How to Be Brave in a Pandemic

There are at least two things we do not lack in the coronavirus pandemic. One is practical advice: how to take preventive measures, how to act if you are sick, how to stock your pantry, how to stay six feet away from others, how to make your own wipes, how to make your own mask, how to exercise at home, how to coz-ify your living space, how to counter the maddening loneliness.

The other is fear. With the number of coronavirus cases in the US growing by the day, it is impossible not to fear that the disease will continue spreading; that we will not just lose our jobs (as millions already have) but our livelihood; that if we do contract the disease, it will be excruciating, humiliating, and debilitating.

To some extent we can combat these fears with practical knowledge. But while knowledge can answer many questions, it cannot answer them all (there are still many unknowns about the virus); and, in the end, knowledge is a weak substitute for the freedom and social interaction we need and crave.

So we shall also need courage, and not just for our personal sanity. When fear grows out of control, panic and anarchy ensue; and society cannot bear anarchy. This is one of the reasons politicians are constantly telling us to stay calm and not hoard things.

But what is courage—and how do we get more of it to face the difficult days ahead?

The answers vary, as one would expect. The geek in me would like to humbly suggest that everyone memorize the Benet Geserit litany from the classic sci-fi novel Dune:

I must not fear.
Fear is the mind-killer.
Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.
I will face my fear.
I will permit it to pass over me and through me.
And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path.
Where the fear has gone there will be nothing.
Only I will remain.

Source: Wikipedia

Note, here, that being courageous doesn’t mean the absence of fear. It means naming your fear, looking it in the eye, and pressing on in spite of it. I find this super cool and inspiring! And yet, ultimately too stoic. It is essential of course to develop the capacity to name and overcome our fears, but I think too much stress can be placed on a “suck it up” mind-over-emotions approach to life that fails to regard reason and passion with equal validity. So I’ve been turning to other sources, two of which have particularly resonated with me because I find they do a better job of addressing the whole person.

The first comes from an unlikely source: a short commentary on an 18th-century painting called Gilles by Jean-Antoine Watteau.

Gilles, by Antoine Watteau. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

You may think this weird clown of a man has nothing to do with facing the terrors of an international plague, but hear what art critic Sister Wendy Beckett has to say about it:

Gilles is a man discomforted: he stands exposed, tense, and unhappy. Yet we could not call him a man who is not at peace. Something has happened (Watteau does not spell it out) that has removed him from his fellow actors and left him painfully alone. Gilles is ill at ease, but he has no option: what is happening must be lived through, and he sets himself to do it. This courage — this acceptance of powerlessness and decision to await consequences from which we cannot escape — this is an element of confidence that springs from peace. Gilles is at peace because he does not rage against the inevitable. The wisdom is in knowing what is inevitable and what, with courage and intelligence, can be changed. Fundamentally, though, nothing matters except to be true to what we know is right.

~The Art of Lent (do a keyword search to find the title on the page).

Like Gilles, we too are painfully alone; we too are ill at ease; we too have no option. What is happening must be lived through, and we must sets ourselves to do it. We face the temptation to “rage against the inevitable”: to fear and to fret, to let our circumstances “dominate our minds,” to indulge in self-pity. Courage is when we choose to keep going on as best we can in the face of it all, not just because fear is a mind-killer to be slain, but also because we have ultimate purpose, dignity, and worth. Because being courageous is the right thing to do.

The second passage comes from Jesus and the Disinherited by Howard Thurman. This one is far more overt in its Christian theological bent, so consider the rest of this post for my Christian brothers and sisters.

Writing in the late 1940s when the evil of segregation was very much alive, Thurman (who was an influential mentor of Martin Luther King, Jr.) analyzed the unique suffering of the poor and marginalized, emphasizing that a key feature of their experience is fear. What resources can Christianity possibly offer to such individuals by way of courage—especially when Christianity itself has so often been twisted into a tool of oppression against them?

The answer, Thurman argues, lies in the offer of an eternal identity: the unshakeable assurance that those who follow Jesus—a homeless rabbi who was himself an impoverished, disinherited outsider—are granted the gift of becoming beloved children of the living God.

The awareness that a man is a child of the God of religion, who is at one and the same time the God of life, creates a profound faith in life that nothing can destroy.

Nothing less than a great daring in the face of overwhelming odds can achieve the inner security in which fear cannot possibly survive. It is true that a man cannot be serene unless he possesses something about which to be serene. Here we reach the high-water mark of prophetic religion, and it is of the essence of the religion of Jesus of Nazareth. Of course God cares for the grass of the field, which lives a day and is no more, or the sparrow that falls unnoticed by the wayside. He also holds the stars in their appointed places, leaves his mark in every living thing. And he cares for me! To be assured of this becomes the answer to the threat of violence—yea, to violence itself. To the degree to which a man knows this, he is unconquerable from within and without. (45)

Again, it may seem strange to talk about identity when we are facing joblessness, loneliness, disease, poverty, and death. But I am certain that Thurman would have understood such an objection and stuck with his conviction. He was writing about people facing joblessness and death every day, and would surely have pointed out that if your identity is tied to things that can be taken away from you, you will never get at the root of your anxiety and fear. If (for example) your identity is based on safety, financial success, social status, or health, it will be exceedingly difficult to be brave when something threatens to rob you of these enjoyments. But if you have an identity that is eternal—one that can be tested by enormous pressure and countless setbacks but never ultimately broken—then when you do suffer, you can press on in the face of any fear.

This isn’t mere abstraction. Are you afraid of being alone in this time of social distancing? Being a child of God means you are never alone. Are you afraid of losing your job and your money, and ultimately your sense of self-worth? Being a child of God means you possess a rich inheritance that is “imperishable, undefiled, and unfading” (1 Peter 1:4) and deemed forever worthy by the One who ultimately matters and who knows you by name. Are you afraid of your body wasting away and losing your natural beauty? Being a child of God means you are infinitely beautiful in the eyes of a loving father who gave up his only son for you. Are you afraid of death? Being a child of God means that the best thing that can happen to you—enjoying loving fellowship with God and others in a restored heaven and earth, forever free of pain and suffering—happens after death, and that death itself, the great enemy, will in the end be destroyed.

Thurman bears repeating with a few italics: “To be assured of this [identity] becomes the answer to the threat of violence—yea, to violence itself. To the degree to which a man knows this, he is unconquerable from within and without.” It is a discipline to know and be assured of these things—to live into this identity and remind oneself and others of it. I have no illusions about how hard that is right now. But it is our daily task. “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable … think about these things” (Philippians 4:8).

Of course, none of this means fear is a sign of weakness. It is not wrong to fear a ravaging sickness and looming economic catastrophe. It is in fact our Christian duty to regard disease, suffering, death, and poverty as enemies to be resisted with every ounce of our energy. To rest in one’s eternal identity is not to justify social or emotional complacency, as if we must avoid feeling sad or abandon this world to its inevitable destruction. Whole tracts of scripture are dedicated to the experience of grief, and there are countless commands in the Old and New Testament to fight for the common good of our neighbors. We should, for example, follow clear guidance from civil and medical authorities regarding social distancing. In addition to all that it says about our identity, the Bible has a lot to say about practical wisdom; and it should go without saying that we need wisdom along with courage: to judge how best to adjust and adapt when a crisis occurs. There is such a thing as stupid, blind faith—the attitude that says, “I don’t need to follow the guidance of doctors and politicians, because God will protect me.” Well, God uses doctors and politicians to protect you. Let’s not fall into false dichotomies.

Nevertheless, an eternal identity rooted in a good father’s unbreakable love does mean that fear is relativized. As believers we can look fear in the face because it is swallowed up by something greater. What St. Paul said in 2 Corinthians 4:8-9 is remarkably realistic: “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed.” Our road ahead is a difficult and dangerous one and it is vital to acknowledge that—while at the same time drawing strength from our foundational source of comfort: an ultimate identity and hope that enables us to keep choosing bravery even when we don’t at all feel like doing so.