Fear of life

June 11, 2009 | 37 comments

I keep thinking about Mei Fong’s heartbreaking article in the Wall Street Journal from a few weeks ago about Chinese parents who lost children in the Sichuan earthquake. One part in particular has stuck in my mind, filling me with sadness whenever I think about it:

[Zhu Jianming] and his wife Lu Shuhua, 45, had battled hardships: their first child, a son, was mentally disabled, so they were legally allowed to have a second child. Their son, Yinshui, drowned at 20. Daughter Xinyue, 14, perished in the quake…The Zhus said neighbors were avoiding them; Mrs. Zhu thought it was because of fears the now-childless couple would increasingly depend on others.

Hearing about their neighbors’ reaction reminded me of something I’ve noticed over the past couple of years:

One of the most obvious differences I’ve seen since I’ve gone from running in mostly nonreligious to mostly religious social circles is how much more life you see among religious groups of people. When I think back on the almost thirty years I spent in secular social networks, I’m struck by how comparatively quiet and sterile everything seemed. In religious circles I see so much more marriage, more adoption, more biological children, more people letting friends or relatives live with them — more crazy, messy, loud life.

In particular, the most striking difference I’ve seen in this area is when it comes to helping people in need. I’ve seen a sincere desire to help others in both my old and new social networks, but it plays out in very different ways. In the secular crowd people might volunteer at soup kitchens or organize aid programs for the needy, the most dedicated might even join the Peace Corps. The Christians, I noticed, volunteered and did aid programs and went on international missions as well, but they crossed a line that I almost never saw crossed in the secular world: they were willing to help others by letting them become intimately involved in their own lives.

The first time I noticed this was when my husband and I observed that since our conversion we knew of so many people who were considering adoption not only as a way to bless their own lives with a child, but as a way to help a child in need. Adoption of older children, adopting children when there were already multiple biological children in the family, adoption of children with special needs were all virtually unheard-of in my old secular circles, but not uncommon at all in my new religious circles.

For many months I was puzzled by this distinction. The people I knew in both social circles were “good people, ” but there was a level of serving others that I almost never saw among nonbelievers that I regularly saw among believers. Then, one day when I was thinking about that Wall Street Journal article, remembering what it was like to be a nonbeliever myself, I realized what it was:

Fear of life.

When I was an atheist and hung out with mostly atheists and agnostics, the way we helped people was through controlled circumstances, systems that ensured that there was a clear line separating their lives from our own. We wanted — in fact, needed — our interactions with others to be safe and finite, with clear parameters on what we were expected to give.

This mentality makes perfect sense: after all, our biggest problems in life often come from other people. The more you allow someone else into your life, the more there’s the potential for them to screw it up. What if you adopt a child and they end up behaving badly and costing you tons of mental and financial distress? What if you mentor a troubled child and he ends up being a bad influence on your children? To use the example from that article, what if you’re very poor yourself and you offer to help a couple who has just become childless but they end up latching onto you and taking too many of your resources?

It’s too risky. The safest, most reasonable thing to do is to allow just enough people into your life so that you’re not lonely, and to carefully guard the intermingling of any other lives with your own after that point.

Based on the way I have changed since my conversion, and observations after living in both heavily atheistic and heavily religious circles, I’ve come to believe that to live any other way is virtually impossible without God. To use a very small-scale example from my own life, when I first met the neighbor girls, even after I got over the anger about them ringing my doorbell, I was hesitant to let them into my life. I would peer out the window, see them meandering down the street with no place to go, and tell myself that I’d love to help but I just can’t. I know they need love, but there’s only so much love I have to give. Besides, what if they end up at my house all the time and I can’t get them to leave? Too risky.

And I was right. I saw what everyone sees when they consider welcoming new life into their homes: on my own, there is only so much love I can give; there is so very little that I can offer to other people, and there are so many things that could go wrong.

But when you turn to God, you find that you have access to the very Source of infinite love, that, through him, you have more love to give than you could have ever imagined. And, as many believers can attest, you find that God blesses few things as much as he blesses the addition of new life to your own.

I believe that this is one of the reasons, as Jason Berger pointed out the other day, that willingness to accept all different sorts of life was one of the main things that made the early Christians stand out from their pagan neighbors. The fact is that, by default, we fear new life, especially “imperfect” life, and we fear it for good reason. On our own it’s just too difficult to let other people wander into our lives under anything but the most tightly controlled circumstances.

From my own experience, I believe that some of the most compelling evidence of God’s work in the world today is that, with few exceptions, it is only people who have faith in God who have overcome fear of life.


  1. Anonymous

    As is so often the case, your well-wrought observations are both keen and kind. Just what I needed to hear right now. Thanks!

    Karen Elizabeth

  2. maggie

    Jen, this is awesome. AWESOME.

  3. Monnie

    Wow! This is awesome!

    You have such a way with words. Thanks for the food for thought. They build on other thoughts you've already started in my mind.

    God bless.

  4. SuburbanCorrespondent

    Have you seen the discussion going on at the Motherlode blog (NYT)? Heartbreaking letter…

  5. Anne Marie

    You make a really interesting point. I suspect the IFV industry is so strong because of the desire to have some perceived control over who enters our lives vs. going for broke, say with the adoption of an older child, and leaving the outcome in God’s hands.

  6. Agnes Regina

    Beautifully written, Jen. Another excellent article on "what's wrong with the world."

  7. Jolyn

    This is so completely and utterly powerful and articulate. I so agree with the basis, and will only counter that even Christians, honest-to-goodness Christians, can possess a fear of life. A fear of "contamination", a fear of losing control. Believing in Jesus and trusting in Jesus…the latter is often lacking, and needs to be sought on a day-to-day basis.

    Everything we are given in life — gifts, trials, tribulations — can be used to lead us to lean on our Savior. Only by looking toward the One who gave us life, can we truly embrace life, as fearlessly as possible so long as we're on this earth.

    Thank you so much for this post. You clarified something I've never been able to put my finger on.

  8. Roxane B. Salonen

    Jennifer, as usual, you have brought insight into the "before and after" discussion that we Cradle Catholics and "since birth" Christians simply cannot offer. You are a reliable source because you have lived both lives, and are thoughtful in your comparisons. You also approach your arguments and observations in, what I think anyway, is a very nonjudgmental way. You are taking notes and explaining reasons why each case is as it is. And your insights are profound to those of us who do not have those fresh eyes of new faith. It is so easy to see why your influence goes beyond Catholic circles. God is using you to bring His truth and love to light, and you are taking Him up on it, and we are all the better for it.

  9. Harold Seger

    Good early morning,
    'It's 5AM do you know where you children are?' ( the modern version of an old TV commercial!)

    Your gift of Faith has blossomed.
    Your other gift, Understanding, is also very evident. The cornucopia of His blessings are flowing…
    Thank you for putting into words what my heart never could so profoundly express.
    "Fear of Life" can explain much of todays social ills.
    May His blessing continue…

  10. Shylock

    This is a very thought-provoking post. But I would add a point on intimacy.

    I would say that the level of intimacy in secular circles is diminished. I find engagement in discussions on similar issues as believers are distinctly detached from one's personal experience and their overall significance and meaning. But I don't think that stops the amount of interaction among and between nonbelievers and believers. In fact, I find many nonbelievers have trouble being alone at all! They tend to have the largest circles of friends and are constantly engaged in something. In fact, their lives appear very full, loud, etc… but hearts can be harder to read.

    It's almost as though their sense of security and value comes only from their works, whereas believers can enjoy the value of their work for its own sake, the act being a rewarding consequence of faith.

    I say this as a trying-to-believe Catholic who mingles with a secular, do-gooding crowd on a regular basis as part of my work. I learn from both crowds, definitely. But I think I am happier and more at peace in those times when works come as a result of faith.

  11. Alexis

    What a wonderful post, on so many levels! It's such an interesting observation objectively but it is also quite poignant for my own personal life right now. Thank you!

  12. Anne

    Beautiful! I love this part: "they were willing to help others by letting them become intimately involved in their own lives".

    Just this morning I read a chapter in a book (Jim Wallis, The Great Awakening)that said the only way to really alleviate poverty is to develop an intimate relationship with the poor, which awakens compassion, which awakens a sense of social justice and a realization that we are all intimately related.

    Thanks for posting on this and making it more real for me. I tend to be in the "help from a distance" crowd, which is something I'd like to change in my own life. Thanks for the inspiration.

  13. brian

    Wow! I have noticed this in my own life too. Christians take risks on other people, even when all common sense says not to.

  14. Pam Elmore

    This post gives me much to think about. Thank you for your thoughtful words.

  15. Katie

    Great observation!

  16. Sandy

    Wonderful post. The true community aspect of Christianity is the thing that drew me back from the secular world when my first child was born. I couldn't imagine raising a family without the support network that Christian community provides. How sad that the Chinese system of limiting families to one child has left these parents with no one. Your post about fear of life reminded me so much of "Brave New World" where Huxley described a world where everything (birth, death, and life in between) was perfectly controlled. Shudder.

  17. Ginkgo100

    "Fear of Life" is one way to put it, and it makes a great post title. I might prefer to call it "Lack of Trust" because the reason for the fear, as you pointed out, is that people without a relationship with God do not trust that any higher power is watching out for them. Or the corollary is that believers trust that God will provide for them.

    What if you adopt a child and they end up behaving badly and costing you tons of mental and financial distress?

    Funny you said that because we are in that situation! We did not adopt our older child because of a selfless desire to help a kid in distress, but for the more selfish reason that we wanted kids even though we had not been able to conceive naturally. We knew that there are no guarantees with an adopted child (but the same is true with biological children). We knew there would be financial and emotional challenges. We also knew that God would not make it possible if it were not his plan (really, there were many ways it could have gone wrong), and that our desire was ordered to the good—that is, it's good for a married couple to have a family. We chose to trust God, that he would give us what all three of us needed.

    I firmly believe that God planned from the beginning for this boy to join our family. I believe He made us infertile just so the adoption of "M" would take place—because after the adoption the infertility mysteriously got better, and we now have a biological child as well. We did nothing to make this happen—no medical treatments, no charting (actually, we tried charting BEFORE the adoption to no avail), and we didn't just "relax" (I conceived "R" at a very stressful time in our lives). I think it was all God's plan, and since we did not try to play God ourselves by using birth control or IVF (two sides of the same coin), His plan was not interrupted. In other words, I guess we said "yes" to his plan, even not knowing what it was, by choosing to trust him.

    "M" is almost 5 now and is somewhere between what you would call "normal" and what you would call "special needs." I'll be honest: his needs have had a serious emotional, and to a lesser extent financial, toll on us. But we got the internal fortitude and external resources we needed to handle it, and our family was drawn closer to God. And of course we have the two amazing gifts of "M" and "R" themselves! The Lord never promises things will be easy if we trust him—but that we will get everything we need to handle it, and more.

    I teach Confirmation catechism to high schoolers, and the excellent Bible study we use, "T3 Teen Timeline" by Mark Hart, keeps pointing out the central question God asks us and has always asked us, from the first stories in the Old Testament until this present day:

    "Do you trust Me?"

    Anne Marie, re: the IVF industry, I touched on that in a recent blog post, where I wrote: "I think the reason IVF is so popular … is because it is a 'magic pill' approach." It's at Natural fertility treatment v. the IVF band-aid.

  18. Anonymous

    Excellent post. One I will reread several times.

  19. autumnesf

    Very wonderful and insightful post. I've noticed this also. The more I believe (I am also a recovering atheist) the messier my life is. And the messier my life is the more I believe. I want to get loud and messy and help/get involved with those that want/need help.

    Jesus said LOVE. You can't expect to hold all your boundaries in place when you open your heart and LOVE.

  20. Ginkgo100

    I was thinking, to be fair, I also want to add that when we first moved to our current city, the people who helped us most—lending us a cooler and air mattresses that first night, inviting us over because they knew we might be feeling lonely, volunteering to babysit so we could have a date night—was a college friend and her husband. Their faith status? He's a thoroughly lapsed Catholic, and she's a practicing Hindu. He's pretty much secular, and she's not Christian, though certainly religious. So these observations might be generalities, but certainly are not absolutes!

  21. Anonymous

    Many things to think about. I like this column.

  22. Elizabeth

    Amazing insights, as usual.
    Thank you for using all of the experiences that God has given you to enlighten the rest of us!
    Pax Christi.

  23. Lesley-Anne Evans

    As always, Jen, you and the H.S. convict my heart when I read your words. I 'say' I love, but do my actions reflect this love fully or with reservations… or even fears? I gravitate naturally towards neat and tidy and controlled… while God pulls me toward messy stuff quite often. Gosh, it's quite a battle most days to deal with real people instead of (and I mean no disrespect here) the virtual friends in my life… the audience for my blog, or my forum buddies… getting up from my computer and walking across the street to my widow neighbours house is VERY uncomfortable to contemplate (more to this story than meets the eye too).

    But, as you authentically model to us, and speak to us, this is NOT OK. God calls me to more…

    We just looked at this in our 'home group' study last Sunday night…
    "If you've gotten anything at all out of following Christ, if his love has made any difference in your life, if being in a community of the Spirit means anything to you, if you have a heart, if you care— then do me a favor: Agree with each other, love each other, be deep-spirited friends. Don't push your way to the front; don't sweet-talk your way to the top. Put yourself aside, and help others get ahead. Don't be obsessed with getting your own advantage. Forget yourselves long enough to lend a helping hand."

    Deep spirited friends… what might that look like in my life???

    OK, sorry to go on about this… thanks for your wise words… as always.

    Peace, out!


  24. Sara

    There's a difference between giving money, time, etc and giving yourself. This is what Christ did – He gave His very self for us. Now He lives in us and we perpetuate His gift of life by giving ourselves for other people. God is Good!

  25. Diane

    I often wonder how people can make it without God. Great blog!

  26. Anonymous

    I think in my case, it's simply a fear of people. Social anxiety that borders on agoraphobia sometimes and an extreme introversion in the meantime. It's no wonder I stay away from people. Even though I'm doing much better these days, people still suck all the life right out of me when I make the effort to go out.

    However, if I could let every neighborhood cat into my house, I totally would. And I'd take in the ones with medical issues. Animals need love and care, too.

    Aside from my personal issues and moving into the big picture, the religious community has been building social aid networks for decades to centuries. Atheists and humanists are only just beginning to find their community and social aid footing, but it's going to take a while. Especially since the godless are considered with a certain amount of suspicion as to their intentinos. We're working on it.

  27. Anonymous

    I very much enjoy your blog though I am of another faith; you are a beautiful writer and your observations are so often thought-provoking.
    But perhaps not all Christians share your optimism? Perhaps for some, Christianity can function as a way to escape unwanted family obligations? The most devout Christians I know, born-again Evangelicals who are my in-laws by marriage, seem like the most fearful of contamination of anyone in my life. I am genuinely interested in their hopes and dreams, but all contact with them comes from us. I imagine that they are very generous within the spiritual circles they have chosen. But my husband and I wonder if it is too challenging for them to reach out to us (or be welcoming to their non-Evangelical parents) because they believe we are damned? Or that we would somehow spiritually harm their kids?

  28. Jennifer @ Conversion Diary

    Ginkgo –

    "I was thinking, to be fair, I also want to add that when we first moved to our current city, the people who helped us most—lending us a cooler and air mattresses that first night, inviting us over because they knew we might be feeling lonely, volunteering to babysit so we could have a date night—was a college friend and her husband. Their faith status? He's a thoroughly lapsed Catholic, and she's a practicing Hindu. He's pretty much secular, and she's not Christian."

    Sorry if I wasn't clear. I would never suggest that nonbelievers aren't helpful and friendly. What I was referring to here was that there is a whole lot less getting involved in people's lives in messy, inextricable ways such as adoption, letting people live with you for the long term, etc. I was tired when I wrote the post so that might not have been clear. 🙂

    Anon –

    "The most devout Christians I know, born-again Evangelicals who are my in-laws by marriage, seem like the most fearful of contamination of anyone in my life."

    I've seen this sort of thing as well. I have no idea what's going on with your in-laws (maybe they're just shy?), but one thing I will note is that the differences I've observed are among people who have a deep, sincere relationship with God. Unfortunately, that is not the case with everyone who labels themselves as religious.

  29. Anonymous

    After wandering through secularism for most of my young adult life, I am only recently coming to a place of trust in God. Even though I was a regular church-goer as a youngster and teenager, I don't think the concept of trust in God's plan for MY life ever really sunk in with me. It's a shame, because I'm constantly wondering if I've missed out on some wonderful things that God may have had in store for me because I was so long in coming to this realization. However, God always welcomes the prodigal child with open arms, and I am trusting in His plans for my future.

    As always, I love reading your thoughts!

    Jen G

  30. Lerin

    What an amazing post.

  31. Ginkgo100


    That thought about "being fair" to non-Christians was more of a random ADD thought than anything else. =) It certainly was not meant as a criticism!

  32. Hicham

    Jennifer, I agree with your insightful post and the ending of it.

    I respect everybody's choice to be whatever he/she want to believe in, however it seems that since religous people do believe in something so therefore they can cross that line bravely than others.

  33. Baba Yaga

    Having been allowed into a (Christian) life in a messy inextricable way, and found that the ultimate extrication was not only messy but corrosive to all concerned, I'd urge that people at least consider the "what if it goes wrong" before the commitment is made. I remain very grateful for the kindness and love, and have tried to learn from it… but /cautious/ kindness and love would have served all concerned much better.

    There is, I think, a balance between fear and rashness.

  34. Anonymous

    I think this is the most beautiful article I've ever read. Thank you for sharing it. I am loving your blog.

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  36. Calah

    Oh, Jen, this is beautiful. As usual, so insightful. But the last paragraph broke my heart. So many people I know claim to have faith in God, and yet the idea of an unplanned child, of no birth control, of taking in an aging relative instead of sending them to the nursing home, is horrifying. Literally horrific. It breaks my heart every time I see it. It’s such a lack of faith in God.

    Also, hats off for a brilliant post in the post-partum period. You continue to astound. Best wishes to you, little Pamela, your husband and other children! I hope y’all are adjusting well.

  37. Gilbert Adams

    Not to dispute what you say, but I wonder if some of the change in you, perhaps even the decision to convert, is due to being “older and wiser”. The friends in your circle today probably also have more life experience than those in your earlier circle.


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