On the power of fear

Fear is a powerful and primal emotion. It’s useful immediately but does more damage than good if allowed to continue for more than a short time. I’ve noted it’s done a lot of damage in individuals and our society in this time of pandemic.

We were right to be afraid, in certain amounts, of the novel coronavirus. When it first emerged on the scene, we only knew it was killing and infecting many in China (and since it was China, which isn’t exactly known for free speech and dissemination of accurate information, that rightly made it a possibility that the few facts we supposedly knew could be completely wrong either direction), and it was spreading. Scientists knew very little about how it acted, how it spread, how severe it was, what the death and infection rates were. Our governments decided to take the drastic step of ordering individuals to shelter in place and closing down much of normal life. At the time, that seemed a safe bet — for two or four weeks, as we took a little time to get hospitals better prepared and figure out how to make better policy decisions after that short full shutdown.

After a few months of shutdown and some devastating consequences in countless areas of individual and communal life, fear is still running rampant. However, now our scientists know more. There are more data and facts available. Studies are underway; some have already concluded and yielded useful information that can guide policy and sound reasoning as we await even more important data and conclusions. At this point, fear levels in people are all over the map. Some are so afraid that they won’t leave their homes even after 10 weeks or more of shutdowns. In some areas of the country, this fear is more understandable than in others. Some people don’t believe the virus is at all serious and have no fear at all of going about normal life. And then there are plenty of levels of fear in between, leading to various reactions and decisions about how to live life, how to interact in society in any way.

I can say this: Those who still experience the highest levels of fear tie it to virtue, and that leads to judgment of all those who don’t share the same levels of fear. I witnessed a woman in a level of authority in our school system talk at a meeting (on Zoom/YouTube) share how she has seen great fear in the eyes of some constituents. And I could see in her face that because of that deep fear she saw that their opinions (naturally and without doubt; it should be accepted as FACT) should carry the most weight (compared to any other constituents who had varying opinions along a spectrum) as others in authority discussed how to make decisions pertaining to thousands of students (and their families).

Some people’s fear (it really is debatable whether it’s rational or irrational or anywhere in between) shut down the reasoned opinions and concerns of a whole other group of people. And that itself makes me a bit afraid. Because if we automatically give the most credence to those who have the most fear, fear will rule. Emotion will win out every single time. Emotions should be validated, considered, weighed. But reason, with emotions kept in check and tamed to some degree, should be considered and weighed more. If we let fear rule, it becomes the highest virtue, a moral imperative, and that is an outcome of this pandemic that will be far more dangerous than the illness itself.

Faith, intellect, and Big Issues

I have for a long time considered myself an “intellectual.” I enjoy learning about various topics, researching them, learning different viewpoints, and forming opinions. I like to be able to use my mind to consider the facts as I know them and draw rational, reasonable and considered conclusions based on what I do know (which is always going to be limited given my capacity for understanding and the limitations on my time and energy and even priorities). I still do appreciate listening to others’ own conclusions and having some respectful discussions, even disagreements, about the various topics.

I also am a person of faith. I have come to realize and appreciate just how much faith informs my life, my opinions, my decisions, my goals and entire worldview. It provides me a solid foundation, an inner compass, that keeps me grounded and at peace. I firmly disagree with any ideas that this is just because it “fills some void” or that religion is something made up by weak people to comfort ourselves. I have had too many personal, private, sacred experiences to confirm to myself that faith is real, although sometimes a little elusive or hard to understand. At the same time, I definitely appreciate just how different my faith can make me from others who either do not have faith in religious beliefs or do not share a similar religious belief system as I have.

Lately, it has struck me that sometimes it is impossible to form what other intellectuals will consider a reasonable argument to discuss matters that are truly based “on faith.” Religion and religious beliefs can often actually be reasoned in some way, based on some information. But on some beliefs and principles, we “of faith” truly go pretty much entirely “on faith.” And it can be frustrating as at least a “part-time intellectual,” maybe, to not be able to express clearly to others of that like mind what goes on in the chambers of the soul.

Generally, I have not found these two aspects of my being to clash; rather, I believe they complement each other, work together, to make me the person I am, to make me better, to make me take the time to thoughtfully consider issues in my mind but also in my heart. I like the conclusions that I come to using these parts of myself.

But sometimes, as I said, I simply cannot use both parts equally. Sometimes, the reason part is honestly a much lower portion of the process, and the issue goes almost entirely through the heart, through the faith “processor” inside. And with some really big, even very divisive, issues that are current in today’s society, it is impossible for me to be able to have a rational, reasoned discussion with someone else who is processing their thoughts and ideas through an entirely different section of themselves.

That’s faith. I am a writer, a wordsmith; I value language and all it can express. But there are a few things that I find very difficult to put into words. And then there are others that I just KNOW, through that “gut” part of me, that I have to let go of my need to have an explanation. I have to accept that some things we may never know, at least not as mortals living in this brief life (which, again, given my worldview, is just a tiny fraction of an eternal existence). And I’m actually OK with that. I’m OK with believing that some things are either not for us to know now, or not possible for us to understand now, for any number of reasons because we are eternal beings essentially in embryo, barely grasping the Big Truths from our limited understanding at this stage of our lives. Someday we’ll have enough understanding, wisdom, knowledge, faith, experience — what have you — to finally be able to get “it” … whatever “it” is that seems to confound us right now (fill in the blank with Big Issues).

I do have strong opinions about certain moral and societal issues right now. I know that others will definitely disagree with me. I try to disagree respectfully and hope they do the same.  But some issues have progressed even to divide people within my own faith community, and I have found that particularly perplexing. Though we share faith, religious tenets, and some ideals, somehow we are processing our ideas through very different “processors” or at least in very different ratios. I would like very much to have a great discussion about one or two of these really important issues with these friends who share my religious belief, but I find I simply cannot bring together a rational argument that will stand up to theirs. It is simply because I am using my faith “processor” more.

All I can say is this: I disagree, but I can’t possibly have a reasoned discussion. Too much of my ideas are tied to my faith, to my “gut,” to my feelings. Perhaps some come from adherence to tradition; perhaps I am just very orthodox. Either way, I wish I could say with words just what I want to say. But I’ve been racking my brain, and I just CAN’T. I fear that I will be derided a bit because I’m relying so strongly on feelings, on my faith. Either way, I simply cannot turn away from what I feel.

I will be curious to see how these issues resolve themselves. In the meantime, I’ll continue to exercise both my intellect and my faith in all matters that matter to me and to the world around me.