Tuesday, September 13, 2016

What you fear...is the unknown.

I may have written about Star Trek V before, but being as this is the 50th anniversary of Star Trek, I thought a casual mention might be in order.  Let me be clear: this is not a post about Star Trek V.  After all, it's an odd-numbered movie, which most trekies don't like.  I'll confess that while I don't particularly care for I or III, I do like V, mostly because of one line buried way in the movie (No, David Naglee, it's not "What does God need with a starship?"  That's a close second.).

I promise, promise this isn't all about Star Trek, but you need to know about this.  I'll keep it short.  Spock's brother, Sybok, has taken control of the Enterprise with one purpose in mind: to take a ship beyond the "Great Barrier."  In Star Trek world, that's crazy talk right there.  No ship or probe has ever returned from the other side.  What I'm saying is that everyone is afraid of going to the other side because nobody knows what will happen.

Sybok tries to convince Kirk this is a good idea, and he delivers these fantastic words: "What you fear...is the unknown.  The people of your planet once believed their world was flat.  Columbus proved it was round.  They said the sound barrier could never be broken.  It was broken.  They said warp speed could not be achieved.  The Great Barrier is the ultimate expression of this universal fear."  Dude, somebody tell this guy he's not supposed to explain the whole point of the movie right there in one monologue?

Now, I promised this wouldn't be about Star Trek V, and it isn't.  I buy Sybok's assertion that fear of the unknown is the most over-arching, controlling fear.  Nearly all other fears fit within it.  People fear spiders and snakes not because they are all dangerous but because they aren't sure which ones are dangerous.  People fear the dark and the ocean because they don't know what is lurking there.

This makes really good sense (even if that sentence doesn't).  Knowledge, it seems, is a pretty good antidote to fear.  For example, a good way to be less afraid of snakes is to know for certain which ones are poisonous.

So why, then, are children fearless while the older we get the more afraid it seems we become?  I'll give you an example.  When I began doing youth music missions, I had no problem letting all my kids loose with the instruction to stay in groups, eat dinner, and have fun.  Now, every time I do it I get a little twinge that says, "You're an idiot for letting them do this."  For just a moment, I'm afraid for them.  Not enough to keep me from letting them go, mind you.  But my knowledge of what could happen actually makes me more afraid, not less.

Maybe that's because of known unknowns and unknown unknowns, a concept that Donald Rumsfeld once tried to explain with disastrous result.  The idea is that there are things we know we don't know (what's around the next corner).  And there are things we don't even know we don't know.  These are just happy (or unhappy) little surprises we can't anticipate.  Thing is, the more knowledge we gain, the more we become aware that we don't know much of anything.  The more we know...the more we don't know.

One of my teachers in graduate school tells about this experience he had.  He had just finished earning his doctorate degree in Music.  He walked into the music library and opened a score.  Realizing that, despite all his knowledge, he didn't know this score, he opened another.  He didn't know it either.  Then it dawned on him: there was far more in this library he didn't know than he did.  This, having just earned a doctorate degree, a distinction which is supposed to mean he is completely fluent with the topic at hand.

Our experience and knowledge ensure that as we age we will become more and more aware of all that we don't know.  We will have heard story after story about the unexpected things that can happen when we are blissfully unprepared.  Put another way, one of the things we will learn the most about is how much we have to be afraid of.  This fear, left unchecked, will overtake us, even stunt our growth.  The care-free days of our youth will be long behind us, traded in for the fear of all the things that might be...all the things we know for absolute certain that we don't know.

I wonder if this is what Jesus meant when he said we should come to him as little children.  As a church we've often taken that exchange with the disciples to mean that we should allow children in church and even encourage them.  Well, that's cute.  We should make sure we let Timmy come and sit on the pastor's knee during worship, no?  But what if that's not it at all?  What if Jesus is saying we should all become like children and run to him--fearless in the face of the unknown because, like those who took care of us before we were able, Jesus stands ready to take care of us now?

1 comment:

  1. It appears that human infants have two innate fears: fear of heights and fear of loud noises. This CNN article (http://www.cnn.com/2015/10/29/health/science-of-fear/) quotes an Emory University neuroscientist on our fear of loud noises, and includes a link to the classic 1960 study showing infants fear heights.