Walking through the streets of New York City in the rain today, I had a brief moment where I thought I wasn’t in the United States. People have started wearing face masks to protect themselves from COVID-19, the “coronavirus,” and it’s a bit of a jarring display of something that falls somewhere between preparedness and fear.
In the office, several colleagues joked about how they never thought themselves the “prepper” type, but they have begun stockpiling food in their living rooms in preparation for weeks of self- or government-enforced quarantine.
Suffice to say, the fear is palpable, but it’s not just about coronavirus. It’s an authoritarian president who, when the virus gets particularly bad in the fall, could seize the opportunity to cancel elections. It’s his constant lies that make him and his administration both a health hazard and a national security risk. It’s a society where our health insurance, for most of us, hinges on keeping your job–and wondering what happens if those jobs were to go away because we got too sick to go in to work. It’s an economy that seems to hinge on uncertainty, an economy that seems so fragile it could collapse even if coronavirus turns out to be a dud.
It’s a Chicken Little world we’ve inherited. The market is falling, and so is the sky. And so is democracy and trust in the system that keeps us afloat, and any other year had I written this or anything I’ve scribbled out in text lately, it would have felt like some far-left alarmism–so much so that even as I read back over what I’m putting onto the screen now I question, “Is this crazy? Have I gone mad yet?” But reality has taken some kind of bizarro sharp turn toward fascism, and that fascism could likely be deeply fueled by a national crisis such as this one.
The old theologian in me, to whatever degree I could ever still call myself one, wants the wise counsel of former friends and sacred voices: “Do not be afraid,” they might advise.
In the religious arena, there are good reasons to shun fear. You choose not to be afraid, the text says, “For I am with you,” and so we find comfort in God’s presence.
Except rather than comfort, for me personally, if God is present in this, I find it a little incredulous. Like, you mean you actually had the nerve to show up, you’re here with us, in the midst of death, in the midst of disease, in the midst of people being deported to their murders, in the midst of children being placed in cages or abused, in the midst of a celebration of hatred, or in the guaranteed, continued suffering of the poor. You mean to tell me you showed up for all of that and I’m supposed to be comforted by your ability to stand with me and watch it doing nothing?
Some of us tried to do something. We may not get very far with those attempts, but we tried to do something. I’ve devoted my life to those feeble tries. That’s more than I can say for a god who could do a lot more than I could but doesn’t seem to even try.
I’m inclined to say I would take more comfort in the idea that God isn’t with me, in that case. Because if God does show up but does nothing, God’s as good as dead anyway.
And this concern isn’t new: it’s old religious trite anybody has asked and concerned themselves with since the divine was first conceived of and debated in this world.
But there’s a part of me that doesn’t really buy the whole debate in the first place.
That’s partially because I don’t think there’s courage in saying “Do not fear,” or even in choosing not to be afraid. Especially when life really is scary. There’s nothing wrong with being afraid.
That makes me want to say that the issue is not being afraid but allowing fear to cripple or make us immobile. I want to say that, but I don’t think that’s entirely fair either. While there may be “failure,” in allowing fear to incapacitate us, there’s no moral failing, and that’s because for many of us, there’s no choice involved in the kind of fear that takes our choices from us. It happens or it doesn’t happen, and if something freezes us in our tracks, it simply does. That is not some fault we need carry. And it’s certainly not something we need to be ashamed of by any means.
So, be afraid or don’t. Either is fine.
But when the ancient texts we still turn to warn us not to be afraid, I like to think that’s less a question of any sacred presence, less a question about the dangers that come with being afraid. Instead, it’s a question of what fear is in the first place.
The opposite of faith, it’s sometimes said, is not doubt (as one might think), but in fact the opposite of faith is fear. That paints fear, in particular, as an inability to trust or believe in the promise of good. But what’s the effect of losing the ability to trust? Of becoming immobile or “crippled” or incapacitated? When those things happen to us, we are isolated and alone. That’s what fear is really about: the uncertainty of community, the seeming guarantee of loneliness.
Coincidentally, this is also why fascism is so tied to fear: fascism demands sectarian thinking, the kind where the in-group must become suspicious and isolated from the out-group, and trust comes not from one another but from an absolute power at the top of some hierarchical chain. That’s also why there’s constant chaos and in-fighting among fascist governments, because the in-group only creates the facade of community: fear must ultimately reign the day.
If there’s any good reason for us to “not be afraid,” that’s a good one right there.
But that’s because it’s not “Do not be afraid,” so much as it’s, “Do not believe yourself to be alone, ever.”
I think of a friend, equally as immobilized by fear as me, and in most situations, except for where that person’s goal is to isolate the two of us and make us again one, and one, companionship sees us through the greatest obstacles of our silly little lives.
And even where there seemingly is no friend, no obvious companion, we aren’t really alone: we’re consoled by the memories of a thousand loved ones, dead and alive, by the harmony of atom after atom that accompanies us on this journey which we’ve embarked, by the sound of ourselves not screaming into some silent abyss but raw, present, here with ourselves and with those we loved, surrounded by the lilies of the field and the birds of the air, the energies and electricities and the tick-tocking of every moment that is meant to remind us that we were not made in isolation but through mitosis, that neverending process crafted in love, the one that said: like it or not, you are connected. Even to your enemies seeking only division, you are connected. Now go forth into this world and remind yourself and all those you encounter of that one, plain, sacred and mundane truth.
No, coronavirus cannot strip us of that. Nor Trump nor fascists nor gods or godless ghosts, nor fearing friends, nor even ourselves.
Be afraid. Don’t be afraid. Either way, we’ve got this, come heaven, hell, fear, and loathing, life or death. We won’t face it truly alone.