Truth without fear

As a title for these remarks, I’d like to take the school motto, “Truth without fear.” When I was a student at St. Tim’s, I probably heard many chapel talks about the meaning of those words, and about who chose the motto and why, but I don’t remember. It’s been 45 years since I graduated, and a good many things have faded from memory. Still, I think those three words are a good beacon to guide us as we make decisions and as we go through each day: truth without fear.

What would it be like to face the truth without fear – the truth of what’s going on inside us, the truth of what’s going on in the world around us? As an Episcopal priest, I hear a biblical resonance in that question, for, according to John’s Gospel, the Spirit that Jesus sends will lead us into all truth (John 16:13). Truth is what we’re after, and a capacity to live into the truth without fear. “Fear not,” say God’s messengers, and Jesus himself, countless times. “Do not be afraid.” “Have no fear.” “Speak the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15), says one biblical writer. Says another, “Perfect love casts out fear” (1 John 4:18).

Over the years I’ve thought a lot about fear and about what it takes to face the truth. In 1962, when I was ten and about to enter sixth grade, my father, who was an English professor at Harvard, took a sabbatical in England. I was sent off to boarding school in Switzerland, where I felt desperately homesick and alone. A few weeks after I arrived at the school, the Cuban missile crisis broke out, and I was terrified. For days the world held its breath as we teetered on the brink of war. Were the world’s great powers, the United States and the Soviet Union, going to blow each other up? Panic-stricken, I decided to face my fear by learning everything I could about the Soviet Union, this mysterious enemy that made everyone so afraid. After I came home I began reading books about communism and I vowed to learn Russian at the earliest opportunity. Sure enough, when I came to St. Tim’s in 1966 I signed up for Russian classes and, among other things, I spent three years happily immersed in studying that wonderful mouthful of a language.

I was willing to explore one kind of truth – the truth of the world outside – but I wasn’t yet willing or able to explore the truth of what was going inside me or inside my family. I couldn’t see and couldn’t face my father’s alcoholism. I couldn’t see and couldn’t face my mother’s depression. I didn’t yet have the skills or the support to face the truth of my anger and loneliness and sorrow. I was afraid to face what was in me, and at St. Tim’s I began to eat compulsively and in secret. I raided the candy machines, gorged on cookies, and went on endless diets. Outwardly I was one of the star achievers (at least academically – I was never any good in sports!), and I kept on smiling, kept on studying, kept on making the honor roll. But inwardly I was full of self-doubt, shame, and fear. I lived a double life and hid what I was doing from other people.

Like every child who grows up in an alcoholic or dysfunctional home, I’d learned the basic household rules of “Don’t talk, don’t trust, don’t feel” – rules that prevent us from disclosing what’s going on, of trusting anyone with the truth, or of admitting what we feel. In some ways I lived, as every addict does, in a world of secrets and lies. To the outside world I pretended that everything was fine (“I’m happy! We are all happy in this family!”), even though my parents separated during my first year at St. Tim’s and divorced soon thereafter. Truth without fear? I was just beginning that journey and had a long way to go.

I went to college in California – getting as far from home as I could – and I majored in Russian language and literature. I wanted to make a difference; I suppose I wanted in some way to save the world. So, after college, I considered going to law school. To test that out I spent a year in Philadelphia working as a VISTA volunteer at a law firm that served the poor. But I quickly realized that my mind is too intuitive and imaginative to thrive on legal analysis, and I decided that I wanted instead to be a college teacher and to focus on how literature can contribute to creating a more just and peaceful society. I returned to Harvard and enrolled in a Ph.D. program in comparative literature.

I’m not going to walk you through the details of the story, which I tell in my memoir, Holy Hunger. Suffice it to say that during my years at Harvard, I reached a crisis point in my eating disorder in which I had to tell the truth or die. I alternated fasting and bingeing, running for endless miles and then eating everything in sight – at one point I gained 11 pounds in four days. Shame and fear were driving my life, and the food addiction had me in its grip. The split between my outwardly successful, accomplished and competent self and my secretly shame-filled and fear-filled self had become too great to endure. At the age of 30, I finally became willing to face myself, and what was going on in me. I entered a 12-Step program based on Alcoholics Anonymous, renewed my work in psychotherapy, and, for the first time in years, began to pray and returned to church. Truth without fear – that’s how I wanted to learn to live, that’s what I wanted to embody. As best I could, I wanted to live into the truth in a spirit of love, not fear.

Looking back more than 30 years later, I can see that getting into recovery was the great turning point of my life, the pivot that made possible everything that followed. Once I began telling the truth about my eating disorder and began to make peace with my body, I started to feel alive in a way that I’d never experienced before. I remember, soon after my recovery began, riding in the back of a pickup truck across a Minnesota field. It was a glorious, sunny afternoon in July, and I was entranced by the smell of the grasses. I threw back my head and inhaled. Just to breathe was erotic! What a joy it was to be alive, to live in a body, to be part of this living, buzzing, blooming earth! Right then I knew that I was part of a sacred mystery that infuses all things and that transcends them, too. Somehow that loving, nameless, sacred mystery was giving itself to me in the grasses, in the wind, in the light, and I was giving myself back to it, saying “I love you, too.”

Who was this sacred power of truth that had saved my life? As soon as I finished my Ph.D., I went straight to seminary. After being released from my eating disorder I had fallen in love with life, fallen in love with God, fallen in love with this beautiful world that God made. I married a wonderful man and we started a family. Ordained in 1988, I launched into my vocation: I wanted to help other people to experience for themselves the liberating love of God that leads us into all truth. So over the years I served as a parish priest, became a spiritual director, and led retreats; I taught seminary courses on prayer and for a while was chaplain to the bishops of the Episcopal Church.

But a new call was emerging alongside everything else I was doing. It didn’t come abruptly, like the Cuban missile crisis, but gradually, in articles I spotted here and there in the New York Times that mentioned something called “global warming.” When I began ordained ministry in the late 1980’s, climate scientists were just beginning to voice concern that burning fossil fuels such as coal, gas, and oil was heating up the global atmosphere and disrupting its delicate balance of gases. For some reason I took the news of climate change very personally. It was not an abstract or distant issue for someone else to deal with, but something that affected me viscerally and close to home.

I absorbed the increasingly alarming reports of glaciers receding, tundra thawing, and icecaps melting; of sea levels rising and of oceans heating and growing more acidic; of severe droughts and fires erupting in some parts of the world, and torrential deluges and floods in others. It turns out that in just 200 years, hardly a blink in geologic time, human beings have pumped so much heat-trapping carbon dioxide (CO2) into the air that atmospheric levels of CO2 are higher today than they’ve been for many millions of years. A climate scientist recently remarked at a conference I attended, “We are breathing from an atmosphere that none of our ancestors would recognize.” To put it in the words of environmentalist Bill McKibben: “We’ve changed the planet, changed it in large and fundamental ways… Our old familiar globe is suddenly melting, drying, acidifying, flooding, and burning in ways that no human has ever seen.”

So as the years went by, climate activism became an increasingly important part of my ministry. It seemed to me that the same Spirit of love and truth that had helped me heal my relationship with my body was now sending me out on a quest to help human beings to heal our collective relationship with the body of the earth. Twenty-five years after my ordination, I finally left parish ministry completely and I’ve just started a new job in the Episcopal Diocese of Western Massachusetts as its first Missioner for Creation Care. My new Website is called Reviving Creation.

What I’ve discovered is that when you step out to bear witness as best you can to the deepest truth you know, you get through your fears, whatever they are. Speaking for myself, you get through your fear of rocking the boat and of making people angry or uncomfortable. You get through your fear of picking up a bullhorn and speaking to a crowd. You get through your fear of conflict, your fear of addressing a hostile audience, and your fear of not mastering every last fact. You get through your fear of being dismissed as radical, sentimental, or naïve. You get through your fear of being arrested and hauled off to jail.

Of course when you do these things you may still be afraid – in fact, you may be shaking in your boots. But you get through those fears because life is too important –- your children and their children are too important – the truth is too important – for you to be stopped by your fears. You realize that Love sent you into this world for a purpose, and that when it comes to protecting life as it has evolved on this planet, we need all hands on deck. We want to leave a habitable world for our children and our children’s children. We want life in all its beauty and diversity to continue to thrive. We don’t want to propel the world’s sixth major extinction event and to allow half the world’s species to vanish before the century is out. We don’t want to create the conditions that lead to famine, pestilence, and war. We refuse to allow business as usual to continue, if business as usual means unraveling the planet’s web of life.

That is where truth without fear is leading me. I hope that many of you will join me over the weekend of September 20 and 21, when the largest rally in the history of the climate movement will be held in New York.

I take to heart the words of Helen Keller, who said, “I am only one, but still I am one. I cannot do everything, but still I can do something. And because I cannot do everything, I will not refuse to do something I can do.”

The last word goes to poet Michael Leunig, who writes:

There are only two feelings. Love and fear.
There are only two languages. Love and fear.
There are only two activities. Love and fear.
There are only two motives, two procedures,
two frameworks, two results. Love and fear.
Love and fear.

— Presented at “St. Timothy’s Talks: Spotlighting Six Graduates Who Have Devoted Their Lives to Cultivating Meaningful and Sustainable Change,” June 7, 2014, St. Timothy’s School, Stevenson, MD

© 2014 Margaret Bullitt-Jonas

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