Can We Transform Fear to Strength In A Time of Pandemic?

Perhaps it will be found that the greatest hero owes the propriety of his conduct to the habit of encountering difficulties, and calling out with promptness the energies of his mind.

– William Godwin, Things As They Are, or the Adventures of Caleb Williams (1794)

My grandmother, Edna Clayton Steber, a woman of the 19th century who’d lived through a pandemic (1918), and as well lost a child to pneumonia, was mild in most things, but adamant about hand-washing after handling either pennies or library books.  This was no suspicion of libraries on her part; she was a reader.  The germs were the foes, not the library “commons.” Every visit to Grandma’s and Grandpa’s included a walk to the Ilion Public Library, and sampling its delights.   It was she who, while encouraging my vice of preferring reading to just about any activity, also planted in me my first notion of protecting myself against invisible malevolent microbes, or “germs.”  Although my brother and I tended to snicker over Grandma’s old-fashioned notions directing us to do something our mother never made us do,  the fear message had traction, perhaps more than the valid science of hygiene she tried to impart.

Many years after my grandmother’s death, I found myself compulsively hand-washing  during a prolonged period of crisis and breakdown in my 40’s. This experience, that I refer to frequently for the great treasure of things I learned from it,  taught me that fear, once I allow it to invade me, and the compulsive activity joined to it, is an addiction against which I am powerless.

Today, Day #5 under Governor Cuomo’s close-all-non-essential businesses decree, the world outside my window unnervingly silent, practically no signs of life, I see myself as existing on a razor’s edge between falling down into my fear and weakness , or occupying my strength.  Before the virus hit, even in retirement I  had so much responsibility, for the Cafe, for The Other Side, for keeping up with health challenges and doings of my family and helping as I could.  As the reality of seclusion sunk in, I  wondered how I will live day-to-day without those responsibilities that that keep me engaged in the world.  But in fact I find the sense of responsibility is a vacuum that automatically refills itself. If I’m not careful the vacuum is filled by a disabling self-destructive responsibility for everything and everyone in my life.  Because like everyone else I’m virtually house-bound, the overwhelming sense of responsibility quickly devolves into the hopeless “responsibility” of OCD: of the futile trying to – or imagining I should – disinfect/scrub everything (in other words, into the weakness of madness).  I wonder if we are not all, today, faced with this choice: finding our strength or succumbing to madness which, on the macro level, is the madness of capitalist rule.

But what is strength? The question is immense and not simple for us to answer: over decades of neoliberal dominance, we have imbibed its zero-tolerance for genuine strength. We have obediently kept ourselves weak, in large part because we have absorbed liberal, over-the-top suspicion of authority and commanding leadership. We see authority one-sidedly, as being behind abuse, atrocity, inequalities, etc..  So much so, we now prefer to leave the “throne” empty, deny real strength, and squabble over unimportant matters while “the worst,” with no checks on them, are increasingly empowered.

In New York State we are seeing, for the first time in a  long time, evidence of strength in our leader.  The relief that came over me last Monday, when Governor Cuomo announced the closings of all non-essential businesses at 8 pm, thus saving us from the decision to close our business – or to keep it open, so complicated either way – was the relief that there was, after all, someone at the helm, and its not Ahab!

His taking this action showed me even the “government,” of which we have so many valid reasons to be mistrustful, can surprise us. My anarchist friend Pete, when I mentioned to him my gratitude for the governor’s directive, responded, laughingly, “That doesn’t sound like anarchism!”  All I could do was explain the relief I felt having impossible decisions taken from me.  Without leadership from the top, in a crisis so unprepared for as the current pandemic,  impossible decisions are the reality; we are headless chickens, some refusing refuse healthy fear by insisting “No corona virus is going to ruin my spring break!” Others wonder if we should venture out to the supermarket, visit our children, wear masks, scratch our face, etc., in danger of being overcome by the impossibilities, falling further and further into unhealthy fear.  For some of us, this unhealthy fear is as addictive as the clinging to the illusion of control evidenced by those who refuse to give up their customary way of life.

Notably, I have not heard the governor say “We can beat this thing!” and other such cheering,  pseudo-leadership kinds of crowd-playing the sole purpose of which would be to relieve himself of dreaded responsibility.  Instead, Cuomo says, we will do this and this and this.  The contrast with the President could not be greater.  All Trump has to offer are promises of pharmaceutical saviors, lies, thrown out to the people in the only manner he knows how to relate to us – in this TV-huckster kind of way. Watching Trump it is so clear he has never been tested by adversity in his life; he is not functioning in our reality, can neither lead nor act.  One has to pray that somebody among his advisers is there by mistake, and is actually an independently thinking adult who sees his duty to his country as being something beyond a duty to keep the president placated.  And that Trump can have the grace to step aside when someone speaks thoughtfully, as an adult, and can actually help him out of his mire.

My point, however, is not praise for Cuomo’s leadership, but what his show of leadership – so exceedingly rare in our day – reveals about our relation to strength: that the real aim for each of us who buys into the middle class dream,  America’s materialist dream,  is that he/she may be removed from struggle and the true risk of living.  It is to arrive in heaven without suffering, or without any of the bothersome details I have no time for.  It is a recipe for addiction, and can only produce a public that is essentially disempowered, passive, incapable of action, left swimming in a sibling sea of ceaseless bickering locked with each other in an oppositional death embrace.  It is a dream of life that is stripped of trial, risk, testing, those oppositions that “try men’s souls” and produce, through a process both spiritual and alchemical, mysterious but universally attainable,  human beings with the strength to act.

Reading the novel Caleb Williams by William Godwin, the “father” of English anarchism,  one particular line was worth to me the entire read (which, to my surprise I enjoyed).  In a confrontation with his employer, the noble and universally admired Mr. Falkland,  the youthful protagonist, Caleb,   is falsely accused of robbing his master in front of Falkland’s entire household. Given the chance to speak for himself, the honest, though naïve young Caleb proclaims his innocence, and one thing more: he declares “I therefore firmly and from my soul believe that [the stolen goods discovered in my belongings] is of Mr. Falkland’s contrivance.”  He is immediately interrupted by “an involuntary exclamation from everyone present.” With the entire household’s opinion against him, when asked to apologize to Falkland, his only chance to have the law soften its face toward him, Caleb refuses. Seeing he is to be “deprived of the benefits of integrity and honor, to “forfeit every friendship” he’s known,  Caleb concludes: “Depend upon it I will not begin my career [i.e, of  banishment from society] by dishonorable concessions.  For if I am to despair of the good will of other men, I will at least maintain the independence of my own mind.”

This was the second book I’d read recently that was essentially an old-fashioned adventure tale, (the other being Redburn (1849), by Herman Melville).  In both novels, the protagonists, through a process of self-education, learn in extremely adversarial conditions to think for themselves, to grow stronger, more self-reliant and decisive.  Both stories, deeply entertaining to read because of the soul-level resonance of  the adventure theme, point to what is missing in our  anxious, panic-just-below-the-surface (now raised to the surface) times.  The absence of  adventure is not a healthy condition for human beings.  It makes impossible the growth of souls strong enough to “maintain the independence of our own minds”   Without adventures we are left to be “educated” by our education “system,” that has no intention of raising people who “maintain the independence of their minds!”

Anger is a justifiable response to  having been left unprepared against a plague that would have been contained had our leaders understood their task as serving the good of the collective many, not of the corporate few.  The anger ought to be general.  We ought now to ready ourselves for the opportunity – once the pandemic is contained – not to return to “business as usual,” – i.e., and its slow death for the planet, growing inequalities, fascism, etc. – that laid the awful ground for it.

The coronavirus reality has brought us, collectively and individually, into an adventure, albeit a stay-at-home one,  unprecedented, replete with real trials and terrors, uncertain as to duration or outcome.  It gives us reason to hear the call inherent in its challenge, rather than either to cling to the illusion of control, or give in to panic.  Its challenge is not for heroism of the conventional kind, but for a kind of counter-heroism, a willingness to confess  powerlessness in a situation over which we have no control, to drop down into our intrinsic humanity, and thus to allow space for the inner authority that can recover a human being from the grip of soul death.  We are more practiced at self-crippling disablement than our 18th and 19th century forbears, assisted as we are by many  “prosthetic aids” (TV! Social media! Gadgets! Shopping! Workaholism! Collective denial!). But true strength, “the energies of our minds” has not been killed off, and can be restored.  Though we are conditioned to  passivity and conformity, to thinking inside the box of corporate capitalism, never outside it,  even as we mourn the loss of all the familiar features of our social lives, in this strange and unsettling new reality, we can struggle for the humanity of ourselves, as the certain thing left to each one.

I recommend to everyone sequestered in their homes,  after everything  has been reasonably scrubbed, to take pen in hand (or word processor) and journal through the fear as if it would help.  That is, this is not the time to abandon your art but to practice it for your life. Make art out of your fear.  (Another art besides writing might work as well.)  Poised as we are now right next door to anxiousness, just a thin wall between, the time is synchronous to turn to the creative unconscious to enter a reality that is imagination-based.  I’m not a meditater in the standard, eastern sense, though I know those practices  calm the mind and free it for its application to every day life.  But, right now, there is no everyday life.   Right now, at the end of the fork, there’s the wreckage wrought by neoliberal “priorities” over human ones, a society divided and humanly degraded, presided over by a government serving the self- interests of the few obscenely rich at its top, a rapidly toxifying environment, a climate heating up to a point of mass extinctions, that depends on its wars and its weapons-mongering for its sense of purpose, a policy of handling its social inequalities by mass incarcerations, etc.  There is nothing worth salvaging in this!  We have nothing to lose by imagining our way into the better world, and refusing to live by the dehumanizing priorities of an economy that values the machine-like over the human.

No one in her right mind would ask for an “adventure” such as we now are in. But a door is now open that during “business as usual” is always firmly shut, an opportunity to find independence of mind through trusting in one’s creative expression, and to rebuild the humanity – beginning with one’s own – that has been so badly rent under the dehumanizing rule of neoliberalism that deems human beings replaceable.  We’ve been forsaken; to overthrow illegitimate political authority, the sovereign authority within must first be restored, and the slow work of repairing relationships and rebuilding trust, down at the very bottom, must begin.

Kim C. Domenico, reside in Utica, New York, co-owner of Cafe Domenico (a coffee shop and community space),  and administrator of the small nonprofit independent art space, The Other Side.  Seminary trained and ordained,  but independently religious. She can be reached at: