In his book A Grief Observed, C.S. Lewis wrote, “No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear.” And though fear is a normal part of the experience of grief, most often grief magnifies our human capacity for fear. Eighteenth century philosopher and politician Edmund Burke wrote, “No passion so effectually robs the mind of all its powers of acting and reasoning as fear.” When we grieve, fear seems to ambush us when we are unprepared to defend ourselves.
And when something as small as a microbe represents a threat to our global safety and well-being, we easily succumb to fear, anxiety and, in the worst case, a kind of subdued hysteria largely driven by irrational though very real questions such as "Am I going to die?" which are the inevitable subtext of catastrophic events.
At the moment, the corona virus (COVID-19) is known to be a viral illness that like the flu is a communicable disease. When a patient has pre-existing medical conditions, in a small number of cases, as with the flu, the corona virus can be fatal. In areas where there have been outbreaks the virus is being strategically managed using diagnostic measures such as continuous testing and quarantine. Until an effective vaccine can be developed and approved for use, those on the front line of healthcare are treating the corona virus on a case by case basis using every resource available to relieve symptoms and provide quality care to patients.
We live in an age in which we rely on instant news that often reports inaccurate numbers and information. From one moment to the next our pervasive angst can easily escalate to full-blown fear. We need look no further than the wild swings in worldwide markets in recent days to confirm the effect that fear has on our human behavior and reaction to the unknown.
Though there may be a few people somewhere in the world who are oblivious to the events of recent days, most share some level of concern and are being proactive in trying to defend against the corona virus. Reports from Costco and other retailers that describe empty shelves because of customer demand for shelter in place survival products speak to the level of subliminal though very real fear shared by many.
When we are threatened by the unknown, often we feel vulnerable and powerless, as when we grieve. Our best instinct is to do something—anything—to prepare for the worst even as we hope for the best. What seems to be missing from the current fear gripping the world is a perspective based on accurate information and statistics, a perspective that provides a more cerebral than fear-driven emotional context, a perspective born of wisdom and reason that might mitigate some of the fear engendered by the corona virus, “For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind” (2 Timothy 1:6-7 NKJV).
And while federal and local authorities continue to provide information as well as common sense suggestions for how we might best help ourselves, there are perhaps other things beyond their recommendations that might calm the fear in our own head and heart and give us back some sense of control over our own environment. When we do something, even small things, generally we feel calmer because we are more in control of our life.
It is interesting to observe that amid all the fear fueled by the news cycle there has been little if any focus on compassion, though we assume that this is a routine part of clinical care delivery. During this liminal time when the world is waiting on a vaccine or cure, perhaps the most powerful antidote to fear is the expression of our own care, compassion, and fundamental humanity for others through prayer.
When we pause to reflect and pray, we discern that God moves us beyond the unanswerable “Why did this happen?” and “When will it be over?”, to “How may I help?”. Intellectually and spiritually we know that God does not cause disease and illness, that God does not plot against us or plan our harm or punish us with unknown viruses. Rather we know with certainty that God is with us, that God is for us, that God is our strength, our help, and our hope, “Do not fear, for I am with you, do not be afraid, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my victorious right hand” (Isaiah 41:10 NRSV).
At this time of global crisis when we are confronted with stories about those whose grief is newer than our own, our sacred responsibility is to pray specifically for those everywhere who are infected, for those who are in treatment, and for those who have been exposed to the virus and are living in fear of infection. We should pray fervently for the stamina, perseverance, and compassion of the nurses, doctors, researchers, scientists, and technicians who together are single-minded in their focus on defeating the corona virus.
We are called to pray for the unknown number of family and friends who are grieving the death of ones they love from the corona virus and asking the most formidable question of grief, “Why?” We pray reverently that every faith community across the world is intentional in providing spiritual perspective and grace-filled comfort to those living with fear every day.
The universal, eternal presence of the loving, caring God of many names is the power that can quiet every heart with the peace beyond all human understanding that overcomes the world, “Have I not commanded you? Be strong and of good courage; be not frightened, neither be dismayed; for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go” (Joshua 1:9 RSV).
God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear,
though the earth should change, though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea;
though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble with its tumult.
Psalm 46:1-3 NRSV