VIEW VIDEO A few years ago, Joan got mad at The Indianapolis Star and cancelled our subscription. I’ve never known Joan to be mad at a person, but if you’re a corporation, you’d better not cross her. So now we subscribe to The New York Times, and I’ve downloaded the app so I can read The New York Times on my phone, which was wonderful right up until Covid started and the Times started publishing the number of Covid cases in America. After the vaccine rolled out, the cases were dropping, dropping, dropping, and now the Delta variant is out and the cases are rising, rising, rising, up 111% in the last fourteen days. I must admit it’s been freaking me out. I read this week that if all the Covid virus cells in the world were collected, they would fit inside a Coke can. It is a marvel of nature that something so small can be so deadly and destructive. I’m a bit like Woody Allen when it comes to death. I’m not afraid of it, I just don’t want to be there when it happens. I think the answer is not to read, to remain blissfully ignorant and unaware of the lurking dangers of life.
No, of course not. The answer is to be informed of danger, but not be crippled by the fear that so often accompanies awareness. We see this all the time. Just this week I was at the library and there was a little guy with his mom. I began chatting with him, asking him if he was having a good summer and whether he liked school.
We were having a wonderful conversation, he was telling me all about his summer, when his mother, who had apparently been steeped in stories of child abduction, grabbed his hand snatched him away, saying to him, “How many times have I told you not to talk with strangers.”
I thought to myself, “Stranger? I’m not a stranger. It’s me. Phil. Your old buddy.”
What dreadful advice to give a child. That’s going to be one lonely kid. I’m grateful my parents never told me that. Because, of course, every friend I’ve ever had, every single one of them, was once a stranger. Fear can make us weird.
Sadly, religion hasn’t helped. Religion, which should encourage confidence, wields fear like a weapon. Remember the Adam and Eve story? It’s the second creation story. In the first creation story, God speaks the world into being. In the second creation story, God creates a garden and places Adam in it. God hasn’t made Eve yet. It’s just God and Adam hanging out. What does God say to Adam? Do you remember? “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it…” wait for it, here it is “…in the day that you eat of it, you shall die.” (Genesis 2:16-17)
I’d like the Biblical literalists to explain to me how that particular approach could ever be helpful.
Of course, God didn’t really say this to Adam. We have a more sophisticated understanding of human origins than the folks who created this story thousands of years ago. But here’s what’s important: whoever the first person was to tell this story, he or she obviously believed God used fear to control human behavior. Fear is a potent weapon. Right before Joan cancelled our subscription to The Star a man wrote in to tell Billy Graham that his favorite song was I Did It My Way. It was probably a phony letter, because who would write Billy Graham to tell him their favorite song, plus, not to put too fine a point on it, but Billy Graham had been dead for a year. But the person purporting to be Billy Graham quoted the book of Proverbs, “Whoever remains stiff-necked after many rebukes will suddenly be destroyed.” Note the use of fear, the tamping down, the dire warning against going your own way.
Fear makes us weird. And even worse. Have you ever noticed that what we’re taught to fear as children, we will hate as adults? First, we are taught to fear a group of people, and then we will grow to hate them. When religions use fear, it’s as if God blesses our hatred, as if fear and hatred were God’s will all along.
We’ve heard it said, “Fear is a great motivator.”
I don’t believe that.
Far more often, fear cripples us, causing us to reject new and necessary changes important to our growth.
Far more often, fear dehumanizes us, causing us to reject entire classes and groups of people.
Far more often, fear isolates us, causing us to reject community the very moment we most need it.
I was reading a wonderful book recently, written by Huston Smith. Smith is best known as the author of The World’s Religions, but in 2012 he wrote a beautiful memoir called And Live Rejoicing: Chapters from a Charmed Life. He describes traveling to a conference in Tanzania and having to drive across the Serengeti Plain, which was, and still is, inhabited largely by lions and Masai warriors. He had been warned to avoid both groups. Well into his journey, the car he was driving broke down and he was stranded. He was driving a car made in France, so it was bound to happen. He ate the last of his food, drank the last of his water, and decided to venture out for help, despite having been warned not to leave the relative safety of his car.
As he exited the car, two Masai warriors appeared on the horizon and began walking toward him. They didn’t speak English and he didn’t speak their native language, but he was able to communicate that his car was broken down. They laughed, then left him there.
A few hours later, they returned, but this time there were a dozen of them. Smith feared greatly for his safety, trying to decide which would be worse, being eaten by lions or killed by Masai warriors. But listen to his description of what happened: “As the sun set that evening, one of the most bizarre scenes that had ever unfolded on the Serengeti Plain took place. A team of Masai warriors were pushing a dilapidated Renault across the trackless Serengeti with a lost American scholar sitting comfortably at the wheel.” Six miles they pushed him, to a remote school, where he was able to get help and resume his journey.
Then he wrote this beautiful sentence, and I want to close with it. “Beware of the fears that blind us to the unity that binds us.”
It’s been a difficult and painful year. I’m not an epidemiologist, so I can’t speak with scientific authority about Covid. But I hope I am speaking with a philosophical authority when I urge us not to spend our days locked away and cowering, crippled by fear. There’s another way to understand the story of Adam and Eve after all. Not that they were disobedient, but that they were brave, and being brave willingly absorbed the knowledge of good and evil, which led not to their deaths, but to their liberation.