Fear Itself

I have here a message from 12-year-old Amy, who wrote me today. The main thrust of her email was this:

“…I’m really scared about what’s happening in the world, can you make me feel any better?”

Well, you’d have to be an ostrich not to know which world events Amy is scared about. In fact, there are too many frightful events to list here.

Not only has this year been fraught with viruses, unemployment, and deadly scenes taking place in Washington D.C., but as I write this, the current year is only 10 days old.

So you have every right to be afraid, Amy; you are a human being. And you’re not alone, either. This morning after reading the newspaper the first thing I did was pour myself a stiff shot of Alka-Seltzer and go back to bed.

But if you ask me, your biggest problem (and mine) is not current events. It’s fear. Which has a lot to do with how we mammals are wired. We have low thresholds for stress.

Take the rhinoceros. This is a powerful animal who can withstand predators, hunters, droughts, and even confinement. But when a rhino sees a vehicle chasing it, do you know what sometimes happens? It drops dead.

We’re talking about one of the oldest surviving species on this planet, a creature which existed alongside sabre-toothed cats. Not to mention that a rhino can weigh upwards of 5,100 pounds and grow 11 feet long. But it’s terrified of a Jeep Wrangler.

Deer are even worse. There are cases of deer getting trapped in wire fences only to die from fright when a farmer tries to free them.

Horses too. I’ve read about horses who died during noisy fireworks displays. The cause of death? A “twisted gut” from fear.

And rabbits. A rabbit can die from cardiac arrest in the presence of loud rock-and-roll music.

Sheep and goats sometimes have heart attacks when helicopters pass overhead.

City zoo employees discovered that loud concerts located too close to the animals can induce heart problems and kill them.

And here’s one more for you: each Fourth of July, U.S. cities have reported losing up to 20 percent of their bird population from stress caused by noisy firecrackers.

We humans aren’t all that different from other living things. Our fear instinct is crippling. Take our basic fear of captivity. Humans are so afraid of restraint that prisons sometimes report sudden cardiac deaths among new inmates. Actually, one of the leading causes of death among the incarcerated IS cardiovascular problems.

Simply put, fear kills.

The bad news is, you can’t just tell rabbits to quit being afraid. And you can’t tell rhinos to chill out. Neither can you undo what you’re feeling now.

So don’t listen to anyone who tells you to “just relax.” We mammals are surprisingly fragile, and we can only take so much.

But I want you to know something important before I go on. And it truly is important, so I hope you pay attention to what I’m about to say. In fact, take a deep breath and read this next sentence very s-l-o-w-l-y:

You are going to be okay.

I’m not just saying that. I actually know this. And here’s how I know: While I was writing this column, I took the liberty of calling some nursing homes around the U.S. at random.

I cold-called 18 facilities in total. From Seattle to Texas. My request was simple: I asked residents if they would offer a 12-year-old girl some soothing words of experience.

I’ll be honest with you, Amy, many of these people mistakenly believed I was a telemarketer, whereupon they insulted my basic personhood and hung up. But I was fortunate to speak with many wisened people on your behalf.

I hope their words make you feel better:

RACHEL (age 92): “Tell your friend not to panic. You know what my dad used to say when he was running crop-dusting planes? He told his new pilots: ‘If you let yourself panic, you’ve already crashed.’ Tell your friend that.”

MARIE (88): “Lord, I would kiss that baby’s face and eat her all up.”

JACK (84): “Used to, when I was afraid, my mama sang to us. Maybe singing will work.”

LORRAINE (89): “Your friend can call me any time, we’ll talk. Any time at all. Except Tuesdays.”

MICHAEL (79): “God does his best work when I get scared.”

JANICE (88): “If she were my granddaughter, I would tell her that I’m not gonna let anything happen to her. Kids need their grandmas to say that.”

SAUL (91): “During the war, my older brother Ernie was stationed in Italy, I was probably as scared as I ever been. Ernie, he’d send postcards tellin’ me that he wasn’t afraid over there, so I shouldn’t be either. Before I’d go to sleep every night, I always prayed for Ernie.”

LILY (90): “When I was little, times were bad, Mom skipped meals so just so we kids could eat lunch… She almost died from malnutrition one time. But she wouldn’t let us be afraid. And we never knew she was.”

MAX (84): “I wish I could take all children into my arms.”

JOHNNY (92): “I’ve been afraid a lot in my life. It’s horrible.”

SARAH (82): “You know how I make myself feel better when I’m feeling bad? My daddy taught me to do good for someone else. Because when I do good, I feel good. Try it.”

BILL (76): “Let me know what advice the other old guys have because, heck, I’m scared too.”

NORMA (87): “Please tell her I’m praying for her.”

MARTHA ANN (90): “You know what I’d tell that angel? I’d sing to her like I sang to my kids when they were feeling bad. I’d sing:

“He’s got the whole world in his hands,
“He’s got the whole world in his hands.
“He’s got the whole world in his hands…”

Well. You know the rest, Amy.


  1. Kathleen Jun Magyar - January 11, 2021 6:19 am

    You are a sweetheart.

  2. Janice Takashima - January 11, 2021 7:39 am

    Thank you, Sean.
    I am 76 and around Christmas I remember the angel telling the shepherds outside Bethlehem to “Fear not”.
    As an older person, I have had a lot of practice with that in my life.
    Another thing I remember God saying is “Be still and know that I am God.”
    My baby sister is getting ready to die soon and we talk on the phone every night. We talk about everything, especially about the people who scared us into doing things their way. Our biggest regrets were about letting them scare us that way when we were young and didn’t know any better.
    Now we are old and getting ready to actually die. It’s interesting that dying doesn’t scare us at all. We think more about taking care of other people and loving them so that they won’t be scared.
    Sometimes God has actually talked to me. Mostly when I am walking or driving. Once I was complaining that my kids didn’t call me very often. God said “Now you know how I feel.” That was funny and made me laugh and stop feeling sorry for myself. Other times, when I have been complaining to Him, He calls my attention to something else in the world that is beautiful or good. For the past 15 years I have practiced gratitude and find that the worst days make me notice the most to be grateful for.
    So my advise is to talk to God about being scared and listen to what he says. You might be surprised what he will say. You just need to be quiet and listen.
    Mrs. T.

  3. Keith - January 11, 2021 10:00 am

    Thank you, Mrs. T. Wonderful advice.

  4. Lucretia Jones - January 11, 2021 11:02 am

    Thank you, Sean, for working so hard and for staying in the war. Amy, you are in my thoughts and prayers.
    “Be strong and of a good courage; be not afraid, neither be thou dismayed: for the Lord thy God is with thee whithersoever thou goest. Joshua 1:9”

  5. Michael D. Milita - January 11, 2021 11:57 am

    Sean you are a good man. Lots of Love for your little friend Amy, fear cannot dominate when love rushes in. Lot of love to Amy.

  6. debbie glaser - January 11, 2021 12:18 pm

    I’m 64 years old and I am petrified! Thank you for this. And….He does have the whole world in His hands🙏🏻🙌🏻

  7. Glenda Williams - January 11, 2021 12:21 pm


  8. Susan Forte - January 11, 2021 12:30 pm

    Thank you, Sean and Mrs, T!

  9. oldlibrariansshelf - January 11, 2021 12:32 pm

    Thanks, Mrs. T. I needed your words of wisdom. I am number six of eight children so I will probably lose some of my siblings before I go. It is not fun, but it is bearable because of the grace of God and those that serve Him.

  10. chip - January 11, 2021 12:49 pm

    Amen Martha Ann, Amen!

  11. Cindy - January 11, 2021 1:03 pm

    Thank you Sean! He does have the whole world in His hands!

  12. Liz Watkins - January 11, 2021 1:15 pm

    Sweet Amy! Talk to God and have Faith. With God, all things are possible!
    Don’t tell GOD how BIG your PROBLEMS are,
    TELL your PROBLEMS how BIG your GOD is!

  13. Teresa Miller - January 11, 2021 1:23 pm

    As usual, beautiful…Thank you for bringing good refreshing water to our souls each morning. God bless you and keep you and continue to pour words of encouragement through you to us…and help us to overflow on to someone else.

  14. Jan - January 11, 2021 1:57 pm

    Thank you,thank you! We’re still facing unemployment from last March. We’ve made it this far by the grace of God. Every day we ask God to provide a job. I know that He’s just getting the right one ready. But it’s scary when I look in the checkbook. We could use prayer, too.

  15. Liz Watkins - January 11, 2021 2:00 pm

    Prayers with God’s Blessings to you and your family

  16. Deb Becker - January 11, 2021 2:13 pm

    Numerous verses in the Bible tell us “do not fear, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go” and he will never leave you. Focus on his blessings, be thankful in all circumstances- that doesn’t mean thanking him for bad things that happen but for all of his blessings and that he will make something good out of the bad things that happen. Trust him and do not fear.

  17. Vanessa - January 11, 2021 2:27 pm

    Again, thank you Sean! You help me start each day out right!
    My 94 year-old mother was released from the hospital last week after 8 days in the hospital with COVID. She’s weak, but so happy to be home. A friend of mine said, “People need to hear this story, instead all of the bad ones.”
    So, there you go — a good story! Happy New Year!

  18. nebraskannie - January 11, 2021 2:45 pm

    I took heartburn medicine and went back to bed! But I refuse to let fear win. Sometimes I take a break from all the media bleating at me just to remember that when I’m gone, this world will still be going round and round. Mrs. T and Sean are very good advice givers!

  19. Jen from Bham - January 11, 2021 3:02 pm

    You have such a calming way with words, Sean. You’re beautiful soul with a talent like no other in this world. Keep on writing because we all love you and your kind words.

  20. Patricia Gibson - January 11, 2021 3:07 pm

    Good one!

  21. JACKIE LEON DARNELL - January 11, 2021 3:30 pm

    Good stuff, but what I cannot believe is you asked some folk 82 years old what do do. WE ain’t old enough to know yet. Those OLD folk 90+ did good though.
    Anyway I always enjoy your writing, you are pretty danged good.
    Jack the kid.

  22. Linda B. - January 11, 2021 5:02 pm

    Thank you so much for another wonderful column.❤

  23. Linda Moon - January 11, 2021 6:23 pm

    I would love to have been at FDR’s inauguration to hear his words about fear, but I had not yet been born. Thankfully, I’m here now to read SPD’s words. Current events will eventually become history. A wise man often told me during difficult times, “This too shall pass”, and it did. The rhino should be terrified of My Guy as he passes by in his Jeep Wrangler (aka “The Geep”). I avoid that fear by driving my own CRV instead of joining him in The Geep. It’s good to know the world is in His hands and not in the hands of the Worldwide Web as it sometimes seems to be. The words from the older and wiser folks made me feel better. And the Web-Writer’s words do, too. Always.

  24. terry l barnett - January 11, 2021 7:06 pm

    I liked your piece on fear, and your efforts to help the little girl deal with it. When I was on the USS Constellation aircraft carrier, I was almost blown overboard by an F8 fighter . I was saved by grabbing a pad eye on the deck, so I know about fear. If you let fear overcome you, you don’t grab the pad eye and it is eighty feet to the water. So here is a good example of animal fear for you. I have a hot air balloon license and when we would fly in the San Joaquin Valley, we would receive instructions from the event coordinator not to fly too low over turkey farms, because when we applied burner the turkeys would run to the end of the turkey house and most of them would be smothered to death. An appropriate amount of fear can keep you alive, but too much of it can be a very bad thing.

  25. Christina - January 11, 2021 8:26 pm

    Yes fear is real but so is love and the expansive arms of God that hold us. Thanks Sean for taking the time to collect wise words and kindness from our elderly friends. God bless these beautiful souls.

  26. Jane - January 11, 2021 8:39 pm

    Best Advice Ever.

  27. Tammy S. - January 11, 2021 9:39 pm

    Ditto to what Lucretia Jones said. Powerful words and Bible verse.

    My husband is a pastor and he says, in his research, that supposedly there are 365 “Fear Not/Do Not be afraid” verses in the Bible. One for every day of the year. How cool!!

    Thanks for this post, Sean. As always, you encourage us all!!

  28. Bill - January 12, 2021 1:07 am

    “God does his best work when I get scared.

    Sean, you said it best

    “He’s got the whole world in his hands.”

  29. elizabethroosje - January 12, 2021 3:56 am

    Awww Sean loved this. God bless you Amy. An older women who goes to church a lot used to talk with me regularly (I was going through a whole lot then!) and she constantly was telling me : be with God today. Years later, I am still learning what that means but understand a bit more about if I am present to the moment at hand and seek to be aware of God (and talk with Him etc), then I can make it through a bit more peacefully. This said from someone who has struggled a LOT with worry. 🙂 … Also Sean, just listened to the Shawn S podcast with you as the one being interviewed (enjoyed that, btw you sound to me like a younger Fr Stephen Freeman, an Orthodox priest in TN who is from the South) well… I listened to the whole podcast, really nice … when you said you would feel you have lived well if someone was touched by your words and found hope in it. Well Sean I think a lot of us, me included, look forward to your words daily and ARE being blessed/touched/encouraged by them. Keep writing and blessing us please! 🙂

  30. Cheryl - January 12, 2021 6:55 am

    Sean, you are a Godsend. Always have been and always will be. I love you, man.

  31. Dawn B - January 12, 2021 8:28 am

    Thank you for asking some of our elders, who have lived many more years and experienced more. So, much sage advice gleaned from them!

  32. Todd H - January 13, 2021 4:40 pm

    That was beautifully done!!! Well done Sean. Fear and doubt are satan’s best used tools as well.


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