PAULA MEHMEL: Shoot the Rapids — Shedding Fear, Despair And Outrage

My senior year of seminary I gave up cynicism for Lent.

My life, at that point, was literally out of my control. Approved for ordination, my placement was in the hands of the Conference of Bishops, which held a draft of all the eligible candidates to decide where we would end up going, geographically.

It would have been easy to become completely cynical at that point in my life. So, I made a deliberate choice to avoid it. I told everyone I knew I was giving up cynicism for Lent and asked them to hold me accountable.

And they did.

I needed to remain positive and was basically forced to trust the Holy Spirit or else friends and classmates would be in my face. And it worked. Both in terms of where I ended up and in the attitude I took in heading back home to southwest Minnesota. I became a far less cynical person and learned to trust the guiding hand of God along the way.

So this year, I am trying to give up despair and outrage for Lent.

Lately it seems like there has been a lot of fear. Some of it is legitimate. For example, I can’t imagine what young Dreamers, who trusted the system when they registered for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) and are now living in the reality that their trust might be betrayed, are going through.

Some of it is the result of fabrications, prejudice and misdirection, like the fear of refugees committing terrorist acts in the U.S. (Fact: Refugees have committed zero acts of terrorism in the U.S. since the Refugee Act of 1980.)

And so often my response to that fear, whether the legitimate fears of those in the shadows or the fact that people believe the fabrications, is with pure and unbridled outrage and anger, or else despair, which is fear without hope.  And I am beginning to wonder how helpful either of those responses are.

The thing is, I know that there is so much that I cannot do to change things, simply because there are systems at work that are bigger than me. Elections have consequences, and some of what has been done cannot be undone. At least right now. So often as not, I find myself ranting, raving and tilting at windmills.

Oh, make no mistake, I believe in advocacy with all of my heart. I will call, I will speak up, and I will educate. I believe in the power of those actions and the importance of an engaged citizenry.

But I also know that unless I commit to concrete pro-active actions that make a difference, I will become filled with fear, overwhelmed by despair and driven by misdirected outrage — creating more walls instead of bridges at a time when we need to build more connections with others rather than sever the ones we have.

So what to do? One of my favorite Bible passages is, “There is no fear in love. Perfect love casts out all fear.” (1 John 4:18-19). I know my love is hardly perfect, but I also know that when I love, I am able to cast away the negativity that prevents me from being an instrument of peace.

So my commitment — to myself, my sanity and my desire to be a conduit for the kind of world I want to see — is to deliberately look for a places where I see fear and respond with love. To cast aside despair and outrage and embrace the power of goodness at work in the world.

Not random acts of kindness — but directed acts of love.

Perhaps it will be a conversation with someone expressing views I know to be inaccurate with grace and encouragement rather than judgment, tempering my reaction in order to promote dialogue as opposed to fueling my argument with righteous indignation.

Perhaps it will be to reach out in kindness to an individual who is on the margins or in the shadows, looking for ways to walk in solidarity with those who must feel profoundly alone.

This requires being more deliberate, slowing down and looking around — but it is more meaningful to stop by the International Market and support a business by a recent immigrant than to buy a random cup of coffee for a person behind me in the line at Caribou.

Perhaps it will mean quieting a voice of rage with a vision of peace. And maybe that voice will be my own.

I just know that I need to do this — for my own sake — because I can’t survive when I am consumed with outrage and despair. It tears down my soul and weakens my spirit. It forces me to be less than what I know I am called to be.

Instead, I need to be an agent of love. I want to reflect the only thing that can cast out fear in an often very scary world and find the bravery to stay focused and stay positive rather than weighed down and defeated.

My hope is that just as those 40 days of Lent so many years ago altered my world view and allowed me to be less cynical, that these 40 days of redirection will do the same with my feelings of despair and outrage.

I am not going to turn off my Facebook feed or ignore the news of the world. To do so is to assume a place of privilege since my well-being is not being immediately compromised, as is the case for those who lurk in the shadows, live on the edge of poverty or suffer the pain of an abusive system.

But I am not going to let what is transpiring in the world take my Spirit and my joy away from me or keep me from working tirelessly as a force for good. Because that would be a cynical response. And I gave that up years ago.


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