WWhen the great books are closed on this foul year of our Lord, two thousand twenty, one word will stand above them all.
Not coronavirus. Not “COVID-19” (and not just because that’s an abbreviation and not a word). Not “pandemic.” Not “lockdown.” Not “quarantine.”
Ugly, nasty, brutish fear. The kind that weaponizes government agencies to protect us from ourselves, confuses toilet paper with precious metals and makes otherwise sane people wash their hands until their skin cracks.
Fear occasionally has a purpose. The raw terror at getting caught can make you a lot better at getting away with things like smoking cigarettes behind the Dairy Queen when you’re in eighth grade, for instance. Imaginary threats? Not so much. Concussions often result from running away from shadowy monsters at 3 a.m. when you’ve had one too many in the living room while in quarantine. Or at least it did for me.
Most often, fear is a liar. And as anyone who has ever bought into a multilevel marketing program or had a family member who expected to be able to support the family selling essential oils or personal care products can tell you there is always a cost to believing a lie.
In a lot of cases, it’s merely a case of money. Lots of people listened to Bernie Madoff’s lies and lost a lot of money. A whole big pile of it.
But since we don’t care about people having money in dread of the beer disease because viruses will kill us but starvation won’t I’ll give some more abstract examples.
If you believe that you have unlimited time, you will waste your chance to accomplish things that are important to you. Not that that’s an issue for 22 million of our countrymen at the moment. They’ve got nothing but time, having been relieved of the burden of working. I’m expecting some great art out of this. Or at least some decent memes.
If you believe that calories don’t matter, all the exercise in the world won’t help all that much and you’ll end up with worn out joints.
Fear is no more a reality than happiness. It’s an emotional state. As the Latin root “mot” (hence “motor” and “motion”) would imply, it’s always moving. Anyone who has ever been genuinely happy for any length of time can tell you it takes effort and work and struggle to stay that way.
Not so with fear. Fear requires absolutely nothing but that you stay where you are and let the current take you along. It requires nothing but your unwitting consent.
But unlike happiness, it gives nothing. Fear only takes.
Fear takes your focus, your energy and your time, three things you can’t easily replace, if at all.
Well, maybe “takes” is the wrong word. Most of us give fear all it requires without a second thought. We offer up ourselves without a fight. We even pay for a daily or sometimes hourly dose of it.
Zig Ziglar once said, “the media has accurately predicted 28 of the last two recessions.” Wonder what old Zig would think of this pandemic? “You can have everything in life you want if you’ll just see to it that no one else can get what they want.” Or something like that.
Anyway, it’s fun to pick at the media. They’re an easy target. We all do it. If you’re a Republican, you’re obligated to dislike CNN and MSNBC. If you’re a Democrat, you’re supposed to make fun of Fox News. If you’re a libertarian, chances are you’re either not interested, can’t stand either or high as a kite.
But the media only sells what people are buying. Getting upset with fearmongering media types is a little like blaming dope dealers for the drug problem.
And make no mistake, fear is a drug. We’ve all had that little hit of endorphins that happens when we feel super-responsible for freaking out. And like a lot of drugs, fear is addictive. Your brain becomes rewired and feels like it can’t run without that little jolt.
Addictions mess with your brain. You begin to believe that you can’t live without your “drug of choice.” Hence the endless binging on 24 hour news cycles, social media headlines, good old fashioned press conferences, socially-distanced water cooler talk if you’re “essential”….the list goes on forever.
Part of that is that it’s easier to get attention when the news is bad.
“My kid learned how to ride a bike” will get the obligatory not and “that’s nice” from friends, family and the occasional co-worker.
Tell them someone almost squashed little Johnny and his new Huffy like a bug while recklessly piloting a diesel 3/4 ton and you can get all sorts of attention. Especially if you’re talking to a police dispatcher.
The other part of that is the smarmy, smug self-importance that comes from “taking this seriously.” The kind of self-importance that comes from a frame on your social media profile that says “stay safe, stay home, never go outside or you’ll kill grandma.” Or something along those lines.
Addicts are usually people with underlying issues. You don’t meet a whole lot of folks from happy homes, made good grades, who grew up to be capable professional people who just decided one day, “hey, I’ll have some of that Black Tar Heroin with my crumpets.”
The analogy holds up when applied to fear junkies. There’s usually a hole somewhere in their lives they’re trying to fill. Loneliness? Rejection?
As we learned from dear old Hunter S. Thompson, fear has a corollary: loathing. Always. It begins with self-loathing. Deep down you loathe what it is that your fear. Then you loathe those who fail to appreciate the danger of whatever existential threat you’re facing. Eventually, it extends to a significant portion of your world. Maybe even your entire life.
And here’s the funny part: fear deserves loathing. Because cowardice isn’t admirable in any way, shape or form. Discretion may be the better part of valor, but terror is unworthy of what it means to be human.
Think about it: when is the last time you said, “wow, this guy is such a coward, I want to be just like him.” Monty Python brilliantly played on this in a movie about a knight who had nearly fought the dragon, almost stood up to the vicious chicken….
It’s only funny because it’s absurd.
We look up to Teddy Roosevelt, to Julius Caesar. I look up to people like my grandmother who lived through the Depression, World War II, buried her first born son after LBJ got him killed in Vietnam and kept the faith, remained a positive, capable person until she died. I keep her walking stick that she was still using in my mom’s neighborhood two weeks before she died at 86. She was courageous. And therefore admirable.
Long ago, I recognized that addiction is nothing but a coping mechanism. Something bad happened, maybe a lot of bad things happened, so now I get high yo and pretend that it didn’t or make myself feel betters it’s illogical behavior, but there is a certain appeal.
Fear works exactly the same way.
I mean, fixing things is scary and it’s hard. It’s hard to admit that something bad happened or you screwed up or whatever. It’s a lot easier to just go on an pretend like it never happened.
It’s hard to confront the fact that fear is a coping mechanism rather than a strategy for overcoming life’s problems. But that’s exactly the case.
We’ve had a lot of tests this year. And a lot of people from government leaders on down have failed miserably. They deserve to be forgotten.
But many have stepped up, once more into the breech, not yielding an inch to the terror.
In the end, none of us get out of life alive. And all that’s left is how we acquitted ourselves with the challenges we faced.
Will you be remembered as a coward? If that doesn’t scare you, nothing will.