Healthy and Unhealthy Fear in the Age of Coronavirus

Perhaps because I have so much of it, I am fascinated by the subject of fear.  One part of me, the “scaredy-cat” side, when its activated “dies a thousand deaths,” making me I suppose half a coward.  I honestly think I’m not alone in being thus half a coward, but I am relatively alone in being conscious of the low-level struggle in myself with debilitating fear. On one hand, I will not rush out and buy massive quantities of Clorox and scrub and spray everything that doesn’t move in my house, which to me is acting on a kind of blind fear.  On the other, in a time like this, when the veil has been ripped off the fear and uneasiness that has saturated us for decades in the “Age of Anxiety,” I struggle each day to stay on the non-cowardly side. This is not to say, I try to be unafraid, but to stay in a place of “relative equilibrium,” in which I can discern the crazy fear of my scaredy-cat side such that I can opt to “keep my head” rather than go there, and can act deliberately amidst the terrifying surroundings of the coronavirus epidemic.

By this I mean that one has to be aware of the terrifying reality in order to act in a way we can call deliberate, or “sane,” in a manner we’re entitled to believe is guided by love rather than driven by fear.  Unfortunately for Americans now, the encouragement from inauthentic political leadership at the top is to minimize the terrifying reality, to suggest that it is manageable, or to suggest that it doesn’t matter that its not;  the “great” economy must be resumed so the 20% who own 93% of the stocks can have their illusory financial health restored.  There is a great danger here, due to the  natural desire to be relieved from the awful tension caused by fear of the virus, to have “normality” restored, to stop having to be reminded every day by the masks, the rules of social distancing, the closures that limit our social lives so drastically, of Something Scary.  Truly, we must not ask that the fear be taken from us illegitimately, in a way that is careless of the well-being of our brothers and sisters on the planet. From this perspective, the pandemic has brought us to a pivotal point, individually and collectively; with our humanity itself in the balance.

Friday, as Orin and I arrived at our Cafe after its noon closing (open now for take-out only) we saw a man, a familiar-but-not-frequent customer, peering inside, reading Molly’s sign about the change in hours, etc.  Dan explained he was getting a little “stir crazy,” planned now to come here with a friend on Monday when the shop is open again.  When Orin, in a reply to Dan’s question, answered, “We’re doing the best we can in a tough time;” Dan’s response was, “Yes, we need to get back to work.”  While I heard this as the kind of wistful wish on the part of people who have only their jobs to occupy them and are in varying degrees going “nuts,” Orin concluded these were the words of a Trumpie, who wants to get the economy going, concern for peoples’ lives be damned.    The two possible interpretations are closely related!

In an earlier time when Americans faced a collective trauma, we were told by then-President FDR “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”  This oft-quoted line gets one part right, and is also dead wrong. It does not take into account the fact that at least since the phrase  “Age of Anxiety” was coined by W.H. Auden in 1947, modern consciousness sits atop a huge unrelieved reservoir of fear and anxiety, the consequence, earlier, of the shift to an industrial society, exacerbated by horrors of Auschwitz, Hiroshima, climate collapse, etc., and, more fundamentally, of  the accompanying loss of myth-based reassurance of order and meaning.  To reassure people they should not get carried away by fears of this or that particular dreadful consequence that hasn’t occurred yet, is good advice.  To say we only have fear to fear – as if fear is something ephemeral that the rational mind can handle on its own – is not.

The Age of Anxiety having existed anxiously now for 73 years, 3 generations have accustomed themselves to living in a state of constant fearfulness, unprotectedness, without  assurance of safety.   This legacy has left us with an abiding fear of our fear,  attached as it is to lifetime-long threads of fears that must be compartmentalized in order for individuals to function in the dehumanizing environment of  industrial society.  This surplus unconscious  fear, once triggered, takes on a life of its own, expressed in addictions, compulsions, rashes and other ailments springing from the stress of repression of tremendous fear.  Though I am calling this “unhealthy” fear because it disables, this fear, too, is real and must be respected.  Its effect, when not granted its reality by being made  conscious, is to limit the afflicted, including good liberals, to a kind of personal survivalism.  With all energy consumed in that fear the larger context of “love thy neighbor” is unattainable, we are cut off from our strength. In the neoliberal capitalist order, we can only be weak.

The unconscious burden of fear carried by modern people made us leery in the first place of taking the threat of pandemic seriously, though the warnings had long been sounded from legitimate sources.  To take measures against pandemic would have been to admit there is something out there terrifying and outside our control.  Merely allowing that thought into consciousness is so petrifying it must be repressed.  Warnings from scientists and medical experts cannot avail against this deep-seated fear because it is irrational! It is not touched by facts and mathematical projections of exponential growth of the virus.  These provide no reassurance and are not meant to; but also they are only a partial truth. What irrational fear wants and must have is irrational reassurance.  If in response, only Science-based facts are provided, they easily are spin-doctored into just another scare, probably a Republican/Democratic conspiracy to get the elections suspended or a CDC/Deep State effort to throw out Trump. Just another fake news crisis ramped up to sell newspapers, etc.

In fact, there exists a legitimate reassurance for this panicky kind of fear, ro which, in the post-enlightenment era, we are not allowed access.  The reassurance frightened people hunger for – a hunger that cannot be fed with facts –  is not, at bottom, reassurance they are safe from the virus, but that they are safe inside a larger context of meaning that is utterly denied in our post-modern reality.  In simplest terms, that context is one in which human beings and their relationships in families and communities matter in a way that orders all other concerns below that one.

Without such a legitimate reassurance it is impossible to have  a “healthy fear,” i.e.,  one that acts on behalf of saving human lives, on behalf of the good of the people.  Leading up to the outbreak of the virus, perhaps we had forgotten there is such a thing as “healthy fear” of the kind that raises up leaders in a time of crisis. An interesting exception  to this rule, unaccustomed as I am to pointing to any living politician as a positive example, is seen in NYS’s Gov. Andrew Cuomo.  For weeks now he has been acting on the basis of healthy fear, his purpose, to save as many human lives as possible.  However this came to be – and I know nothing about his spiritual beliefs or his political ideals,  the Governor is being a conduit for legitimate reassurance to all of us in the foxholes.

No one should take my word for this.  Listen to one of the governor’s daily briefings, and you will catch not just the facts, but the vibe that comes from healthy fear.  When you feel that vibe, it is not a question of whether he is or is not a crook, or a liberal, or a Wall Street flunky, or whatever.  When the relationship to fear is healthy, there is something else going on.  It is – I must say it – strength.  It is the legitimate reassurance that there is – forgive me, I must use the deeper-referenced, myth-based language which alone is adequate, however gendered – a Father in charge.

Could this be a ploy, a manipulative tool on Cuomo’s part, a charade of strength rather than the real thing? Should we keep our protective skepticism handy not to be duped into accepting reassurance, however tempting? We have no proof of his integrity, none is possible.  We have only a feeling, the feeling that one is being protected and therefore, that to feel safe is a valid need.  What such unscientific evidence suggests (to me) is that Cuomo is acting within the powerful archetype of the Father that sends a message of resolution, decisiveness, and concern for all his children.  Through the unifying power of the archetype, the feeling of being protected in turn enables us to move from disabling unhealthy fear to behaviors on behalf of healthy fear.  It doesn’t relieve us of the individual, private struggle with our own terrors and compulsions; it merely reminds us that a more connective and wholesome reality exists. It does not mean we are guaranteed actual safety from the terrible virus; it means we have the right to feel safe.

I do not know why or how Cuomo came to be a conduit for this archetypal reality.  I speculate that perhaps out of familial respect he is not compulsively dismissive toward an order that begins in the archetypal, divine, ancestral realm.  Through my own experience of marrying into Italian culture, I learned that its distinctive feature is a conscious patriarchy, quite distinct from the vestiges of patriarchy in the white protestant world of my upbringing.  Italian patriarchal culture by no means eliminates anger at the patriarchs; but, being more conscious, the father anger does not take the diseased, passive-aggressive form it takes in white liberal protestant world, that must, it seems not rest until it makes fathers into helpless buffoons.  Such a social environment leaves very little chance for positive archetypal father energy  to have an avenue of access into the society – causing an absence so very costly in human terms for the souls of both men and women.

Here I must be clear: I am not writing a “pro-Cuomo” piece.  Intelligent and astute readers today may hear someone like me who encroaches into the realm of politics as being partisan.  Any controversy in what I say ought to be because I fear not to tread on the sensibilities of  “other”-phobes,  either those who fear the “other” of spirit or the “other” of sex; my “political” opinion more resembling the approval of a candidate for chief by a tribal elder than the siblingism of electoral politics.

As I reflected upon healthy fear and its connection to archetypal or “divine” reality, as I have been doing, I saw its relation  to what once was called “fear of God.”  Fear, in this sense, was not quaking in the boots-type fear, but awe before the radically other.  Stretching out the meaning imaginatively, fear of God  may be respect for the imaginative fact that other realities exist, outside of one’s control and hence automatically disturbing by the very fact of their otherness, of their being beyond the range of one’s personal and reassuringly “normal” reality.  A healthy fear of God, then would not, as religious fundamentalism might have it, mean placating God through “conspicuous piety” making one morally superiority to one’s neighbor, thus more deserving of heavenly reward (a destructively divisive belief).

Healthy “fear of God” is living consciously, as though the worst could befall one at any moment; as though one cannot be  protected against the possibility of fate swooping in, bringing a plague or other affliction, or a loss, or the disturbing revelation of one’s spouse as“other” –  mysteries for  for which one is unprepared.  To live thus aware of precarity  is impossible without a “containment,” a reassurance of the reality of order, the very reassurance for which we must neverask in the world ruled by materialist, scientific rationalism.

In the inward silence of every human being, exists a seat, or space, for this legitimate reassurance, sufficient to challenge rationalist, materialist hegemony.  In my experience, at least, the Ann-Frank-like seclusion, so deeply unsettling because so suggestive of our lack of control over a brutal reality, is opportunity precisely for that reason.  Supplied for decades with addictions and snake-oil promises keeping us weak and servile, aiding and abetting each other in mutual weakness,  it is time for people to defy the illegitimate restriction against the knowledge attainable within, the non-optional basis for genuine strength that is built, like anything meant to last,  from the bottom up.

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: