Chapter 11: Fear, Loneliness, and Grief

Prayer and the Common Life
by Georgia Harkness

Chapter 11: Fear, Loneliness, and Grief

In the preceding chapter we made some general observations about the forces of unrest that cripple and warp the human spirit. Some specific attention was given to the very common human phenomenon of frustration and thwarted desire. In this chapter we must continue to look at what stands in the way of happiness and peace of mind.


Several things ought to be said about fear. The first is that there is no man living who is not afraid of something. If anyone says he is not, he is either self-deceived or prevaricating.

The second thing is that fear, in moderation and properly located, is a very good thing. Without learning to be afraid to jump into fire, afraid of water in which we cannot swim, afraid to play with loaded guns, afraid of approaching juggernauts, we should not live to grow up. In adult life the pain that makes us fear illness sends us to the doctor, and the possibility of universal destruction through atomic bombs makes all thoughtful persons inquire the road to peace.

Nevertheless, fear which runs into inordinate anxiety, whether as sudden panic or chronic worry, can be a terribly devastating force. It probably drives more people neurotic and then insane than any other factor. Dr. Karen Horney, author of The Neurotic Personality of Our Time, makes anxiety the root of all our present psychic maladjustments. As fear in battle can either make a soldier fight harder by calling forth his adrenaline or can leave him "frozen" and shell-shocked, so in normal activities fear can be a spur to action or its paralysis. But the action springing from it may be as unhealthy as the inaction. When it obsesses the mind, and its possessor either feels driven like a whipped horse or stopped in his tracks by some invisible barrier, it is time to see what is the matter.

Fear comes from so many sources that it is impossible to enumerate them all. Joshua Liebman in his very illuminating book Peace of Mind points out that it often begins in childhood as the fourth step in a sequence of which frustration is the first. The child fails to get what he wants, he gets angry, he is punished for his tantrum, and he becomes afraid. This cycle once established goes on and on. The reader of these pages may find it profitable to ask himself whether some of his fears do not come from the fact that he "got spanked" by nature or society when he wanted something he could not have. An adult, like a child, can be scolded until he feels the terrible poignancy of the word, "Reproach hath broken my heart." There are other fears that come from the shattering of one’s world through failure, bereavement, betrayal by someone loved and trusted, the loss of employment or income or of prestige, the realization that the old securities of whatever nature no longer hold.

As in the case of frustration, there are several things to be done about one’s fears. It is necessary to confront them, to analyze them, to circumvent them, to overcome them by confidence. These steps are much easier to enumerate than to take. No one takes them perfectly. They cost dearly, but no one who knows the psychic toll that fear and worry take will count the cost too high.

To confront one’s fears is to look at one’s self and ask, "What am I afraid of?" At first glance one may think he is not afraid of anything. But perhaps the first thing to discover is that he is afraid to haul his fears out into the open. One might possibly find out something uncomplimentary about himself! This is the key to most of our inner insecurities -- we do not want to look at ourselves as we are. In general we want to think ourselves morally better, more self-confident, more ready for whatever comes, than we really are. Sometimes the opposite is the case, at least on the surface. When conscience has become abnormally focused on the self, fears of doing wrong can become obsessions and we like to be a problem to ourselves. Nobody can be completely objective about himself, but every normal person can be more objective than he is. To look the dragons in the face, then, is the first step toward their conquest.

The second step is to analyze these fears, whether of loss of a job, money, reputation, professional success, friends, loved ones, health, religion or even of one’s sanity. Is there really much likelihood that this will happen? Or have I let molehills become mountains? Here the help of a trusted counselor is very valuable. Some things we really need to be afraid of and do something about. Others we need to look at and dismiss.

Psychoanalysis makes a great deal of uncovering buried memories to see where the fears arose. To the degree that this helps to dismiss fears by disclosure of their present irrelevance this can be very valuable. It is, however, my judgment that to dig around in one’s childhood past and put the responsibility for present fears upon one’s parents is not as useful a procedure as to see the inconsequential nature of many of the things that now frighten us. Who or what caused the fear is less important than what is now to be done about it.

The third step is to circumvent the fear if it can be thus dealt with. That is to say, if circumstances that create anxiety can be readjusted, they ought to be. There is no way of knowing how many people because they fear an operation refuse to go to a doctor! Or how many, because they fear divorce, are inhibited from talking things over and trying to reach an agreement. The extreme form of failure to circumvent fear is to take the cowardly road of suicide in preference to accepting life with all its hazards. (Most cases of suicide are the result of psychopathic derangement and therefore not subject to moral judgment. Sane persons who kill themselves to escape the consequences of living are not brave men but cowards.)

The final and most necessary step is to overcome fear by confidence in something or somebody. To continue the illustration of the last paragraph, it is very necessary that a doctor have a patient’s confidence. This is true in all healing, but absolutely imperative in cases of mental ill health. A counselor may be a very wise person, but unless the fearful person trusts him, no good can come of the counsel. From confidence in some other individual the transfer must be made till the person tormented with fears loses them in a new self-confidence and inner assurance. Only so can a personality’s quagmires and quicksands become solid earth.

Again the relevance of prayer to this process is very vital but does not need many words. There is nothing except sin and God’s mercy that the Bible says more about than the conquest of fear. Looking in a small and by no means complete concordance I find one hundred and sixteen references to fear and to what God does for the fearful, besides innumerable others that speak of rest in God and deliverance through his almighty power.

If a person feels his life being warped and made miserable by fear, he ought with as much resoluteness as possible to take the steps outlined above. And prayer is relevant to each of these steps. Through the new perspective that comes in vital prayer one is enabled to look at himself in the light of God’s truth with blindfolds off. Clarity of understanding is enhanced till things assume truer proportions. Direction is given for the next moves to be made. Such direction comes through no spectacular vision or audition but through the refocusing of conscious attention and the upsurge of constructive impulses from the subconscious. The God who, the ancient story tells us, led the people of Israel with a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night can lead us by the clouds of the subconscious and the fires of imagination as truly as by consciously studied thought.

We said above that the fearful person must have confidence in something or somebody. The religious name for this is faith. Only as he knows that "underneath are the everlasting arms" and "perfect love casteth out fear" can he really find rest for his soul. Only as he takes his trouble to God in prayer, and resolves faithfully to follow whatever light comes to him from God in Christ, can he expect to hear the word of assurance to stricken, shaken souls through all ages: "These things have I spoken unto you, that in me ye may have peace. In the world ye have tribulation: but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world."


The passage just quoted has something to say about loneliness. It is recorded as spoken by Jesus on the night of the Last Supper --his last words before he went out to the loneliness and horror of Gethsemane. Just before these words of assurance to his followers he says almost as if to himself, "Behold, the hour cometh, yea, is come, that ye shall be scattered, every man to his own, and shall leave me alone: and yet I am not alone, because the Father is with me."

The conjunction between loneliness and fear is more than accidental. Jesus may not have been afraid in his loneliness but most of us are. Have you had the experience of being brave enough with other people around -- then frightened at the awareness of being alone in a big, dark house? With one companion -- even a child who could do nothing as a protector but who needs to be protected -- one intuitively feels safer than in complete solitariness. This provides a parable of the interdependence of human existence.

There are various kinds of loneliness. There is physical isolation from other persons, which for a time may be a welcome respite from too much jostling, but which soon so "gets under the skin" that one begins to appreciate the plight of the prisoner in solitary confinement. There is the loneliness of being unknown and overlooked in the midst of a crowd of people the wallflower and the new student in the midst of a joyously chattering dormitory are cases in point. There is the cutting loneliness of feeling misunderstood and rebuffed by someone that one loves, admires, lives or works with, or in some other way is related to but without inner fellowship. And there is a kind of cosmic loneliness which makes one feel so lost before the indifference of the universe and the meaninglessness of life that one finds no home for his soul.

The first of these types of loneliness mainly requires a social readjustment. Though one may be obliged temporarily to live alone, nobody ought to for long if he can help it. It is written not only in the Bible but in human nature, "It is not good that man should be alone." To attempt it is to run the risk of becoming eccentric, self-willed, or depressed -- perhaps all three --the result varying with the temperament of the individual. Where circumstances require it, it is imperative that plenty of outside social contacts be kept up as a corrective.

Where a person "feels strange," as almost anyone is likely to in a new locality, the sensible thing to do is to make friends as fast as possible. But one cannot expect in a day or a week to have his roots as deep as they were in the former community after years. There is something about our ego that wants immediate recognition, and even a mature person who in his mind knows better is apt in his emotions to feel snubbed when in a new place he finds no one loving him as in the old.

A great deal of the world’s unhappiness is caused by the fact that people who have to live together -- as husbands and wives, parents and children -- and who in a deep sense really love each other, still do not understand each other. There are more scoldings and sharp words and usually more heartaches within the family than in public relations. This is partly because at home one feels less inhibited by shame than elsewhere, but it is also because such intimacies bring expectations that are unfulfilled.

To cope with this situation requires perspective, self-examination, and loving patience. Perspective is required in order to see that one’s own situation is no special case. There is probably nobody who does not have some areas of loneliness. Complete mutuality, even in the closest of family ties, is a rare achievement. Yet there are many successful families and friendships. Self-examination is necessary in order to discover that instead of being wholly the victim in domestic and personal tensions, one may be quite as much the aggressor. Loving patience to understand without being understood, and if necessary to love without being loved, is a basic requirement that too few of us possess.

The relation of prayer to each of these needs is too obvious to require much elaboration. We have repeatedly pointed out the importance of prayer to the gaining of perspective, and the need for honesty in self-examination both as preparation for prayer and as its fruit. The difficult but imperative task of refusing to be daunted by rebuffs, of continuing to be a friend even when the friendship seems unrequited until finally loneliness is overcome in fellowship, requires such self-subordination that it is seldom found except in persons who draw upon God’s strength.

For the still deeper loneliness of feeling at loose ends with the universe and devoid of any deep-going roots, only a religious outlook can work a cure. Other approaches such as understanding friendships, worthy interests, causes to work for, are important and essential steps. But unless these are grounded in something deeper than themselves, they turn out too often to be palliatives. This is the legacy of secularism to our rootless society.

What a person caught in this loneliness needs as a base for his soul is not the belief that in some mysterious way an impersonal cosmic force controls his destiny. He does not need primarily a set of arguments for the existence of God, though these may help to clear away obstacles. What he needs is a sense of fellowship with "the Great Companion, the fellow-sufferer who understands." (A. N. Whitehead, Process and Reality, p. 582.)


To counsel prayer to the rootless, restless twentieth-century man or woman is often to talk of something that sounds like moonshine. This entire book aims to give some pointers toward that end, and we shall not try to repeat here what has been said through many pages. In the event that such a spiritually homeless person should have read thus far, the best counsel I can give is to ask him to read in the New Testament the fifth, sixth, and seventh chapters of Matthew and the thirteenth chapter of First Corinthians.


There are many forms and degrees of grief, from a brief temporary sadness that is more than anything else a matter of self-pity and ruffled nerves, to the deepest and most soul-shaking bereavement. The precocious nine-year-old son of a friend of mine was heard to lament that he was now too old to cry but not old enough to swear! Whether or not an adult cries, there is no one who does not sometimes feel like doing so.

Of the minor occasions of grief we shall not say anything further. Most of them come in connection with our frustrations, fears, and loneliness. When sadness settles into chronic depression there may be physical as well psychological causes to be looked for, and very often physical consequences in stomach ulcers, colitis, and the like have to be reckoned with. Man seems to be made for joy, for when joylessness makes protracted inroads not only his spirit but his body suffers. (Little is said here on this most important issue, for my Dark Night of the Soul deals with it at length. Chapter VI entitled "Body and Spirit" traces many of these connections.)

We must now try to say a word about an experience that sooner or later befalls almost every adult -- the grief that comes when death removes a person that is loved.

The grief that death brings is, of course, not all of one level. The death of an aged, helpless parent can be welcomed as a blessed release for the person whose work is finished, with no lack of love or respect for the deceased. When a younger person is known to be incurably ill in mind or body, one can mourn his passing without wanting his bondage to earth to be prolonged. Every death brings the sadness of separation to those who love. But it is when death comes prematurely, or violently, or suddenly and without warning, that the shock of bereavement can be life’s bitterest experience.

How can one bear it? How pick up the threads of life to carry them forward? Again only a few simple suggestions will be offered.

First, one must accept the inevitable. One may be too stunned at first to believe it can be true. Yet it is true. The person who was a warm, sweet, living presence is no longer here, and will not be again except in memory. No fruitful reordering of life is possible until this fact is accepted.

One must not expect all at once to adjust to it. It is part of "grief’s slow wisdom" (The phrase is from a poem by Owen Meredith, in The Wanderer in Italy) that only time can heal the poignancy of the hurt. To try to hurry the process is not so much disrespect toward the deceased as the creation of new inner conflicts in the living.

One must give expression without shame to his grief. This does not mean a noisy public demonstration. But if one feels moved to weep in private or in public, it is far better to do so than to keep it bottled up. Repression can work serious havoc by driving the poison of sorrow inward.

As soon as circumstances permit, grief must be sublimated into action. The worst thing a person can do is to withdraw into himself and brood. The best thing he can do is to carry on the work left unfinished, or do some useful work for others that otherwise would have been done in love for the person no longer present.

If one accepts the view of Christian faith, he can believe in personal immortality. This gives not only comfort and hope but challenge. One can go forward if he believes that the person he loves still lives in spirit and desires in him, not defeat, but victory and advance.

There is no occasion in life when a person needs more to pray for God’s sustaining strength, for light to walk by, for inner peace. Though Protestants have usually veered away from praying for the dead, there is no reason why one should not pray for God’s watchful care for the person now in God’s nearer presence. There is great help to be found in the prayers of a sympathetic, understanding pastor or friend to whom the life with God upon earth is a vital reality. But no prayers of another can take the place of one’s own self-offering.

Bereavement can be, not blankness and utter loss, but suffering that with all its poignancy is nevertheless the beginning of a richer fellowship with the Eternal. Much harm has been done by too much moralizing at funerals. But if the bereaved person, alone with God, makes a new dedication of his life to God and his service, great peace and power can ensue. This has not been said better than in George Matheson’s great hymn,

O Cross that liftest up my head,

I dare not ask to fly from Thee;

I lay in dust life’s glory dead,

And from the ground there blossoms red

Life that shall endless be.