The Pandemic, One Year On: 1. Fear itself

I remember talking to an older friend by phone in early March last year.

At that stage, the virus had arrived in Ireland — the first case announced solemnly and fearfully on the news on the evening of Friday, February 28th — but there had been no associated deaths, no lockdowns, no major changes, yet, to the way we live our lives.

This friend had just travelled across the country by train. She’s in her mid-70s, and has had a few health issues. In other words, “high risk”, and known to be high risk even then, when news of swathes of serious illness and death and pictures of overwhelmed hospitals had been coming out of Milan and Bergamo in northern Italy.

–Are you worried about the virus? I asked.

–Ah, I think they’re trying to spook us, she said.

She wasn’t worried then.

Even then, though, she was one of the few who weren’t worried, and although she’s never been even remotely the anxious type, choosing to live each day to the full and backing up that choice relentlessly, I think she’s become worried since.

Fear of death does that to people. Over the past 12 months we’ve had a collective and extended exposure to something that in normal times we manage, mostly, to keep under wraps: the inescapable truth of our own mortality.

That fear has been rife this past 12 months.

It has been more pervasive, much more pervasive, than the virus itself.

There are spiritual teachers who say that there are just two states, fear and love, and that all other emotions and feelings and thoughts and intentions can be traced back to these.

Fear has been the dominant one for a year now. Love has shown itself in places — from the volunteer scientists and engineers who got together to come up with cheap open-source ventilator designs, to the sidelined sports clubs who set up neighborhood grocery deliveries to the old or infirm, to the impromptu amateur choirs who sang from the balconies in Italy — but everywhere else you can feel the fear running as a constant undercurrent.

This fear runs deep.

Fear is as old as humanity. It governs our behaviours as much or more than any other factor, and it has been everywhere.

Fear can lead to silent compliance on the one hand, to violent outrage on the other. We’ve seen both, and we may see more of the same before this crisis ends.

The best we can do, maybe, is to notice our fear. To bring ourselves back into our present moment, and to find an awareness of what we’re feeling.

If we do that, maybe we can maturely question and reflect on what it might be that’s bringing fear to us.

As we scroll our Facebook feed, is fear showing up? If we turn on the news, how long does it take for fear to come? When we talk to a loved one by phone or video call, are they afraid? Are we? Is our fear passing invisibly between us as we speak?

There’s a misconception that courage is the absence of fear. It’s not. All courage is, is fear combined with forward motion.

There is no way of avoiding fear. The bravest and most heroic feel fear but are spurred forward by that fear rather than paralysed by it.

And there’s no guarantee, none at all, that being aware of our fear will help us take a better course of action.

But it’s a start.

This is part of a series of 30 short essays to make the Covid-19 pandemic, one year on. Sign up below to receive these pieces by email each day for 30 days.