Let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is…fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.Franklin D Roosevelt, in his 1st inaugural address, 1933
I wonder how the people who first heard this line felt when they heard it, before it became one of those overly misquoted sayings you hear but don’t really listen to. Listen to it carefully and it is ridiculous. And powerful. And baffling. It’s saying that really, we have nothing to fear: once you unmask your fears and find nothing behind them, then you are no longer afraid, just like a child who sees monsters hiding in the cupboards until she screams for her parents, and they, turning on the lights, reveal nothing but an empty dressing gown hanging on a wardrobe door. Reveal the shadow-filled dressing gown for what it is, and the child is free. Recognise terror as the makings of our own imaginings and it can no longer control us.
The appeal of having nothing to fear is as old as the sensation itself, embedded in Psalms, poetry and Disney ballads alike; sung in the voices of angels and crooned in the whispered prayers of mothers leaning over their suckling babies and speaking mostly to themselves. It is immortalised in self-help manuals and spoken by monsters showing glimmers of humanity as only Shakespeare can pull off. It is as old as time and as fresh as the adrenaline you try to ignore as it pumps through your veins, your instincts screaming at you to fight or flee.
There is just so much to be afraid of. There will have been other times in history when simply stepping out of the front door could be seen as risking your life. There will be other times in the future, I hope, that the welfare of one is dependent on the kindness and care of all. But knowing there are other times it has felt like this does not diminish its impact now. Back in the heady early days of lockdown, when the world was a more innocent place, when we believed that two kilos of coffee would see us through, and we still thought Specsavers was the best place to go to test our eyesight, it felt like once we got through the peak, we would put fear behind us. Oh, how wrong we were. About all of those things, as it turns out. Now, as lockdown starts to ease, the fear is increasing in inverse proportion. Fear of taking part has running battles with fear of missing out. Fear of the unknown merges into fear of the over-familiar. Everyone I love is going to die meshes in with Lockdown is pointless and is Coronavirus so bad anyway? Are we over-reacting? Are we under-reacting? Are we doing both at the same time? We have been afraid for so long now that it is no longer possible to tell the difference between fear and frustration, between boredom and common sense.
Fear of a virus that lurks in the lungs of our loved ones, that tricks you into complacency and then lashes out with a summons to a ventilator, an ICU, a mortuary; that has become part of the New Normal, accepted and mocked in bizarrely equal measure. The reaction has been relatively unanimous worldwide, and utterly unimaginable even 9 months ago. Could we feel similar fear, have similar unanimous actions for other things? Could we react similarly in order to fight deaths by gunshot, maybe – which kill 400,000 people worldwide each year in “unlawful” killings alone? Does that not warrant worldwide unified action? What about the climate crisis? The WHO estimates that this will cause 250,000 additional deaths per year from around 2030 onwards; that feels like something it would be nice to avoid, something we should probably be worried about. Every decade, the changing climate will kill 5 times as many people as Covid-19. It may not have the immediate fear factor of an uncontrolled global pandemic, but its creepingly insidious nature looms like the shadow that is so familiar we have grown to ignore it, the volcano that may be theoretically alarming, with its grumblings and smoke-belching, but will never be taken seriously because people have been whinging on about it for so long now. Fear can become so normal that you pretend it no longer exists, and flood to the beaches because the Prime Minister said it’s safe now, or fly away on holiday because anything is better than staying within these four walls for another day, or insist on everything being wrapped in throwaway plastic or bought new from the shops because we were wondering if we’d ever be able to do that again, or because our short-term terror overwhelms our long-running fear every time.
My fear of the virus is present but not strong. I am more worried about the repercussions a badly-managed lockdown will have on society. I am very afraid of the meltdown that climate change will precipitate in that same society, as everything we thought we knew is gradually eroded, crumbling like a scenic cliff-edge village into the inevitably rising sea. But the fear that overwhelms everything else in my subconscious is the fear that, after all this pain, and loneliness, and fear, that after all this, nothing at all will change. I have been saying throughout lockdown that I don’t know which I fear more: everything changing, or everything remaining the same. (I know I must have said it before as it made it into The Vicar’s sermon last week, and he only ever listens if I say the same thing
150 a few times…) My statement isn’t true anymore. I know where I stand now. I know what I fear, far more than fear itself. I fear losing everything to a global crisis we could all see coming and did too little to prevent, as much as I fear losing the insights into my own heart I have won through blood, sweat and blog posts over the last few gruelling and gloomy months. We could do something about changing the world if we wanted to – 2020 has punched us in the global solar plexus, winding us all with a single blow, demonstrating how interconnected the world is, how brutality in one continent influences policy in another, how we can only look on in awe at Mongolia whilst we pity the United States, how crises will only stay defeated if we stop passing them off as someone else’s fault. The thing I fear most is that despite everything we are not going to listen to 2020’s claxon call. That we might change for a while, but that over time, we will forget. We will forget the carers we clapped for, the lives we knelt for, the change we yearned for. We will forget what we hope for in the rush to return to what we think we have been waiting for. And by the time we stop for long enough to remember, it will be too late. The world will have returned to normal. Fear will no longer be an everyday bedfellow. It will fly away, holding tight to the hand of hope, and the only way we will ever see it again will be to take the second star on the right and keep going until morning.
Because sometimes, fear is a good thing. Fear can lead to life-saving lifestyle choices. Fear can lead to acts of courage that seem like a dream when you relive them in endless retellings, as fear becomes bravery and fact becomes legend. Fear can lead to sacrifice and blessings beyond measure, because fear can be just the other face of hope. It is when we are most afraid that we draw most on hope: hope of finally having a forever family when you feared children would never be in your future; hope of surviving an earthquake when buried deep beneath the rubble; hope of a new life free from fear when you lead your children into a rubber dinghy and pray you will make it across the ocean. Hope is what keeps us all alive. Hope is what we need now more than ever. And if we sacrifice fear to complacency and mystery to the mundane, will we ever be able to pay the price?