“The fear, not the disease, threatened to break the society apart.” John M. Barry, The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History (2004)
The Spanish Flu of 1918 was devastating, to say the least. It is estimated that about 500 million people (or about one-third of the world’s population at the time) became infected with the virus. Estimated deaths were around 50 million with 675,000 occurring in the US. This virus was different that today’s COVID-19 virus in that the mortality rate was high in people younger than 5 years old. Another hard-hit demographic was 20-40 year olds.
Due to lack of advanced medical technology, there was no vaccine to protect against infection and no antibiotics to treat the infected. Efforts worldwide were limited to non-pharmaceutical interventions such as isolation, quarantine, good personal hygiene, use of disinfectants, and limitations of public gathers. Due to lack of global coordination, even these interventions were applied unevenly.
Yet, as John M. Barry in his best-selling book points out, fear only compounded the problem. And against fear, perceived interventions prove futile. So, what is fear? Is it healthy or harmful? What causes some people to fear certain things (yes…spiders for me) yet does not cause fear for others? Is there a line between caution and fear?
Fear, at its root, is an unpleasant emotion caused by the belief that someone or something is dangerous, likely to cause pain, or a threat. I come from a faith background, so I’d add that oftentimes, from a Biblical sense, fear refers to a sense of respect, awe, and submission to God.
I’d be quick to say I’m not a psychologist but I do believe that Fear is a God-given emotion that helps protect us. When we’re walking through the savanna and hear the rustling of weeds beside us and notice a hungry lion perching, turning to run as fast as you can is the appropriate reaction to fear of being eaten. While sitting on your couch and something big and black catches your eye crawling across the ceiling and you look to see it’s a spider, cowering and screaming like a girl while demanding that your wife kill it is the appropriate reaction to the fear of being attacked by the satanic arachnid.
So, since we’ve determined there is appropriate fear, is there inappropriate fear? Do we sometimes suffer more in imagination that in reality? Is fear a bigger pandemic than the virus itself? Far be it for me to answer these questions for you as they are deeply personal. But suffice it to say that it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to turn on the TV and watch your favorite news outlet to see the threat of a broken society. Isolation, quarantining, curfews, limitations of public gatherings…all interventions put in place in the Spanish Flu, now being tried again. The result? Loneliness have caused suicides to spike. Depression is rampant. Marriages are on the rocks. Vaping amongst teenagers is off the charts due to sheer boredom. Many schools are still closed causing social skills and test scores to plummet.
Yet, at the same time, the risks are real. A few members of our community and my church have succumbed to the virus. Some have been in and out of the hospital due to complications. A state-wide mask mandate is still in effect and a 10pm curfew is in place. As I write this (which is several weeks before it’s actually posted), a new round of government stimulus is making its way through Congress. This virus is real, and its effects are…to some…fatal.
Healthy or harmful?
In a word: Yes.
I believe the bigger issue is how we treat one another. I’ve been challenged throughout this pandemic of how and when to express my opinions and when to keep silent. When to disagree verbally and when to show respect. When to complain about things and when to silence my inner thoughts. The way we treat one another will determine the depth of the ‘threat of breaking our society apart’.
I, for one, choose a healthy fear. One that isn’t blind to facts, but isn’t grounded in conspiracy. One that shows respect for others and their opinions, while leaving room for me to express mine. And when I express mine, to do so in a way that allows for proper and healthy debate. I try not to be close minded in my ways, but to be open to others. To show love to others. To offer respect.
Fear threatens to break our society apart.
…What we need now is love.
We need grace.
We need connection.
We need understanding.
We need to offer a helping hand.
a word of encouragement
a note of appreciation.
We need to listen more
…and talk less.
Fear, not the disease, may break us. But it doesn’t have to.
Will we let it?
The choice is ours…