Covid-19 and our fears

Fausto Gomez OP

Due to the novel coronavirus there is global fear: through 2019, a heightened degree of fear has spread throughout the world: fear of infection, fear of death, fear of losing one’s job, fear of hunger.

Who among us does not have some fears? Fear is part of our life. It is a basic and primary emotion:  we are finite, fragile and vulnerable human beings, weak incarnate spirits, rational and emotional beings.

In classical ethics, fear is seen as a possible obstacle to freedom itself that may diminish personal responsibility. It is a movement of the sense appetite described as a disturbance caused by a present or future danger that threatens us or our loved ones. It may be caused by internal or external causes.  

There are different kinds of fear: grave fear, which is an imminent and difficult fear to overcome; and light or slight fear, which may be easily overcome. Absolute grave fears are, for instance, death, grave illness, unemployment, being infected with Covid-19. Grave fear excuses, for instance, of attending Sunday Mass. There is also fear of fear, the haunting fear of fear itself, anxiety (angst). An often quoted saying:  The only thing we have to fear is fear itself (F. D. Roosevelt, 1933):  Moreover, panic or extreme fear removes reason and freedom all together.

We are dealing here with moderate fears, not absolutely grave or extreme fears that may require psychological and medical assistance

FACING OUR FEARS

We all have to face our own fears and attempt to control them or at least not allow them to control us.  How may we face undue fear? How do I approach my fears connected with the new coronavirus pandemic? We examine our fears and evaluate them ethically: are our fears moderate fears, just part of life, or bad fears,undue fears?  We examine our fears, name and face them with our reason and will. Like other passions, fear should be domesticated by our reason and will, and thus contribute to improve our life and our happiness.

When weact out of fear, we expose ourselves to wrong decisions, although at times it may be “a lesser evil,” as when a robber with a gun asks for my wallet: I give it to him voluntarily, albeit regrettably. It is reasonable to act with fear, which is part of our wounded life. Moderate fear may be helpful. There is a Spanish saying, “el miedo guarda la viña” (fear keeps the vineyard safe from robbers). Ignacio Javier Ortiz, a priest who accompanied the gravely sick and the dying at the height of the coronavirus pandemic in Madrid said after his first fearful day in the hospital:  “I was really scared. I believe that fear is necessary. If one does not have fear, he may do silly things, and here one cannot do any silly thing” (June 28, 2020).

Like other emotions, fear is morally neutral. If connected to good actions, my fears contribute to these good actions, to the practice of virtues (cf. CCC 1767-1770). I remember the words of Confucius: “The virtuous are free from anxiety.”  What virtues, or good habits, may help us to a reasonable extent control our fears? I suggest four virtues, namely, prudence, courage, hope and love.

Prudenceis the virtue of practical reason and means the right reason regarding concrete actions. With prudence, the intellect evaluates and enlightens the will to act properly against our fears. With courage, the will aids us to manage our fears. Hope looks with persevering patience at a better future. Hope enlivened by love encourages us to do what we ought to do with love. Love is the principal passion of the human being and the most important virtue of life. Love of goodness, of oneself, of family urges us to fight our fears, including the fear of death, with courage and hope,

To fight our fears most directly, we need courage or fortitude, an essential passion and virtue of human life.  Fortitude is the ability to bear evil and fight it,the power “to resist without falling apart, and daring to attack without breaking down (Juan Luis Lorda, Virtudes).  In the case of the Covid-19 pandemic, courage implies to follow to the letter the different norms of governments and health experts as steps to a better tomorrow of hope for all and as expressions of global solidarity. 

            Indeed, “it is very difficult to accept love and embrace hope when all is dark” (Robert J. Wicks, Living a Gentle and Passionate Life). Certainly, but our fears ought not to be the center of our attention, but love. When love is the focus of our life, it purifies out fears and makes them bearable. Courageous and hopeful love enlightens and decentralizes our moderate fears. “The fear peculiar to man cannot be overcome by reason but only by the presence of someone who loves him” (Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger).

THE VISION OF FAITH

As humans, Christians and other believers are afraid – like others. Believers, too,face their fears with faith, hope, love, courage, but differently. Grounded on divine grace, these human virtues may be infused by God in those who believe, hope and love him.  With many others, the followers of Christ have the gift of faith – of faith in an omnipotent and merciful God who loves us. This faith helps – ought to help – them not to be excessively afraid. Those who believe in Jesus, the Son of God and a man-for-others are – ought not to be – much scared facing the fears and disturbances of earthly life. To the virtues, Christians add prayer.

The phrase “do not fear” is repeated through the Gospels (cf. Mt 14:22-36). Jesus keeps telling us: “Do not fear those who kill the body, but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Mt 10:29). The virus may kill the body, but not the soul. Hence we are asked to care for both: we are body-soul. Remember? Jesus is on a boat with the apostles, asleep. Suddenly a wind-storm arose and battered the boat. The apostles were really scared and woke Jesus up shouting: “Lord, save us! We are perishing.” Jesus: “Why are you afraid, you of little faith?” And he calms the storm! (Mt 8:23-26). With the coming of the Holy Spirit upon them, the disciples became courageous and joyful in the midst of sufferings and fears. They had a motive: faith in Jesus Christ who told them, “I am with you always to the end of time” (Mt 28:20). Paul cries out:  “Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? … Nothing “will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom 8:35, 39). Thus, “I consider that the sufferings of the present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us” (Rom 8:18). Meanwhile, we are asked to trust in God and manage our fears by focusing on his presence in our life and sufferings, by cooperating with God’s grace and love.

FEAR OF GOD AND THE GIFT OF FEAR

Fears are not good company but they are part of our hopeful journey of life. There is, however, a fear that is good, very good: the fear of God: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Ps 111:10); the Lord “fulfills the desires of all who fear him; he also hears their cry and saves them” (145:19). Mother Mary prays: “His mercy is from age to age to those who fear him” (Lk 1:50). Our moral and spiritual life is grounded on divine grace, manifested in the practice of the infused virtues, particularly the seven virtues that make a good Christian, namely, the three theological virtues of faith, hope and love, and the four cardinal virtues of prudence, justice, fortitude and temperance. These 7 virtues are perfected by the seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit; among them, the Gift of Fear.

The Gift of Fear strengthens and perfects primarily our hope in God. The Gift of Fear implies unique devotion and reverence to God the Father, submission to his will, adoration of the Blessed Trinity. It also improves secondarily the virtue of temperance with the closely connected virtues of chastity and modesty. Thus, the Gift of Fear helps us reject the temptations of the flesh.

While servile fearis imperfect love of God, filial fear is perfect love of God, who is just and merciful. St Francis of Sales writes, “Love drives out, little by little, servile fear.” Filial fear is the fear of a child – we are all children of God – to offend his Father: God our Father.

As children of God, we need to approach him in prayer, which is always most helpful, in particular in the dangerous time of the new coronavirus.Dear Lord, “Let you steadfast love be upon us, as we hope in you” (Ps 33:22). We are in God’s hands. “Just like the clay in the potter’s hand, so you are in my hand,” says the Lord (Jer 18:6). We are clay, we are dust but, thanks to God, dust in love (polvo enamorado – Francisco de Quevedo).

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