In June, 1942, a hotel in New York city checked in a dozen men who had traveled from Florida on business. The nation was at war. The area around the Empire State was filled with plants manufacturing war materials, military bases, and the media outlets. No one suspected the men had been trained in Germany for a mission to destroy American military and industrial sites. Landing from a Nazi submarine on a Florida beach with explosives and cash, the eight men moved toward their targets. The plan was to blow up factories, bridges, and water supplies. They were highly trained, fitted perfectly into American life, and committed to the Nazi cause. The American war machine would be decimated by sabotage.
There's danger to our emotional life because someone may be sabotaging your progress toward a fulfilling life!
Who is it? If you will turn toward a mirror, you will see the culprit. That’s right. You are the greatest danger to your own well-being. I’m in the same place with you. It’s vital we learn how to improve out well-being by avoiding the twin saboteurs of fearing our fears and making emotions into facts.
A story from the Apostle Paul gives some insight. He had been arrested, flogged, and placed in a filthy prison in the city of Philippi. The ancient legal system had few safeguards for legal rights or prison safety. He and his partner Silas were in a situation of dire threat, facing months of mistreatment, deprivation, and anxiety. But we find them reacting in a different way. They began to pray, to sing, and to care for the other prisoners in a remarkable response to this life-threatening situation.
Fear is a natural emotion that enables us to survive. It’s important to have a healthy fear of falling, poisonous reptiles, and angry people. Falling might mean a broken wrist, a snakebite serious illness, and an angry person might mean a punch in the nose. Fear is a protective emotion that should only be disregarded with careful thought and precautions. But sometimes fear can get out of hand. The emotion can be an overreaction or a response to something that isn’t dangerous. For example, a man who was mugged at a filling station might decide to have a gun in his hand when he needs a tank of gas. Or a transgender woman, hearing stories of hate, might never apply makeup and keep her hair short to minimize being noticed in any public space. Realistically, there is no threat in the situation, but the sense of fear is present. When we are fearful when there is no threat, we could say we are fearing our fears. This will sabotage our quality of life.
We can move beyond this cycle of fear through awareness of what is happening. The clue is a heightened arousal of fear, marked by surging heart rate, shallow breaths, and tense muscles. Being triggered with fear in a situation that is normal shows it’s time to seek a change. How can we do that? Instead of cocking the gun while pumping gas, we should slow our breathing, pause our movements, and think slowly about the context of the moment. These responses give us time to act more realistically, bringing a cascade of better choices and outcomes.
I’m not sure the Apostle ever practiced calming breath during that dark night, chained to the prison wall. But the story has some hints of how he dealt with the sabotaging fear. The singing calmed the physical fear with measured breaths. The prayer brought more realistic thoughts of possible deliverance. Caring for others in positive social connections released the happiness neurochemicals that foster positive moods and adjustment.
A second saboteur is confusing the emotion of the moment with the facts of the situation. Consider Jasmine, a young woman who had started avoiding meeting her coworkers after work for a social hour. Being in the unstructured social situation provoked a pounding heart and desire to bolt for the door. It reminded her of being groped by a guy who backed her around a corner at a party a couple of years before. After talking with a counselor, she learned to prepare by assessing the situation for realistic threats, giving herself breaks to sit and breathe, and attending with a trusted girlfriend. She moved beyond fearing her fear to enjoy the banter of the party.
Jasmine displayed a key element that halts the sabotage. She refused to confuse her feeling with fact. Her fear of the party was an emotion rooted in the past. But it was not based on the facts of the present situation. She knew very well her current officemates as decent men who had not violated any boundaries. That was a fact. A small chance existed one of them could have too much to drink and act like a jerk. But the real fact was that this was unlikely. She was choosing to pay attention to the facts of the present more than the feelings from the past. The sabotaging feelings were disarmed.
Among the Nazi saboteurs of 1942 was George Dasch, an American who had gone to Germany before the war. After months of secret training in Germany, he was in place to do the work. But he didn’t feel right. After weeks of inner turmoil, he faced the truth. He had no real interest in staying a Nazi and being a murderer. He wanted to live in America with his wife and enjoy the freedom it would give. Soon after the team arrived in New York he made a daring escape from the group, fleeing the Washington. He called the FBI and spilled out the plot. The agents acted swiftly to arrest more than a dozen men. The plot was dismantled by the courage of one man.
Take a moment to look in the mirror once again. You see there a person who can avoid sabotaging a sense of well-being and healthy adjustment. By facing the fears and holding to the facts you can turn emotional life towards the good. You might even start singing yourself to freedom!
David A. Taylor, “The Inside Story of How a Nazi Plot to Sabotage the U.S. War Effort Was Foiled.” https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/inside-story-how-nazi-plot-sabotage-us-war-effort-was-foiled-180959594/
(Photo by i-am-nah on unsplash.com)