by Patricia Adams Farmer
“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”
—Franklin Delano Roosevelt
When I was young seminarian in the 1970s, I suffered from anorexia nervosa. I learned to starve myself for sake of unnatural thinness—and this was before eating disorders became a contagion on campuses around the world. As a “pioneer in the field,” my absolutist-oriented anorexic mind was of the opinion that if you ate one cookie, it was like the Domino Theory of Vietnam: “If Vietnam falls, so goes all of Southeast Asia!” Letting my guard down for even one cookie meant my whole world could fall into utter chaos, overrun by barbaric hoards.
Of course, anorexia is not so much about food and thinness; it’s really about fear and control. What did I fear? I feared being fat, yes, but that was just the surface. What I really feared was not being liked, not being loved, not being good enough—that deep, dark, basic human predicament that sociologist Brené Brown calls “shame.” Only if I exercised rigid control over my food could I trick myself into feeling worthy—even special. Starving myself gave me a false sense of superiority, characteristic of rigid people.
I felt imprisoned in a tiny cell. Of course I wanted to be free—I could see happy people through the bars of my window—but I was too afraid to open the door and walk out into the wideness and sunshine. What if I lost control? Worse, what if I discovered that I was only mediocre, nothing special? Fear was starving me, body and soul. And it affected everyone around me like an invisible poison infecting the air.
When fear takes on a life of its own, it becomes a contagion. And when there is a contagion of fear, there is the danger of a full-blown famine of the collective soul. You could say that anorexia is analogous to what’s happening in our world today—a form of social anorexia: rigid ideologies, soul-shriveling theology, us-vs-them worldviews, all issuing from that dark place called “fear itself.”
Fear itself is fear that has taken on a life of its own, disconnected from reality. Fear of the Other, fear of scarcity, fear of change, fear of not being good enough—all this excess fear starves and shames the soul, resulting in a xenophobic contagion of rigid ideology, religious fundamentalism, and scapegoating that stirs up racism, misogyny, homophobia, and Islamophobia.
But how can fear do all this damage? Fear lives in a landscape of distorted perceptions. There is no debating a person held hostage by fear. We wonder why facts roll off the backs of the rabid extremists, why they seem immune to reason. But starving souls perceive things in a garbled, confused way, like an anorexic. They simply can’t see straight.
I remember standing in front of a full-length mirror and declaring myself hopelessly overweight, when in fact I was skin and bones. My mother said I looked like a victim of a death camp, while I saw a fat person. I simply could not see—or face—reality.
But if I was in seminary, studying the Bible and theology, how could such a disease of the mind take over? Where was God? To be honest, God was only making things worse. At the time, I was studying at an institution which was falling headlong into the tragic black hole of Christian fundamentalism. The theology I studied focused on an all-controlling view of God: a God to be feared. This made perfect sense to my anorexic, absolutist mindset. I needed a “strongman” sort of God to take care of things, to take care of me.
But when I got well—when my vision cleared and I could see reality—only then could I begin to question the “strongman” view of God. I fell, for a time, into a rather freeing agnosticism, allowing me space to study broadly and inquire courageously and imagine wildly—this time with a healthy mind.
I discovered the key to health was to face my fears with acceptance, love, and courage: to dare to be vulnerable. I also discovered, with a great deal of help, that I was a mere mortal surrounded by a host of other mere mortals who were all struggling like me to make sense out of life. By coming down the lonely mountain of self-righteous superiority and daring vulnerability, my judgmental attitude fell away, replaced by a deep compassion for others, as well as for myself.
And when it came to God, I knew I did not need a God of fear and control. Rather, I needed a God of love, a God of vulnerability, a God who—if I opened the door to my little cell—would meet me, not with judgment, but with open arms.
The courage to re-think everything, even theology, is part of the work. My friend Thomas Jay Oord recently wrote a remarkable and controversial book called The Uncontrolling Love of God. This book, along with his courageous teaching of a fresh theology of “uncontrolling” love, got him—a tenured professor—fired from his teaching position at a conservative religious university. To me, he is a hero, one who dares to become vulnerable for the sake of love.
By embracing the “uncontrolling” love of God—modeled by Jesus himself—I learned to let the dominoes fall, to eat a cookie when I want one, and to exhilarate in the beautiful world outside the prison of absolute control.
Those of us who choose to widen out in love rather than shrink back in fear not only bring health to the individual soul, but also to the wider world where the threat of a “strongman” to solve our problems is always a temptation. But this a delusion. For the truth is, fear tempts us into thin, rigid, and judgmental worldviews, while love lures us to go wide with compassion, courage, and imagination. Along with Thomas Jay Oord, I choose to stand—at all costs—on the side of love, vulnerable love, empowering love: uncontrolling love.
Patricia Adams Farmer (patriciaadamsfarmer.com) is an ordained minister in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and the author of several books, including Embracing a Beautiful God and Fat Soul: A Philosophy of S-I-Z-E. With advanced degrees in theology, philosophy, and education, her special focus is process theology, aesthetics, and storytelling. She is a featured writer for Jesus, Jazz, and Buddhism (edited by Jay McDaniel), and works with Process and Faith. After five years of living, exploring, and writing in the beautiful country of Ecuador, she currently resides with her husband, Ron Farmer, in Albuquerque, New Mexico.