One of my favorite movies is “Defending Your Life,” written, directed by, and starring Albert Brooks. In it, Brooks’ character dies and is transported by tour bus to a comfortable hotel located in a way station between Earth and the Beyond.
Like all other newly departed souls, he is assigned an attorney and placed on trial to determine whether he can advance to the next stage or must be reborn back on Earth. The sole determining factor is: Did he overcome his fears?
Fear—the gross inhibitor of mankind. We don’t try out for the swim team, for fear we might fail. We don’t tell someone we love him, for fear he might reject us. We don’t stick up for what we know to be right and true and good, for fear that the ugly elements of society may turn against us, and anyway, what can one person do?
Yet when we do overcome our fears, we are empowered and anything becomes possible, whereas when we sit on our hands and do nothing, we become more and more afraid.
No wonder Franklin Roosevelt told his countrymen during the depths of the Depression, at his first inaugural address, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”
Frederick Douglass (1817-1895), a slave turned anti-slavery leader who escaped to freedom after two foiled attempts, writes about the greatest fear of all—the fear of death—he experienced and overcame prior to his first attempt. The following is from his autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave.
“I was fast approaching manhood, and year after year had passed, and I was still a slave. These thoughts roused me—I must do something. I, therefore, resolved that 1835 should not pass without witnessing an attempt on my part to secure my liberty. But I was not willing to cherish this determination alone. My fellow slaves were dear to me. I was anxious to have them participate with me in this, my life-giving determination…
“I talked to them of our want of manhood, if we submitted to our enslavement without at least one noble effort to be free. We met often, and consulted frequently, and told our hopes and fears, recounted the difficulties, real and imagined, which we should be called on to meet.
“At times we were almost disposed to give up and try to content ourselvse with our wretched lot; at others, we were firm and unbending in our determination to go.
“Whenever we suggested any plan, there was shrinking—the odds were fearful. Our path was beset with the greatest obstacles; and if we succeeded in gaining the end of it, our right to be free was yet questionable—we were yet liable to be returned to bondage…
“We could see no spot, this side of the ocean, where we could be free. We knew nothing about Canada. Our knowledge of the North did not extend farther than New York; and to go there, and be forever harassed with the frighful liability of being returned to slavery—with the certainty of being treated tenfold worse than before—the thought was truly a horrible one, and one which it was not easy to overcome.
“The case sometimes stood as thus: At every gate through which we were to pass, we saw a watchman—at every ferry a guard, on every bridge a sentinel, and in every wood a patrol…Upon either side we saw grim death, assuming the most horrid shapes.
“Now it was starvation, causing us to eat our own flesh—now we were contending with the waves and were drowned; now we were overtaken and torn to pieces by the fangs of the terrible bloodhound.
“We were stung by scorpions, chased by wild beasts, bitten by snakes, and finally, after having nearly reached the desired spot—after swimming rivers, encountering wild beasts, sleeping in the woods, suffering hunger and nakedness—we were overtaken by our pursuers, and, in our resistance, we were shot dead upon the spot! I say, this picture sometimes appalled us, and made us ‘rather bear those ills we had, than fly to others, that we knew not of.’
“In coming to a fixed determination to run away, we did more than Patrick Henry, when he resolved upon liberty or death. With us, it was a doubtful liberty at most, and almost certain death if we failed. For my part, I should prefer death to hopeless bondage.”
Donna Nielsen Murphy, "Fear--the inhibitor of mankind," Irondequoit Press, January 6, 1994.