“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself” spoken by Franklin D Roosevelt in his 1932 Inauguration
The famous phrase above spoken by President Franklin Roosevelt has been on my mind for a while now.
Here are the sentences that surround those words he spoke to a frightened and weary America: “let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance. In every dark hour of our national life a leadership of frankness and vigor has met with that understanding and support of the people themselves which is essential to victory.”
The added words give some context to President Roosevelt’s message. He spoke of that terror as a form of paralysis. Turning that paralysis into renewed hope meant ‘frankness and vigor’ to be critical parts of any recovery.
As I have thought of those words and their meanings I am tempted to compare that day with now. One theory I read was that voters and the whole American people are seeking leadership of authenticity. In other words: “please don’t BS us any longer.” I can begin to understand how people craved down-to-earth ‘authenticity’ and so you have the rise of candidates like President Obama and now his successor.
The fear today isn’t so much of the economic and cultural catastrophe of the Great Depression. I suspect it’s more about how rapidly America has changed in the last half-century. There’s a yearning for ‘the good old days’ that weren’t good at all for most people.
Religious communities often try to step in during times like this. They want to offer solace and direction for people who are frightened and anxious. Traditional Christian churches, Jewish synagogues, and Islamic mosques all have doctrines to give support based on words about God, Yahweh, or Allah.
What do we Unitarian Universalists say about fear and its antidote? We don’t really have written doctrines that speak to fearfulness. The First Principle about inherent worth and dignity of each person is useful but doesn’t address the anxiety people feel today. We don’t have a unified concept of a loving God caring for us nor do we believe that we are inherently broken and sinful (and therefore deserve whatever we get).
What would our response be to ‘the only thing we have to fear is fear itself?” What’s the antidote to fear for the newcomer to Westside or the veteran member who worries about the future? Should we respond to fear with frankness and vigor? What would such words say? Who do we hold up as examples of authentic speech and actions that are healing and hopeful rather than harmful?
I don’t know the answers to those questions.
Perhaps our music can help us reclaim hope and a more positive future. One of our favorite hymns in UU congregations is “Love Will Guide Us”. Do the words of this hymn begin to show us a direction out of fear and back into optimism? Can we truly believe these words can help guide us out of fear and worry?
Love will guide us, peace has tried us,
Hope inside us, will lead the way
On the road from greed to giving.
Love will guide us through the hard night.
If you cannot speak like angels,
If you cannot speak before thousands,
You can give from deep within you.
You can change the world with your love.