13. Choosing love in a world of fear

In number 12 of this series, I included a line from Camilla Cavenish, the author, Harvard fellow and FT columnist: “When polls show support for continued restrictions, thoughtful MPs should ask themselves how exactly a nation became so fearful.”

She was writing about the United Kingdom, but the sentiment applies to a lot of the world right now.

Fear has always been the most powerful and prevalent of emotions. It’s been said that anger, the emotion that sparks whole swathes of negative behaviours — from withdrawal to manipulation to substance or alcohol abuse to violence against oneself or others — is a secondary emotion.

Some other emotion lies beneath anger, and most often the underlying emotion is fear: fear of judgment; fear of becoming an outcast; fear of the abuse of trust; fear of being abandoned or left alone; fear of failing, or being seen to fail; fear, even, of success, of the change that success might bring and whether you’re capable of handling that change.

Fear is natural and built in to the oldest part of our brains. Fear signals dangers seen or unseen, and therefore is core to keeping us alive for long enough to pass on our genes and keep the species moving forward. For most of us, the external reality of the world outside our door is safer, in terms of physical threats to our wellbeing, than at any time in our history.

But other things have replaced bears and snakes and sabre-toothed tigers in our consciousness. Whether it’s a habit ingrained from our 100,000-year-old history, or some of the hallmarks of way the world works in the 21st century, or a combination of our genetic encoding and the culture that’s grown up around us, it’s not hard for most of us, in candid, private moments, to find at least a handful of things we’re fearful of.

For perhaps the last 30 years, the prevailing financial system has become one of the facets of life and living (in the so-called “developed world”, at least) which creates an environment of fear.

Some of the developments in the world of finance, perhaps starting with the invention of the credit card by Diners’ Club in 1951 and continuing through the development of complex financial instruments (derivatives, credit default swaps, collateralized debt obligations — no, I don’t really know either) which contributed so significantly to the global financial crash of 2008 (but which still remain a key part of the financial industry in 2021) create an environment around us where most of us don’t really understand money, find ourselves lured by the availability of cheap loans and then go to bed every night for years carrying the weight of the burden of repayments on our shoulders.

This cascade of personal debt leaves tens or hundreds of millions of people with a perpetual background hum of threat to one’s safety. The ability to put food on the table, or pay next month’s mortgage under the veiled or real threat of repossession, is a daily reality for too many people in an age of apparent abundance.

Into this steady supply of daily fear came the pandemic a year ago, layering on another major threat to the wellbeing and survival of ourselves and others.

Conditioned to feel fear — first by human nature, second by the culture around us — it took no time for us to embrace this latest existential threat.

There’s a quote attributed to Oprah Winfrey:

I believe that every single event in life happens in an opportunity to choose love over fear.

Fear feels real and urgent.

What does love feel like?

Maybe it feels like a removal of all that is past and all that is to come, and a condensing of everything into this present moment, here, now, whatever you’re doing, whoever you’re with.

Artists and writers and athletes and creators of every kind talk about the desire to find the flow state. Maybe another word for flow is love.

All of us have things or relationships or experiences that give us joy, and maybe once in a while that joy can be elevated to bliss. Maybe another word for joy and bliss is love.

In this present moment, where fear seems to lie unseen behind every news report, every casual chat behind a mask, every choice we face, is it possible to choose love over fear?

Oprah says the choice is available for “every single event in life”. I guess that means now, too.

It’s not an easy choice to make, but knowing there is a choice might make it just a little bit easier.

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.