Fear, anger, and resentment cause the alcoholic (and probably everyone else) the most trouble. It is for this reason that the Big Book suggests we start our 4th Step inventory by examining these emotions.
Fear and anger are said to be primal, protective emotions. They are considered the twin sides of a fight-or-flight response built into our nervous system to ensure our physical survival. When triggered, it automatically generates a defensive reaction. Faced with an attack, we fight back to counter an injury. Faced with danger, we retreat to avoid harm.
Fear exists because danger exists. Danger is an objective fact of life. It is real. Fear alerts us to the possible existence of peril and enables us to defend ourselves against potential harm. It is a necessary internal alarm system.
Thus when AA tells us that our goal is to be free from fear, it is not suggesting that we will cease to experience fear. What it is suggesting is that we can be free from a certain kind of fear, the fear which is “an evil and corroding thread” (Big Book, p. 67) running through human existence. This is “self-centered fear,” a fear, says the 12&12 (S7, p. 76), which revolves primarily around loss and failure: fear of losing what we have or not being able to get what we want.
This fear arises not just because we have and we want, but because, as the 12&12 quote below indicates, we “possessed” and “demanded.” It becomes a self-centered and disabling emotion because what we have and what we want means too much to us. It is too important. We have to have it. We can’t do without it.
And so we become too dependent on it. We base our happiness on it. And because it is so valuable to us, we become too sensitive to any potential threat to it. We see risk and danger everywhere. We become prey to fear, anticipating loss and failure.
This perception of a threat to something I value is what characterizes fear. As an emotion, fear is a mental response to a situation that I construe as posing some difficulty, risk, or danger to me with regards to something I care about.
The perceived threat can be to life and limb or my physical wellbeing and security, as in its primal form. Or, more broadly, it can be to my self-worth or anything that I invest my emotional security in: a relationship, a job, wealth, status, power, or a whole host of other things through which I hope to find meaning, purpose, or satisfaction in life. The fear is a function of the value and the perceived threat to it. The higher the value and the stronger the perception, the greater the fear.
Self-centered fear results from a distortion of value and perception as regards what I have and what I want. We take inventory of fear because, as self-centered fear, the emotion is a prime manifestation of our spiritual disease.
It is, we are told, the "chief activator" (12&12, S7, p. 76) of our character defects. We want what we want and we want it so badly that we are blinded to what we do to get it or keep it and the resulting collateral damage. We cheat, lie, steal, and otherwise do ill. Then we fear the consequences. It becomes a vicious cycle. Fear drives us to do wrong and doing wrong drives us to fear.
As we work the Steps and grow in our recovery, we are promised that “fear of people and of economic insecurity will leave us (Big Book, p. 84).” Not because the risks involved in relationships or in the facts of economic life will cease to exist. Those things may not necessarily change. But we will. And central to that change is that we will see people and money differently; they will take on a different meaning for us.
As we grow spiritually, we come to see everything that we have and everything we may get in entirely different terms. As blessings. We value them as the gifts of a loving and gracious God. The giver becomes more important than the gifts. We depend on him for our own value, not on them.
We are no longer fearful of not getting what we want, for we trust we will be given what we need. We are not fearful of losing what we are given but grateful for having received it. And when we lose it, as we will—for we will lose each and everything that we have—we will be grateful for the time that we had it.
Other spiritual principles will help us to become progressively free from fear. But they all work with gratitude, grounded in faith and humility.
[Image: Archie T., who started AA in Detroit, according to the introduction to his story in the Big Book, “The Man Who Mastered Fear.” For audio of this story and Q&A about it, please click on links. To hear his 1948 talk, click on audio “Archie T. ‘The Man Who Mastered Fear.'"]