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The contours of fear

The spread of COVID-19 has brought into sharp relief the good, the bad, and the ugly in human nature. To start with the good: We all know the heroic story of whistleblower doctor Li Wenliang in Wuhan, who died in the course of his fight against the virus. We rely on the courage and generosity of front-row medical staff, who have been working tirelessly to care for patients in quarantine sites. We’ve seen on social media kind Samaritans giving away free masks at a time when masks are hard to come by.

But there are also the not-so-good stories: of panic buying in Hong Kong and Singapore, emptying supermarket shelves overnight not only of masks and sanitizers but — of all things — toilet paper, and other essential items such as milk for babies. Of more-than-usually-obvious discrimination against Chinese-looking people everywhere, including here in the Philippines. And then, as the Philippine government prepared to repatriate OFWs from Wuhan, of outrage and shock from local officials and residents, first near Fort Magsaysay in Nueva Ecija (the first potential quarantine site), and then in Capas, Tarlac, where locals threatened to protest the arrival of the OFWs.

Perhaps it is easy for those of us not personally involved to condemn those locals in Capas for being so unwelcoming to their fellow citizens in their time of need. But I think these stories that we hear about people’s varying reactions also invite us to take a deeper look at ourselves. What would we have done if we had been in their shoes? In a time when we feel the need to protect ourselves from other people by means of masks and hand sanitizers, when we are afraid to go out, when we look at others with suspicion and distrust, as possible carriers of contagion — when push comes to shove, can we trust that we will still act in ways consistent with our common human dignity? Or will fear and the overriding drive for self-preservation rob us of the values we treasure — compassion, warmth, and hospitality, all those things that make us proud to be human, and Filipino?

In his book “Fear,” Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh offers some valuable wisdom. “We are afraid of things outside of ourselves that we cannot control,” he writes. “We worry about becoming ill, aging, and losing the things we treasure most. We try to hold tight to the things we care about—our positions, our property, our loved ones. But holding tightly doesn’t ease our fear. Eventually, one day, we will have to let go of all of them. We cannot take them with us. The only way to ease our fear and be truly happy is to acknowledge our fear and look deeply at its source. Instead of trying to escape from our fear, we can invite it up to our awareness and look at it clearly and deeply. We can transform our fear. The practice of living fully in the present moment — what we call mindfulness — can give us the courage to face our fears and no longer be pushed and pulled around by them. To be mindful means to look deeply, to touch our true nature of interbeing and recognize that nothing is ever lost.”

This invitation to consider the deeper, ultimate reality of things is also echoed in other spiritual traditions. In the Christian tradition, for example, St. Ignatius of Loyola reminds us that we come from God and share in God’s divine, eternal life. And so, as he states in his “Principle and Foundation,” we need not fix our desires on health or sickness, wealth or poverty, success or failure. Everything has the potential of calling forth in us a deeper response to our life in God. When we let go of our need to hold onto certain outcomes, then we are truly free to let God’s life deepen in us.

When you come to think of it, fear seems to lie behind so much of our social interaction. Would it not seem that the anti-illegal drug campaign that has killed thousands of the poor, for example, feeds on our fear of crime and violence (and breeds more)? And might not the recent controversy over our Visiting Forces Agreement with the United States suggest that the fear of losing face is a major element in our foreign relations? Perhaps we might reconsider whether these fear-induced reactions can really bring about lasting peace.

How can we stop letting fear rule our public and personal lives? Dare we look deeply into ourselves, acknowledge our fears, and act from that deep place within us where “nothing is ever lost”?

As that simple yet profound saying goes: “Peace can only begin with me.”