A Vaccine Against Fear?

Second Sunday of Lent


“It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door,” said Bilbo. “You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.” (J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring)

I love this quote from J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring.” It invites the reader to embrace a sense of wonder and adventure. But in our current climate of uncertainty, of dangers real and made-up, it is an ominous warning against the unknown. If you haven’t been watching the news on TV or listening to it on the radio or reading about it in the paper or on the internet, you might not know what awaits you outside your door and out there in the world. You would not have a clue whether or not it was safe to even go out. But you are here. So that says you were willing to take a chance coming out your door and leaving home. But then, you must already have known what was going on out in the world, and vaguely how much of it might affect you, including but not limited to natural calamities, bad drivers, the zombie apocalypse, sharknado, and the last thing you ate. And still you determined the risk was worth taking, along with being extra vigilant and taking every reasonable precaution to ensure you get back home safe.

The outbreak of the new strain of the coronavirus is sowing much fear all over the world because we’ve seen what it can do. We are reminded that significantly more people die each year from the regular flu, yet that statistic doesn’t seem to alarm many. A flu vaccine is available each year with varying effectiveness, but the science proves it’s better than nothing. And when certain death is one possible outcome among many of exposure to all that really nasty stuff out there, and I’m speaking in generalities—so I don’t know better than you or your doctor—it’s probably wise to pay attention to the smart people and their professional recommendations, while reserving the right to make an informed dissent. Disease is scary because we can’t see it until after it does its damage. And the coronavirus apparently can go undetected from 2 to 14 days after exposure. As of last night, people have tested positive for the virus in 92 countries as well as 30 of the contiguous United States and Hawaii. In Rome the pope is even giving his Sunday address via livestream, not because he’s afraid of catching anything, but probably to discourage the crowds from venturing out and taking that unnecessary risk. Last night, Washington DC and Virginia each reported that a patient has tested positive for the virus. The patient in Fairfax County was hospitalized on Thursday. Authorities finally announced the test results yesterday. What else don’t we know?

Fighting a disease brings many challenges including costly research, a lot of patience, even failure and heartbreak. But fighting disease means having to fight fear and ignorance along with it. Ignorance can be overcome with factual information, knowledge, understanding, even a dash of humor. So avoiding the news, and I mean credible factual information reported by proven reliable news outlets, will only feed our ignorance. And when we feed our ignorance, we inadvertently end up feeding our fear.

Overcoming fear, as it turns out, is a trickier business. Everyone has an opinion on the matter. Even Jesus told his disciples on many occasions not to be fearful. But he didn’t give specific instructions on how it’s done. So I checked out some resources online and found some useful information. But you have to be wary of self-proclaimed experts who can’t credibly prove where they got their information and who vehemently denounce anyone who challenges them.

Ignorance is the absence of knowledge, experience, wisdom, and understanding. Knowledge is generally gained by education—from books, from observing events and people and life, from listening to credible smart people who really know things, even from our own or other people’s mistakes. Experience is gained by actually doing things and interacting with others, whether the outcome is a success or a failure. And in my limited experience, failure is hands down the better teacher.

Wisdom and understanding are not as easily attained. We will need the help of insight, a kind of inner vision, which doesn’t come just by our sheer willing it. And since this insight, this inner vision, is subjective, it’s really up to us to determine if it comes from sources we can trust. We start by trusting the people we love. And we come to trust our insight, our inner vision, from listening to their wisdom and understanding. I am also convinced God’s grace plays an important role in the insight, the inner vision we receive. But a conviction is not something you learn. It’s something you embrace.

Fear is also the absence of something. It has been described as the absence of trust, or the absence of love, or the absence of God. I believe it is a combination of all three. Now since it is entirely up to us to determine that acceptable level of trust, and love, and trust and love of God, we could benefit from some guidance. When God spoke to Abram and instructed him to leave the land of his kinsfolk and his father’s house to settle in some far-off unfamiliar place among strangers, my gut tells me he was compelled to do as he was instructed out of total trust or total fear of God. We know the rest of the story. So we can also conclude Abram had to arrive at that trust and love of God from a unique blend of education and experience and wisdom and understanding.

And life comes with its fair share of trial and hardship and disappointment. No one is spared. St. Paul even reminds Timothy that our faith in God and the choice to follow Jesus will not protect us from life’s challenges. Rather, faith and conviction help us to face our fears in as much as we are able to put our trust in God and those we love.

The transfiguration of Jesus on the mountain was a privilege granted to Peter, James, and John. Perhaps these three had a closer connection with Jesus than the others. But this singular experience had to be just one of many that helped them face their fears when he was eventually arrested and put to death. By then they had learned to trust each other as well so they could continue the business and adventure of living despite their fears and the trials, hardships, and disappointments that came their way.

A group of our young people have asked to receive Confirmation and the gift of God’s Holy Spirit later this week. Please keep them in your prayers. But every year one or two will decline the sacrament. Of course we are always free to decline God’s gifts. And I am sure those who receive the sacrament don’t all understand that gift. But if fear is a factor in that decision, it helps to lean on the people we love. Their example of trust can inspire us to trust. So when you are able to trust, understanding is entirely optional.

Rolo B Castillo © 2020