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Love and Fear

If you are like me, you may have put on a few pounds as you’ve gotten older (in my case, it has been more than a few pounds). I’ve got news for you, courtesy of New Age luminary Marianne Williamson. Those added pounds have little to do with poor diet or lack of exercise per se. “The cause of your excess weight is fear,” she writes in her book, A Course in Weight Loss. If you want to lose weight, you’ve got to get at the root of the problem. According to Williamson, fear expresses itself as subconscious urges leading to unhealthy eating habits and/or resistance to exercise. In my case, I work out four or five days a week and follow a reasonably healthy diet. I can only conclude from this that the fear must be deeply rooted indeed.

Williamson’s gnomic utterances on weight management are by no means her only unconventional slant on things. How about poverty? “Many people fail to manifest money because on some deep level they don’t think they should,” she says. Or poor health? “Disease,” she writes, “is loveless thinking materialized.” If you are fat, poor and sick, you need to look in the mirror. All are symptoms of a fundamental thought disorder that springs from fear, according to Williamson. And what are all these people afraid of? “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate,” she believes. “Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, 'Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?' Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God.”

As might be evident from the title of Williamson’s weight-loss book, she is a student of A Course in Miracles, which has its roots in Christian Science and the New Thought movement that sprang up in the late 19th century. The New Thought movement was driven by a set of religious and philosophical beliefs based on the premise you can become master of your fate by mastering your own thoughts. "The outer world of circumstance shapes itself to the inner world of thought," wrote James Allen in As a Man Thinketh (1902).· "Every thought-seed sown or allowed to fall into the mind, and to take root there, produces its own, blossoming sooner or later into act, and bearing its own fruitage of opportunity and circumstance.” Elements of this same philosophy can be found in Norman Vincent Peale's The Power of Positive Thinking, published in the 1950s, and later in broadcasts by televangelist Robert Schuller and talk-show host Oprah Winfrey.

A Course in Miracles (1976) is a three-volume work by Helen Schucman, a research psychologist who claimed Jesus dictated the whole thing to her. As it happens, Jesus’ teachings in A Course in Miracles bear more than a casual resemblance to the Christian Science writings of Mary Baker Eddy that Schucman’s mother read to her as a child. Disease, sinfulness and death are dismissed as unreal. One’s circumstances are largely determined by thought. The mind functions as a binary system governed either by love or fear. Hence, Williamson’s assertions that fear can make you fat, poor and sick instead of brilliant, gorgeous, talented and fabulous.

It is easy to make light of such notions. I can’t help wondering, for example, what Henry David Thoreau might have made of Williamson’s pronouncements. Thoreau was undeniably brilliant and talented but also plug-ugly and hardly fabulous, as such things are reckoned. He was also poor and died young of a dread disease (tuberculosis). At his funeral, his friend Ralph Waldo Emerson delivered a eulogy in which he lamented the fact that Thoreau never lived up to his potential. Was Thoreau ruled by fear, or did he merely march to is own drummer?

All that said, there is no question in my mind that love and fear play out as opposing elements in one’s experience. They can indeed determine one’s perception of the world. However, they may well originate at a deeper level than thought, which can be a problem if you hope to change your outlook merely by gaining mastery over your thoughts. For example, I was once acquainted with a young woman who suffered from anorexia. I was struck by the fact that she talked constantly about food, presumably because she was starving herself. However, I doubt she would have gotten very far had she tried to redirect her thoughts elsewhere, since her body was crying out for nourishment. Granted, her anorexia may have been motivated by fear. But fear itself is triggered by the body’s physiological “fight or flight” response, and fearful thoughts may themselves be a symptom rather than the root of the problem.

Fear is not an illusion, any more than sin or evil are illusory. They are certainly not likely to disappear from one’s life just because we try to banish them from our thoughts; indeed, they will only incubate in the shadows. “One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light,” the depth psychologist Carl Jung advised, “but by making the darkness conscious.” This may seem counterintuituve. But for Jung, the process of individuation, as he called, involved reclaiming the parts of oneself that had been cast into outer darkness, especially the parts that do not conform to our rosy self-image.

In De Profundis, Oscar Wilde’s great meditation on suffering, he recalled strolling around the gardens in Magdalene College at Oxford when he was an undergraduate. He told his companion that he wanted to eat of the fruit of all the trees in the garden of the world. He could not have known he would eventually be made to eat such bitter fruit along with the sweet, sentenced to prison for “the sin that dare not call its name.” Wilde wrote, “My only mistake was that I confined myself so exclusively to the trees of what seemed to me the sun-lit side of the garden, and shunned the other side for its shadow and its gloom.”

It’s true the New Testament states that “perfect love casts out fear.” However, the Greek word translated as “love” in this passage (agape) has a particular meaning that is closer to unconditional acceptance than to romantic love or love for a friend. That unconditional acceptance applies not just to the sunny side of life but to all of it, including the bad stuff. You don’t have it like it, and you can work assiduously to transform the stuff you don’t like. But the starting point is always unconditional acceptance of things as they are, particularly the unsavory stuff you find within yourself. This is why the spiritual practice espoused by Alcoholics Anonymous always begins with the frank acknowledgment of one’s own alcoholism.

“The altar to God is the human mind,” Williamson writes in A Return to Love. “To ‘desecrate the altar’ is to fill it with non-loving thoughts.” And yet, as Chris Dierkes points out in his critique of A Course in Miracles, the effort to weed out non-loving thoughts leaves fear itself forever unloved. Nobody likes to be governed by fear, of course. But unless we accept it for what it is and learn what it has to teach us, fear will always haunt our thoughts. “God instructs the heart, not by ideas but by pains and contradictions,” wrote the 18th-century Jesuit spiritual director Jean-Pierre de Caussade. He added, “You seek perfection and it lies in everything that happens to you – your suffering, your actions, your impulses are the mysteries under which God reveals himself to you.” The lesson seems clear. The pathway to God lies not in casting aside fear but in embracing it.

1 John 4:18
Chris Dierkes, “Fear Is Not The Opposite of Love: A Critique of A Course in Miracles,” chrisdirekes.com, October 9, 2015
Jean-Pierre de Caussade, The Sacrament of the Present Moment

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