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When Fear Gets Out-of-Control

Fear is useful to warn us of danger, but becomes destructive when it drives our actions and shapes culture.

Within a few days, fear of the new coronavirus turned into stereotyping Chinese people.

The first is a legitimate fear; the second is failure to keep our fears in check. The same pattern happens when fear of harm to our children leads to rigid rules that keep them from going out for free play. Legitimate fear of abusive behaviour can become definitions of “safe space” that shut down reasoned debate of controversial topics. Fear of terrorists ends up in massive budgets for security while children go without adequate nutrition.

Fear is innate and useful to warn us of danger. But fear is destructive when it drives our actions and shapes culture. I have gained a new appreciation for the many times Scripture tells us “Fear not.” “Do not be afraid.” It is a command, not a soothing touch. The people close to Jesus had good reason to fear. Each one is told to control their fear. Mary chose to turn her fear into the Magnificat, a song of hope and promise that still inspires me today.

I found it ironic that fear of a virus turned into racism at the same time as we remembered the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. Do we learn from history? Trappist monk Thomas Merton reminds us that the root of war is fear. Out-of-control fear. It is all too prevalent in our culture.

The antidote
In her book, The Monarchy of Fear, philosopher Martha Nussbaum helps us understand our current culture and think about our response.  She highlights three big risks that I see around me.

Fear-driven anger leads to blaming others, payback and cycles of retribution. Fear mixed with disgust, another innate protective force in small measure, leads to easy dismissal of people who are different in some way. Fear mixed with envy leads to blaming elites, unhealthy competition and resentment when others succeed – such as claims that women are taking all the good jobs. It leads to public policies that put middle class economic security ahead of our children’s future.

The antidote to fear is hope – not hope as emotion – but hope rooted in seeing others and myself as fully human, loved by God and capable of change. Hope translates into practical improvements that increase space for all and work for the common good. Paul tells Timothy, “God did not give us a spirit of fear, but a spirit of power, love and self-control” (2 Tim.1:7). It’s easy to read through it quickly and miss the self-control. Personally, I know I need to do more intentional work to control fears after my husband passed away; perhaps collectively we all need to be more intentional to keep our fears under control and restore hope in society. We can improve conditions that fuel out-of-control fear, the kind of fear that destroys rather than protects, and replace them with conditions that foster hope and love for others.

  • Kathy Vandergrift, a public policy analyst, brings experience in government, social justice work and a Master’s Degree in Public Ethics to her reflections.

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