a fighter, I did not readily understand this reaction unless I was forced to defend and protect someone I love from being physically hurt—that is, the momma bear experience. But as I have worked to reconcile the complicated strands of a frayed and torn marriage to an addict, beating myself up for staying too long and not taking action sooner than I did, a helpful therapist explained to me that my staying was a way of fighting. I was defending a commitment, a vow, a promise that I had made, and I was going to make it work, darn it, even at some very heavy cost. Because I was afraid of what leaving would look like.

Fight, flight or freeze. Even when we are unable to recognize it, our body responds to fear and works to protect rather than pro-act. This is not just an individual reaction, but a communal one. Think about life in the church: During times when change is inevitable and decisions are made that impact what is to come, we may grow wary and afraid. How does a congregation respond?

Freeze:   “We have always done it this way! Don’t mess with our tradition.”

Fight:       Withhold our pledge, react through actions and words, make those in leadership “pay the price.”

Flight:      “This is no longer the church I know; I am outta here.”

Our Psalmist today asks us to hold both fear and faith together in one hand. That takes courage and trust. In the midst of our fear, if we can hold the door open for something else, our fear may never get the better of us. In fact, it may dissipate entirely. I wonder if we might take a different approach to fear as indicated by Maya Angelou: to choose a different course, a different response—to lean in to love as an understanding and a practice. “Yet if we are bold,” writes Angelou, “love strikes away the chains of fear from our souls.”

How do you know love in the midst of your fear? By trusting in a wider goodness, a divine presence to instill in us the possibility of understanding rather than fright. My fear of heights has followed me all of my life. While it has been crippling on occasion and has prevented me from experiencing some potentially amazing things, I have surprised myself in those rare occurrences when I let go of the fear and cared enough to let something else take over—courage, curiosity, wonder. That is love revealed. It is precisely in the face of fear that love seems most necessary.

Psalm 27 allows us to realize the tension between the reality of human fears and the assurance of divine help. While God is a constant, sometimes, because of our state, it may take awhile to acknowledge God’s presence. We wait, not because God isn’t available to us, but because in our humanness our fear prevails over God’s presence. In those days when I could not leave my house, I rarely felt God with me. I was not in a place to receive divine comfort because the wound was too raw for any salve. My fears would overwhelm me, and there were days I could not exist in any dark room. I turned on lights at night because I believed that my fear only needed the impetus of the dark in order to completely consume me. And so I turned on the lights. All of the lights. And the TV. And anything else that might illuminate. And people who cared for me sat with me and held my hand so that I didn’t feel alone. And slowly, very slowly, I began to realize that these things—the light, the companionship—were my way of acknowledging love.

And when I embraced love, I then began to know God again, in a new way. A scab had begun to form on my heart and with that, my wait for God ended. With clarity, I realized that God had never abandoned me: It was I who left God. Fear became what I worshipped. Fear became my safety net. Fear distanced me from a God who was grieving, too.

With all of life’s moments comes the decision to choose fear or choose love. Sometimes fear wins. And when it does, we wait. We pray for strength; we ask for courage. And eventually, with perseverance, it comes. This has little to do with God and everything to do with us. We decide whether to let our fear rule our heart or to allow love to rule our lives. Sometimes that decision is clear and quick and other times agonizingly slow. The Psalm reminds us that God is always evoking us to choose love, to trust in the Divine presence and assurance, to believe even when God seems far away

As a church we must lean into love rather than surrender to fear. Earlier this year, those tuned into religious news were saddened and dismayed by the General Conference of the United Methodist Church voting to continue the ban on same-sex marriage and LGBT ordinations. This month the United Methodist Church of Minnesota at their statewide conference voted to commit to “full inclusion” of the LGBT community in church life. The resolution states that the LGBT restriction “does great harm to the witness of the United Methodist Church” and vows that the Minnesota conference “will not perpetuate this harm in any form.”

“Silence is often harmful and serves to perpetuate discrimination,” said the resolution. “We will no longer remain silent,” church leaders stated in a recent Star Tribune article.

On Friday, the Evangelical Covenant Church voted to evict First Covenant Church of Minneapolis from the denomination and remove the credentials of lead pastor Dan Collison because of First Covenant’s commitment to be a welcoming community to all people. “Love all” is the church’s slogan, and, because of their inclusivity of all, especially the LGBTQ+ community, the church has been embroiled in conflict with the national denomination for five years. Following the decision, this was posted on First Covenant’s Facebook page:

We are deeply grieved as we find ourselves cast out by a denomination that has historically been able to hold differences and find a middle way. We will continue to serve and fully embrace anyone who walks through our doors. The community of First Covenant Church Minneapolis owns the name and building, and our journey continues in love.

All are welcome here.

Our journey continues in love . . . in both of these instances the church could have cowered in fear because of decisions made at a higher level. Instead, grounded in the foundation of God’s assurances and leaning into love rather than freezing, fighting or fleeing, the example of these faith communities invites us to do likewise. Of what are we currently afraid? The calling of a new minister? The continued work of racial justice? The reality that the church does not feel the same as it did a generation ago, a decade ago, even a year ago? What could happen if, instead of fearing the future, we embraced the possibilities of what is to come because we trust that love always wins . . . that our journey together continues in love?

We are weaned from our timidity
In the flush of love’s light
we dare be brave
And suddenly we see
that love costs all we are
and will ever be.
Yet it is only love
which sets us free.

—Maya Angelou

May you indeed claim love—and not heights or flights or crowds or new situations or elevators or loneliness or death or spiders or water or the future or your financial situation or whatever it is you fear. But claim only love to “liberate you into life.” Amen.