“Fear is the main source of superstition, and one of the main sources of cruelty. To conquer fear is the beginning of wisdom.” — Bertrand Russell–Unpopular Essays (1950) “Outline of Intellectual Rubbish”
“…if we let things terrify us, then life is not worth living.” — Seneca
The fear is palpable. It can be seen anywhere…and everywhere. Ordinary, average people covering their faces with whatever can be called a mask. Signs and placards telling shoppers to maintain a “safe” distance between themselves and others. Non-stop “news” reports which keep the crisis constantly in view. Government officials declaring lockdowns. Model predictions presented as absolute proof that these actions are necessary. Constantly updated numbers which “prove” that the threat is existential. The ever-present and growing possibility of mass vaccination—voluntary or ordered. And on and on…
The worst thing about Covid-19 is not the virus itself, but the fear, panic, and hysteria it generates. We have become afraid of something which most of us will never encounter in any meaningful, personally detrimental way. We have allowed our fear to foster suspicion of everyone around us and to drive us apart. Humans are social creatures, but we have become anti-social and antagonistic toward others—not because they ARE a threat to our lives, but because we think that they MIGHT be. Because of our fear, we are encouraging and condoning actions which would have been unimaginable just a few short years ago. We have been spooked. We have been reduced to fighting with each other over a scrap of cloth.
This brings up a question. Why are we afraid? There are any number of things that could be trotted out to answer this question, but ultimately only one explains it fully—we are afraid to die. We have never come to grips with the certainty that our lives are going to end sometime. We avoid death like the plague, pardon the pun, and simply refuse to countenance the idea that we are mortal. Life is a preparation for death and to paraphrase Seneca, if we let death terrify us, then we will not live.
Life, however, is also about potential and what we can become in the time we are here. All of us are capable of more than we realize, but when we allow fear to consume our thoughts and dictate our actions, we become paralyzed and incapable of reaching our potential…or even coming remotely close to it. This is one of the great tragedies of life—that we have such enormous capacity and accomplish so little. A side note to this is that the little we do accomplish is often done, not because we recognize our potential and reach for it, but out of a sense of self-defense, in other words, because we are afraid.
Supposedly, as modern, enlightened people, we have overcome the superstitions which afflicted our ignorant ancestors. The events of the last several months, however, should have put that belief to bed. We are just as fearful as they were, creating our own superstitions and, consequently, have become cruel in our own way.
Conquer the fear. It is the only way forward.
[This essay was first published as a Letter to the Editor in the Bitterroot Star, a small, local newspaper in Stevensville, Montana]