From Dr. King’s Sermon “The Mastery of Fear,” What Can We Learn Today?

Original Photo by William Lovelace/Express/Getty Images with Illustration by Jennifer Miller

As we move into this new year with hope and optimism for the opportunities of connection and well-being it may bring, it’s impossible not to notice that fear and anxiety seem to dominate the cold, barren landscape of January. As I tend to do each year at this time, I turn to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. for wisdom and he never disappoints. What might he say to us now as we watch vast numbers of students, teachers and parents out sick with COVID or worse, hospitilized, even dying? What would he say to the droves of teachers leaving the profession or striking with their unions because they are not feeling safe? Would he have words of wisdom for the parents who are yet again attempting to make new decisions daily that adapt to the rapidly changing village that continues to rest on shaky ground? And these questions really are the tip of the iceberg. Dr. King surely would be quick to point out that well-being is disproportionately supported whether you examine the inequitable distribution of and access to vaccinations around the world or you look specifically at the health care quality and availability and the educational opportunities and access for a range of marginalized peoples in the U.S.

I was amazed to discover handwritten notes archived in Stanford University’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute. On July 21, 1957, Dr. King had written an outline for a sermon entitled “The Mastery of Fear.” I’m placing his notes below with my own interpretation of how they might apply to our current context while also viewing it through the lens of children’s and adult’s social and emotional development.

From Dr. King’s “The Mastery of Fear, Sermon Outline”

  • Fear is a powerfully creative force. The fear of ignorance leads to education etc … Every saving invention and every intellectual advance has behind it as a part of its motivation the desire to avoid or escape some dreaded thing. And so Angelo Patri is right in saying, “Education consist in being afraid at the right time.”

This is yet another moment when we have the chance to lead our families and teach our children HOW to be afraid at the right time. If we are constantly afraid, we are debilitated. We’ll lose our perspective which can lead to paralysis. If we repress and suppress our fears, hiding them in our darkest depths because our intimate others cannot accept or deal with them, we’ll be consigned to those inner caverns protecting ourselves to the point of self-destruction. We isolate from sharing the deepest parts of who we are. But Dr. King asserts fear can act as a creative force. There is great power in fear if we use it as fuel for our own inventive ways to focus on child and adult well-being as a primary driver (not as a nice-to-have). Here are some questions I imagine Dr. King would offer us to consider:

  • How are we remaining present to our intimate family holding space for all of their emotions, especially the ones that challenge us the most?
  • What are the roles we play in our village and how can we be or become a stabilizing force of compassion, love and grace?
  • How can we accept the fears we have as a valuable means for channeling our creative forces?
  • How can we accept the fears our children have as a valuable means for channeling their creative forces?
  • What is the saving intention you are hatching through this ordeal? What is your own intellectual advance? How about for your family members?

The social distancing we must be most concerned about is the one in which we hid in our fears and anxieties and do not honestly, vulnerably share what’s going on with each other. We can act as a model of social and emotional skills in the most powerfully resilient ways if we work on:

  • self awareness (owning and naming feelings), 
  • self management (as we seek one another’s understanding and support in order to not allow those fears to consume our lives), 
  • social awareness (empathizing with others’ pain and anxiety), 
  • relationship skills (holding a safe listening space for our loved ones), and 
  • responsible decision-making (not acting quickly, reactively, impulsively – which is most often fear-based – but pausing to let thought and wisdom in).

And Dr. King Continues…

  • 13 So if by “a fearless man” we mean one who is not afraid of anything, we are picturing, not a wise man, but a defective mind. There are normal and abnormal fears.
  • So the difficulty of our problem is that we are not to get rid of fear altogether, but we must harness it and master it.14 Like fire it is a useful and necessary servant, but a ruinous master. It is fear when it becomes terror, panic and chronic anxiety that we must seek to eliminate.

Fearlessness is not something for which to strive, he writes. Instead he might ask us:

  • How can we harness and utilize our fire to ensure our children, teens and other family members are safe, healthy and able to learn and pursue the fires of their own passions?
  • What happens when it feels like fear is taking over, the fire is out of control? What plans do we have to bring the flames back down and under control? Are you becoming intentional about taking regular pauses in your day to manage the flames? Check out the Family Emotional Safety Plan as one way to do that.

And finally, from Dr. King’s Sermon Outline…

  • How do we master fear
    • Of basic importance in mastering fear is the need of getting out in the open the object of our fear and frankly facing it. Human life is full of secret fears.
    • A further step in mastering fear is to remember that it always involves the misuse of the imagination.

What if we sense our children or teens are harboring secret fears? In my experience, it requires parents being vulnerable themselves. So…

  • How can you raise the topic of fears with your family and share some of your own and how you manage them?
  • How can you revisit this conversation so that there is a regular safe place for your children to name their fears?

Inherit in Dr. King’s prompting about fear involving the misuse of imagination is the call to use imagination in healthy ways. Your mind can wander like a runaway train down the road of catastrophe and worst case scenarios. And that rumination can leave us in destructive and defeatist thinking. So…

  • How can we begin to engage our imagination in ways that envision and even take steps toward Dr. King’s Beloved Community?
  • How can we begin to engage our imagination in ways that envision an education system in which all children are safe, valued and thriving?
  • And how can we engage our children in envisioning the beautiful world they will inherit? 

It can only come about if we dream it first. Thank you once again, Dr. King. We are grateful.

Reference:

King, M.L., Jr. (1957). The mastery of fear (Sermon). Montgomery, AL: Stanford University The Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute. 

From Dr. King’s References:

13. Fosdick, On Being a Real Person, p. 110: “Angelo Patri is right in saying, ‘Education consists in being afraid at the right time.’” Fosdick may have gotten this quote from William H. Burnham’s book The Normal Mind (New York: D. Appleton, 1924), p. 417. Patri, an educator and expert on child psychology, disavowed any use of fear in child-rearing (Child Training [New York: D. Appleton, 1922], pp. 19, 250).

14. Fosdick, The Hope of the World, p. 60: “Indeed, this is the difficulty of our problem, that our business is not to get rid of fear but to harness it, curb it, master it.”

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