“This is preeminently the time to speak the truth, the whole truth, frankly and boldly. Nor need we shrink from honestly facing conditions in our country today. This great Nation will endure as it has endured, will revive and will prosper. So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance. In every dark hour of our national life a leadership of frankness and vigor has met with that understanding and support of the people themselves which is essential to victory. I am convinced that you will again give that support to leadership in these critical days.”
—Franklin D. Roosevelt inaugural address, 1933
In my last piece on demonization in the time of COVID-19, I wrote about the denialism among far-right and Christian-Nationalist types that is leading them to keep their churches open for in-person worship without either proper social distancing or correct usage of personal protective equipment, not to mention pushing, together with rightwing politicians, for increased speed (and abandon?) in reopening “normal” public life, by which they mean economic life.
One common refrain from this sector is that the coronavirus and societal measures to lessen or moderate its impact are “a weapon of the enemy to enslave us to our fears.” Fort Worth-based televangelist Kenneth Copeland even suggested during a broadcast in early March that fearing the pandemic was causing it to worsen. He said:
“Fear is a spirit…an evil spirit…the spirit of death. Forget about the coronavirus. It’s the flu. Fear is a spiritual force…Fear tolerated is faith contaminated. The coronavirus is a curse of the law. Fear is not OK. It is sin. It is a magnet for sickness and disease. The moment you begin to fear about anything, the devil goes to work on you. You are giving the devil a pathway to your body.”
This same theme resounds among the strident voices of the “Reopen” protests now occurring across the nation. Protestors brandish handmade signs emblazoned with such messages as “Fear is the real Virus,” “Freedom over Fear,” “Flatten the Fear,” and “Truth not Fear.”
Even far more moderate, only nominally Christian, New Age-y congregations like the “Cathedral of Light” based near where I live in North Texas have distanced themselves from the language and notion of “fearing” COVID-19. The church states on the portion of their webpage devoted to detailing their coronavirus response that “the decision [to move worship online] is not made in fear but in Love.”
By contrast, I wrote of Satanists and what I characterized as our more honest, non-denialist approach to demons and demonization, including the “demon” of COVID-19, that “we’re scared: scared to death.” I personally don’t feel there’s anything wrong with acknowledging, even embracing, this fear. I have a lot to live for—you know: wife, kids, sensual delights, roller skating!—and absolutely nothing to gain from risking it all on a trip out to eat or to a movie in the theater inside a state prematurely opened for business as, more-or-less, usual.
That something invisible, tasteless, odorless, emanating from sources unknown, and directed by forces entirely out of my (or anyone else’s) individual control could put a full stop to everything I value and that values me makes my blood run cold. This is especially true if we’re talking about a risk taken without a well and truly compelling reason behind it. If it were instead a question of the roller rinks reopening, now that might be a “whole ‘nuther matter entirely” as they say. (Though, truth be told, the owner of the rink where I usually roll and his life-partner both fell ill with coronavirus back in March, one of them even requiring a lengthy stint in the ICU, so…maybe not.)
In indulging my feelings of fear, I don’t feel like I’m letting down “the faith,” society at large, or “leadership,” nor engaging in fundamental sin. Far to the contrary, it is precisely fear that is in the main keeping me responsible during this crisis, ensuring that I act prudently so as to help ensure to the best of my meager ability that me and mine stay healthy and therefore unable to aid and abet the further spread of this virus.
And this isn’t selfishness in the service of altruism either. I want to get back to some workable state of society where my kids, my wife, and I can leave the house to do the things we used to thrive on, like playing on playgrounds, roller skating ad nauseam, camping in state parks, and—yes—even going out for the occasional meal or movie. I want to do those things again, right now, without undue risk or worry, which is precisely why I’m not rushing out to do them all right now, when virus tests are insufficient, effective treatments are unavailable or in their infancy, and vaccines are non-existent.
Obviously, though, those more steeped in delayed-return religiosity and more committed to delayed-return cultural values than I feel differently. It turns out that fear is not just the boogeyman of the Bene Gesserit with their “Litany against Fear” described in Frank Herbert’s vivid science-fiction imaginings. It must also threaten with “total obliteration” whatever it is that delayed-return religiosity and cultural indoctrination are trying their damnedest to inculcate in us here in the real world.
What’s really at stake when we don’t fear fear?
I’ve written briefly before about how traditional delayed-return religious goals like nirvana and the Buddhist ideal of the arhat, mystical Christian kenosis and the notion of the anchorite or anchoress, Sufi fana and the state of baqaa, even the lesser commitments of Hindu sannyasins, Jain sadhus, Buddhist bhikkus and bhikkunis, and Christian monks and nuns all depend on the idea of not just withdrawing from engagement with the world of everyday experience (especially politics, family life, and commerce), but also on emotional and psychological detachment from much of what we might call the human passions, like, for instance, fear.
These aims might sound like worthy pursuits in the abstract, especially when translated into the usual self-improvement language aimed at lay practitioners, who are taught to concentrate on surrendering themselves and their anxieties to God, the universe, nature, or whatever other moniker the unseen delayed-return order goes under. Psychologist Kevin Dutton, though, has given us all some food for thought about just how far cultivation of detachment goes in traditional religion, intellectual morsels that ought to set our teeth right on edge.
In his 2012 book The Wisdom of Psychopaths: What Saints, Spies, and Serial Killers Can Teach Us About Success, Dutton notes that “spiritual athletes” such as Tibetan monks highly practiced in meditation and self-renunciation display traits of emotional detachment that rival those of clinical psychopaths, themselves famous—nay infamous—for their cold-bloodedness and imperturbability under the most extreme of circumstances. Dutton even suggests that “the spectrum might be circular…that across the neural dateline of sanity and madness, the psychopaths and antipsychopaths [like monks and saints] sit within touching distance of each another.”
In other words, numerous spiritual practices the world over seem actually to have as their pinnacle goal and achievement the attainment of psychopathic, or at least psychopath-adjacent, traits. Remember how Frank Herbert’s would-be world-dominating Bene Gesserit train both mind and body for years on end, down through centuries, in order to obtain superhuman capabilities that seem like magic? It’s kind of like that.
Moreover, as Dutton covers in detail, these same psychopathic-type characteristics map well onto a delayed-return social order where detachment, fearlessness, and insulation from emotional extremes that might lead to paralysis in moments of high stress are prized, even concretely valuable, personality traits. Dutton’s own massive online survey of psychopathic traits among British individuals keyed to the professions they practice found that the lion’s share of occupations customarily represented in children’s “what I wanna be when I grow up” fantasies score highest in psychopathy: surgeons, CEOs, lawyers, media personalities, civil servants, police officers, chefs, journalists, even…wait for it…clergy.
Is it any wonder, then, that delayed-return religion should seek to cultivate in humans traits which can be parlayed within delayed-return social systems into real material prosperity? Even in societies where they aren’t signing book deals or appearing to chat breezily with talk show hosts, religious professionals nonetheless hold a kind of celebrity status common in human cultures of almost all stripes.
Simple-living Jain monks, for instance, draw large crowds at their ordination ceremonies or when they speak on spiritual topics. They have even featured as the subjects of documentary films. When naked Digambar monks travel about during their vihara or ‘wanderings,’ passers-by kneel before them in reverence and households are expected to feed them whenever they appear unbidden, before sending them on their mendicant way.
Despite all the talk of renunciation among religious professionals across traditions, theirs is a career path of sorts in every human society in which such things exist, carrying the weight of social capital which can be, and usually is, exploited in the service of distinctly less than spiritual aims. Usually this unpleasant aspect of religious professional “stardom” involves coercing or outright forcing others into sex. I’m not going to bother linking here all, or even a representative sample, of the myriad news stories of sexual abuses committed by religious professionals of literally every variety. You can find threads on the subject on the blog’s Twitter account. You can also just do your own Googling. I’m sure if I looked for it, I’d even find such stories of Shinto priests and curanderos as well. And don’t bother protesting that there are asshole exceptions in every religious community: these communities function by means of delayed-return rules and structures that permit, even aid and abet, this kind of abuse. That’s the point.
By the way, I’m aware that monasticism in many traditional religious cultures, as among Jains and Buddhists of various stripes and even, in a prior age, within Christendom, is often not strictly voluntary, but a matter of family designs on pride, prestige, honor, community expectation, and what have you. Accordingly, “inductees” can easily themselves be the victims of coercive, predatory social structures. The problem with abusive monks and nuns, then, is not entirely reducible to the individual coercive, predatory acts of bad-actors of the cloth. As is usually the case in cases of abuse, we have to do here with a vicious circle.
Like in the Bene Gesserit Litany against it, fear really is the mind-killer if what you need and prize the mind for is the endless plotting and scheming featured so prominently in the highly delayed-return, Caucaso-Islamic-veneered world Frank Herbert dreamed up in Dune, with its “plans within plans within plans within plans.” It certainly proves deadly to Bene Gesserit machinations.
In fact, Herbert’s famous gom jabbar test the Bene Gesserit employ to sort humans from “animals” provides an apt analog for delayed-return living itself. The test requires strict self-abnegation in the service of withstanding short-term pain for the sake of gaining longer-term reward and freedom from pain, all while another watches you, takes your measure, and passes judgement on your ultimate worth as a person. Witness the Digambar Jain monk, with his twenty-two afflictions, external austerities, and his concern for “the conquest of the disturbance caused by women,” all in service to his desire to attain moksha or liberation from life, pain, and having to accept responsibility for karmas. Even in less extreme terms more relatable to the average American, delayed-return living still involves the gom jabbar principle in one way or another, just like one of my favorite old Indigo Girls songs says:
“He graded my performance, he said he could see through me
I spent four years prostrate to the higher mind
Got my paper and I was free.”
Of course fear can become a problem, like when my nine- and seven-year-old daughters are leaping around river rocks (not so fast!) or attempting to help me cook by slicing onions (be careful of those precious little digits!) or when they’re just out of my sight for a bit too long while we’re out and about and I freak out (Kids?! Where are you?!). In all of these, and a plethora of other, cases, overweening fear can constitute a big obstacle in the way of my being a happy, high-functioning adult as well as a calm, helpful guide of a parent.
Couldn’t the same be said of any emotional response, even joy, though, when taken to too great an excess?
At the beginning of the section of his Satanic Bible entitled “Some Evidence of a New Satanic Age,” Anton LaVey had some good things to say about “sins” and the need to balance them against one another while indulging. Greed motivates ambition, but alimentary greed (gluttony) can lead to obesity, which offends that other important “sin” of pride. So pride acts as a bridle to rein in gluttony, just as proper amounts of sloth can counteract excessive envy, which could lead to over-ambition and burn-out.
True—fear can keep us from acting at all, full stop, which would lead to paralysis and decay, withering miserably away while holed up in darkened homes under quarantine. But it can also, in proper amounts, just keep us from acting foolishly, which might end up under the current circumstances in infection for ourselves and others and, worst case, death.
LaVey writes of guilt that it “can often add a fillip to the senses,” leading to childlike glee in the commission of illicit acts. He instructs that, if you cannot entirely eliminate guilt from your Satanic transgressions, you “should learn to make your guilt work for you…revel in your guilt.” We might say similarly of fear: make it work for you, revel in it, especially in this time of COVID-19.
Fear provides spice for life, giving you that little jolt of adrenaline, whether in the knowing and careful commission of calculatedly dangerous acts or in forbearance from truly disastrous mistakes where the risks are not fully understood, known, or controllable to any real degree. The only “sin” regarding fear would consist in being too ignorant of its important role in human psychology and physiology to allow it to perform its important, essential work in us and our daily activity.
Pace FDR, fear is neither unreasoning nor unjustified. And this remains true despite all the harangues from right-leaning religious and political leaders to the contrary. We all need to take stock of just how these “leaders” who are encouraging us to “fight the fear” are themselves falling all over each other in their own rush to both cajole others (us!) into heedless action and to set themselves up for perfect plausible deniability. Our fearing fear serves principally their ends, not necessarily our own.
When such leaders who shun true leadership speak of “free will” and “personal responsibility,” wielding these concepts as goads to spur us into irresponsible action that we might not have willed for ourselves, what they really mean is “blameworthiness.” If we let ourselves be argued out of the fear for the sake of whatever “something larger than ourselves” they’re selling at the moment, only to suffer some adverse consequence or other in the process, you better bet those same “leaders” will be the first in line to declare us personally culpable and, once again, all on our miserable own.