First, I must give thanks to Carol Woodliff and her book From Scared to Sacred for inspiring my linguistic and anthropological approach to her title. I was talking with my buddy, TJ Phillips of Believe in the Moment (a cool inspirational resource) the other day and the visual similarity of these two words (in English, anyway), really struck me.
Let’s look at their etymological origins first and see if any linguistic relationship actually exists (just for language-geek fun!):
scare (v): This is the oldest use, as a verb meaning to frighten someone suddenly (“give someone a fright”). It comes from Old English skirra, meaning shy or timid (someone easily frightened). It didn’t get used as an adjective, at least in published writing (“scared”), until the 15th century.
sacred (adj): Dedicated or set apart for the service or worship of a deity. It comes through Latin (sacrare) and Middle English (sacren), both in line with this meaning of setting aside, consecrating to a divine purpose, etc.
So, no actual linguistic relationship (drat!). Would have been nice, but words with “sc/sk” are usually Germanic in origin (this includes Scandinavian languages and the origins of English), and so there wasn’t a good chance that a word starting with “sac” was going to be related.
But the coincidental same-sounding-ness in these English words can be useful in building a little anthropological theory to connect their meanings. Notice that sacred means setting aside something into another realm of human activity and attitude. This process began back in the Stone Age (I indexed a book once about some humans who are still playing out this scenario on Sumatra). A stone can be a tool, or it can be set aside on an altar as a “crystal” offering or energetic object dedicated to the gods. In traditional cultures, there’s a very distinct and ritualistic separation between the mundane and the sacred.
The question, then, is why? Why did humans create this separation between day-to-day practical objects and activities and ritualistic objects and activities connected to some divine being(s) or powers that seemed to need these objects and rituals? Most researchers have figured that it’s about wonder and fear (being scared!). We humans have lived scared for a long time, what with predators ambushing us, great storms or earthquakes seeming to attack us at every turn. And then the wonder, again mixed with fear, when we looked up at the stars, the moon, in the dark of night when we could be surprised and scared at any moment. I can’t even imagine the sort of awe (the origins of the word awful) they must have felt. You begin to see why they wanted to use objects and rituals to symbolically take some sense of empowerment back from nature; that power was illusory, but I’m sure it made them feel a little better. The sacred helped keep the scared away.
Nowadays, our large and complex brains have figured out how to control certain aspects of our environment, and our scientific understanding has shown us how the stars and galaxies, satellites and planets, climate and weather, and movements of the Earth work and where they come from (mostly). It’s interesting that our level of control, though, is still limited (climate change and asteroid strikes, anyone?), as is our understanding of the larger forces that structure the universe (dark energy, anyone?). The play of fear (being scared) and wonder (the sacred) continues, even in our largely secular age. We just live in a new faith that more scientific inquiry will increase our understanding so we won’t have to be scared.
But wait. What we are finding out about how the universe works does not feed into any sense of safety for humans, whether on the Earth or beyond it. Should we despair, then, of every feeling safe and happy? Only if we decide that safety equals happiness. Of course we have a strong biological drive to survive and thus a deep-seated fear of not surviving, but really, those large and complex brains can also take control over our Stone-age survival fears. The fact is that we will not ultimately survive forever, at least in this current biological form.
It’s time to embrace the sacred, which we associate with timelessness and immortality, for ourselves, and not just for some outside deity living on a mountaintop or even at the center of the universe. Allow yourself to be a channel for the sacred both within and outside of you; that’s where happiness is. The imprint your divine compassion leaves on the universe will outlive your body and likely time itself.
As the angels in the Christian nativity story said: Be not afraid.
Go bless the world with your star stuff. We’re waiting…