“If you take sulfa again, you will die.” That was the prognosis after the sulfa prescribed for my infection caused me to become ill and break out in hives that stretched from my head to the bottom of my feet. It was my introduction into the dangers of allergies.
Allergies occur when our immune system identifies a certain substance as harmful, even though it isn’t. Apparently, the decision-making cells in my immune system mistakenly decided the foreigner sulfa was dangerous, so warrior cells were ordered to attack. Unfortunately, sending the troops into battle caused more harm than good. Nevertheless, in the future, my immune system will stubbornly continue to believe sulfa is a dangerous enemy. That fear, not the sulfa itself, will be what could kill me.
It amazes me that our immune system has the same problem with fear that our brain does. When we overreact to perceived danger, we cause ourselves needless stress resulting in a variety of negative consequences: high blood pressure, anxiety disorders, insomnia, paranoia, damaged relationships – and on a broader scale – terrorism and war.
Perhaps it should come as no surprise that fear and overreaction are common themes affecting both our immune system and our limbic system (the part of the brain involved in our behavioral and emotional responses). After all, a significant challenge in life is assessing risks and creating balanced responses. Antibodies protect us against bacteria, viruses, and infections, but our immune system finds it hard to identify a real threat and react appropriately every time. Our limbic system also suffers from imperfection. It’s designed to protect us from danger, but we don’t always assess a situation accurately. Overreacting shuts down rational, higher-order thinking.
To complicate things further, overreacting to fear creates unhealthy responses that fuel more fears. Admitting we incorrectly responded may hurt our pride and make us fear vulnerability, so we cling to our “allergies.” What a vicious cycle it can be!
Taking control of our worries isn’t easy because one of our primary concerns is, naturally, our safety and survival. We develop “allergies” to each other because we fear being hurt and losing power, control, or resources. Unfortunately, those allergies will end up harming us if we don’t mount a rational counteroffensive.
Fear can lie to us. We need to have a conversation with our fears because they will demand to be heard and acknowledging them can be an insightful experience. But we don’t want them to scream at us and manipulate us into doing something stupid. And we don’t want them to keep us from learning and growing wiser. Seeking a compassionate, balanced discussion with our fears prevents them from moving in and creating allergies.
For example, it seems there are a plethora of politicians and media outlets that want me to fear immigrants and people from foreign countries. If I had let those voices create “allergies” within me, I would have missed out on tutoring English language learners from various countries and I wouldn’t have ventured to Kenya, Palestine, Nicaragua, Lithuania, and Peru on mission trips. My fears may have kept me safe, but they wouldn’t have opened my mind and heart to illuminating new understandings.
Being brave and courageous is a formidable task – at least it is for me – but I don’t want fear to steal my happiness or my integrity. I don’t want to develop the equivalent of an autoimmune disease.
Autoimmune diseases occur when our immune cells attack our own body by mistake. When I become hateful, jealous, greedy, dishonest (or any other adjective indicating a breakdown in my morals), I am attacking my own character. I need to keep my spiritual self healthy so I can fight off transgressions that tempt me because I’m afraid. Gandhi said, “The enemy is fear. We think it is hate; but, it is fear.”
The virtue of forgiveness is impossible to genuinely pursue when we are fearful. We can’t let go of a painful event if we are frightened that it will occur in the future. If I’m hurt by someone and don’t know how to prevent that pain going forward, I will hold onto it until I understand it and can figure out how to reduce it. If I don’t trust myself, I need to determine how to regain self-respect, so I don’t keep torturing myself with shame and regret.
Actress Betty White said, “You don’t luck into integrity. You work at it.” We have to work at virtues, just like we work at a healthy diet or skill building. The potential is there, but we fool ourselves if we believe integrity develops without effort and a generous dose of humility.
We use our rational brain to fight fear and hate, but we’re also going to need love – love for all humankind, including ourselves. The Roman poet Virgil, around 37 BCE wrote in “Eclogues” that, “Love conquers all; let us surrender to love.” The Bible, 1 John 4:18, counsels us that, “Perfect love casts out fear.” Contemporary author Lorin Morgan-Richards wrote, “Love conquers the temporary hold of fear and hate. Inhumanity is a loop without it.” Throughout the ages, we’ve been advised to love one another, not fear one another.
A love for humankind, also known as agape love, is what unites and heals us. But human history testifies to how difficult it is to embrace. It requires compassion, which I think of as empathy with action. We not only strive to take the perspective and feel the emotions of another, we desire to let that understanding guide us.
When I’m fearful, I’m imprisoned in my own ego because I erect a wall that keeps out compassion. Shifting my perspective allows me to conquer my fear. For example, I was angry with someone recently because, in my mind, they were being arrogant and disrespectful to me. Whether they were or were not wasn’t the issue in my response. I reminded myself their behavior was a reflection on them, not me. Then I chose to be compassionate and consider what they were fearing – what their struggle was – and planned my response accordingly. The outcome was far better than had I given in to the allergy I was forming.
My fear sometimes stems from a lack of compassion for myself. I worry I will say or do something wrong. If I remind myself that it’s okay to say or do something that doesn’t meet expectations, I can relax, show myself self-love, and prevent my fears from harming me.
Autoimmune diseases are caused by a combination of genetics and environment. The same is true about our behaviors. Genetics provides us with a system that allows us to protect and defend ourselves and we can be grateful for that. But we can be especially thankful that we have it in our power to control our fears.
As Winston Churchill said, “Fear is a reaction. Courage is a decision.”
Photo by Cristi Ursea on Unsplash