Conversatio Divina

Two Sides of Psychology’s Normal Curve

Love and Fear

Gary W. Moon

There is only love and fear. Perhaps I should explain.

I am a longtime admirer of the Bono, the lead singer of U2 for forty-seven years. In the early fall of 1986, after a long day’s work, I was sitting in a car with a friend. Clarence was a family practitioner. I was a newly minted clinical psychologist. Together we were partners in a new venture, a medical and psychological practice called Four Seasons Family Care. We were more than a bit nervous as business was not yet booming, but our student and small business loans were.

Clarence thought a little distraction couldn’t hurt. So, he punched play on his cassette tape recorder, as he asked, “Ever heard of U2”? Then, an Irish baritone, who thought he was a tenor, began singing “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” from The Joshua Tree album. When the song was finished, I asked him to play it again. We listened to those soul-reverberating words seven more times. I had found something I was looking for; a couple of new friends.

As I type these words, I’m almost thirty-seven years removed from that first encounter with Bono. I have played that one song hundreds and hundreds of times across the decades. As the singer himself would confess in his autobiography, Surrender, at the heart of the song “is John Bunyan’s idea of the pilgrim’s progress.” Or, he quickly confessed, “my lack of it.”Bono, Surrender: 40 Songs, One Story (New York: Alfred A Knopf, 2022), 507. His honesty about the journey was, and is, so refreshing. Plus, like the singer, I’ve always been drawn to sincere and transparent searching; and repulsed by false finding, dogged certainty, and the devout who claim no doubt.

According to Bono, “The story of every pilgrim is the running toward and the running away from enlightenment.”Bono, Surrender, 508. I’m sure Ignatius of Loyola would applaud this, based on the attention he gave to noticing our times of consolation (love-driven movement with and toward God) and desolation (times of fear-driven movement away from God and further into the kingdom of ego and control).

I’m not saying that I became a U2 groupie. But I am saying that during one family vacation that involved driving from the trickling-origins to the mouth of the Mississippi River; we listened to all of U2’s current music, in chronological order. Our purpose was to identify any songs without a spiritual reference. After listening to over 120 songs, we were only able to find two that omitted a reference to God, Jesus, an image from Scripture, or deep spiritual longing. Oh, and I am confessing that I’ve made at least one pilgrimage to Dublin.

So, I was pleased, but not surprised, that one of my Christmas presents this year from my daughters was a copy of Bono’s autobiography, Surrender. I was surprised to come across a poem, by Michael Leunig, titled “Love and Fear.” It begins with a series of bold claims: “There are only two feelings. Love and fear. There are only two languages. Love and fear. There are only two activities. Love and fear . . . only two motives, procedures, frameworks, results.”Michael Leuing, “Love and Fear,” Poems 1972–2002 (New York: Viking, 2003) in Bono, Surrender 276.

As a psychologist these words deeply resonate with me. Both sides of the normal curve brought into focus by only two words. And, after all, I should know. I invented positive psychology. But don’t tell Martin Seligman. He still claims it happened in his garden, back in 1998, just after his young daughter rebuked him for being too grumpy I think her words were, “If I can stop whining, you can stop being such a grouch.” The rest is revisionist history.

But I know better. Back in the mid 1980’s I began drawing two normal curves next to each other. One was a right-side-up version of the famous curve, and the other was an upside-down rendition, drawn just to the right. The point was to describe how psychology and counseling were about normal making (helping people on the wrong side move to the center of the curve by becoming less anxious, angry, and depressed); while spiritual formation (represented by the invisible, upside-down normal curve to the right of the normal pole) was about abnormal making (helping folks become abnormally peaceful, joyful, and loving).

But, I’m thinking now that maybe I just need to stop whining and being such a grouch. And, Martin, I am kidding, of course.

Love and Fear. So basic to human life. So profound. We are created in the very image of God, with a primary mission statement of growing into divine likeness. The “beloved” disciple, John, provides the best definition of our development goal. God is love (1 John 4:16, ESVScripture quotations are from the ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.; “God is love, and whoever abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him”).

In my opinion the opposite of love is not anger, not hate. The opposite of love is fear. Anger is just one of the many patterns we are prone to use in attempts to manage fear. If I love a person, I’m in a disposition of willing and acting on what is good for her or him. But, if I am angry with a person, it is most often because that individual has blocked, gotten in the way of, an object or a goal I was pursuing to help me calm some underlying fear. If you threaten my bank account, then you bring to the surface my fear that I’ll not have enough resources to handle the future. If you threaten someone I love, my fear of being without that person flashes to the foreground and sprays up into anger.

Perhaps it is the primacy of fear that motivated the writers of Scripture to use the insert the phrase “fear not” 366 of times—once for every day of the year, including leap yearLloyd Ogilvie, 12 Steps to Living Without Fear (Nashville, TN: W. Publishing Group, 1991) 21.. Perhaps, on a biological level, the centrality of love and fear come from the two divisions of our autonomic nervous system: sympathetic (the fight or flight response that is triggered when we fear threat) and parasympathetic (the calming response associated with love, relaxation, laugher and sexual intimacy).

My intent here is not to prove that the poet referenced above, Michael Leunig, is right. But my last four decades of earth life have made me willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. It wasn’t long until psychological services at Four Seasons Family Care, was booming. And it wasn’t too many years after that when I began musing about how it seemed that I had never spent time with a client who did not quickly take me to places of “compassion deficits” in his or her life, and then to the fear-management strategies that were no longer working.

And, it wasn’t too many years ago, while thinking back over a few decades of spiritual formation conversations, that I began to view all vices and virtues in terms of fear and love. It strikes me that once Adam and Eve made the decision to separate themselves from Love; they awakened to a much smaller world, a world permeated with fear. For the first time, the fear of death, of loss, of pain, rejection, etc., ad nauseum.

Take a spin around the vices described on the Enneagram. I think a strong case can be made that every vice is simply a classic pattern for attempting to allay fear by managing and controlling it through behaviors and thoughts that can be controlled. That is to say, I believe that each vice can be explained in a way consistent with a particular fear management strategy that we can control; and that each virtue can be seen as an alternative response to fear that flows out from the experience of a deep and pervasive love. For example, the vice anger results from living out the belief that I and the universe must be perfect if I’m to avoid rejection. The opposing virtue of serenity flows from learning to experience the deep love that created the universe and smiles at my imperfections.

Bono’s autobiography, Surrender, reaches crescendo in two of his final chapters. One is aptly titled, “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” and the other is titled by the solution to his quest: “Moment of Surrender.” In the end, this wonderful poet and articulate observer of life, makes a not-so-subtle suggestion. If you want to find what you are looking for, let go of your attempts to manage your fears and surrender to love. As it turns out fear and love are physiological opposites. Each has the power to cast out the other. They are two notes that cannot be played at the same time.


This column appeared in Christian Counseling Today, Vol. 26, no. 4 (2023), 60–62.

Stephanie Young Merzel from USA, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons