As I witness the distant, fearful eyes of masked faces, anxiously passing me at the grocery store, I can’t help thinking that Covid 19 has suddenly thrust me into an episode of the Twilight Zone. Only now, the fear of nuclear annihilation, often the subject the Twilight Zone, has been replaced with the fear of a monstrous virus. One of the ingenious aspects of the Twilight Zone was its ability to dramatically demonstrate the corrosive nature of fear on a community. It was inspired by anxieties generated from the Cold War, like the communist scare and possible nuclear attacks. Then it brilliantly packaged this fear into half-hour weekly episodes and broadcast it into America’s living rooms, via television, in the 1950s and 60’s.
In light of this and numerous other Covid 19 Twilight Zone experiences that surround me, I can’t also help wondering if this fear is not more dangerous than the virus itself. Maybe the socially corrosive products of this fear will cause greater damages (due to isolation, depression and economic deprivation) than the disease. Perhaps fear is just always lurking in the background, looking for an opportunity to psychologically magnify common challenges of living on planet earth, into larger than life tragedies that psychically paralyze us. Maybe fear is the real enemy, and the virus is just the most current episode.
1st Peter 5:8 says, “Be of sober spirit, be on the alert. Your adversary, the devil, prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.” The importance of the use of the metaphor the roaring lion is often lost on readers. Roaring lions are a reference to older lions who are losing their teeth and no longer capable of hunting. Consequently, they are relegated to roaring loudly to scare prey into the younger lions who have quietly set an ambush. Ironically, the roaring lion is only a minor threat; yet the fear he induces drives the prey into more dire circumstances to which they unknowingly run. Is it possible that this virus is a roaring lion, and the more dangerous threats are pouncing in wait elsewhere? I think this is why Peter warns us to be sober in spirit and on alert.
Fear causes us to be reactive rather than responsive, but mindfulness causes us to be still and alert. Fear is the product of our ego brain. The ego is naturally centered on our survival. The ego is very good at assuring survival, at least in a physical sense. It enables us to avoid real dangers in life, like lions quietly waiting in the tall grass. Without our ego, we would not likely reach adulthood, and our species would have certainly perished long ago.
Unfortunately, our ego is not able to distinguish between real physical threats and psychological threats, or real fears, from imagined fears. Consequently, it spends a great deal of its time, in modern life, where there are fewer direct physical threats, fixated on psychological threats. Like continuous roaring threats to our psychic survival, these threats persist and breed fear. The ego, when functioning correctly, engages the fight or flight response to protect us from real threats. This response sends the blood to our arms for fighting or our legs for running, to secure escape. But when the danger is gone, this is relaxed, and the normal blood flow ensues.
However, these modern psychological threats do not provide the same relief from the flight or flight response because they often never go away. Our muscles remain unusually tense, and the normal blood flow to other organs is restricted. Ironically, psychological threats, left untreated, lead to real risks in the form of a myriad of physical and mental diseases, as stress acts as a common root cause of disease in America.
Conversely, mindfulness, contemplation, and gratitude, help us recognize the psychological nature of the fears that plague us, and our recognition of these threats disarms them. Their power lay in their subconscious concealment. But when we expose them to light, we can see through the emotional melodrama they demand, and we are freed from them. We simply choose not to go out to play when they call. Like clouds in the sky, we let them pass by. In the stillness of knowing He is God, we can rest in blissful peace, even during a pandemic.
The sense that we can not be separated from the love of God allows us to rest from fear. In Romans 8, the Apostle Paul offers the following revelation.
Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famines, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? Just as it is written, For Your sake we are being put to death all day long; We were considered as sheep to be slaughtered. But in all these things we overwhelmingly conquer through Him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, will be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Even with the prospect of the above perils, we can be secure and in perfect peace. None of us are free from the possibility of tribulation on this earth. But living in fear of these things both exaggerates the nature of the threats and reduces our ability to meet them effectively. If our security is centered in the love of God, we cannot be separated from Him. Our security will be harnessed in the arms of a loving higher power.
The Apostle John offers this encouragement:
God is love, and the one who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him. By this, love is perfected with us, so that we may have confidence in the day of judgment; because as He is, so also are we in this world. There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear, because fear involves punishment, and the one who fears is not perfected in love. We love, because He first loved us.1 John 4
As we abide in perfect love, the same passion is perfected in us, and our hearts are protected from fear. Also, if we abide in his love, we can better love others. When fear reigns in the circumstances of our life, judgment, anger, and the specter of punishment, haunt us. We look for people and things to blame. Consequently, perspective and responsiveness are replaced by finger-pointing, criticism and anger. Instead of responding to challenges that humanity has always endured, with common sense and dignity, we accuse, belittle and hoard, as our lesser natures prevail. The karma we have fear comes upon us. Job 3:25.
In 1968 the world was inflicted with the Hong Kong Flu. This pandemic lasted until 1970 and was responsible for over a million deaths worldwide and 100,000 in the United States alone, most of whom were 65 or older. Despite this monstrous virus, we did not close our economy, we did not resort to finger-pointing and accusation, and consequently, the nation can celebrate historical events like Woodstock, and the Miracle Mets of 1969. This period also gave us Apollo 8, the first manned space flight to orbit the moon, and Neil Armstrong’s famous moon walk in 1969. In other words, we continued to live our lives through the challenge, instead of stopping our lives, because of it. I can’t help wondering what history we have permanently lost out on in the last 3 months.
The 1957 Asian flu pandemic also killed 1.1 million people worldwide. As of 05/09/2020, according to the CDC, about 262,300 people have died globally during the current COVID-19 outbreak. 47, 128 have perished in the United States. Why did these past, equally devastating pandemics, get so little press, comparatively? Why did life continue, and the economy stay open? Why didn’t people spend months or weeks sheltered away in their homes? What is responsible for measures that have been appropriated today? Why are people demonized for bringing points to the public’s attention. Doesn’t a matter as important as this deserve rational dialogue?
Could the difference in the public reactions over these pandemics be more the result of psychological trauma and fear than the actual danger posed by the virus? Are our worries possibly causing us to do more harm than good? It is hard for me not to wonder about this.
Perhaps the same type of irrational fear can also explain why our nation is so divided today politically. Is it possible we have so attached our egoistic fear of survival to our ideological identity that any threat to such ideologies appears as a psychological threat to our lives? I don’t know, but I often wonder.
I do know this, as I mindfully focus my attention inside, on the transcendent that unites me to everything else and everyone else, I am at peace, even in the midst of significant difficulties. I cease to fear things that I can’t control. Consequently, it is easier for me to love and empathize with others, regardless of how they behave. I only hope that in this current episode of cultural Twilight Zone, I can remain mindful and mostly be an agent of reason and love.