A wise old reporter once gave me some of the best column advice I ever received. “Write about whatever everybody is talking about,” he said.
The topic is easy to come up with this week, but not so easy to write about. Sure, I can write about how to wash your hands or what a terrible crisis our country is facing, but you know all about that. So, I think I will write about fear.
People tell us from the oval office and the pulpit not to let fear take control, but then we go out and buy a year’s supply of toilet paper or panic our way to a stock-market crash anyway.
“The great enemy of the truth is very often not the lie, deliberate, contrived and dishonest, but the myth, persistent, persuasive and unrealistic,” John F. Kennedy said over a half century ago. And we all remember Franklin Delano Roosevelt's simple statement that “we have nothing to fear but fear itself.” The Bible tells us “God is with you,” and describes where we can go for “refuge and strength.”
We’ve heard all that, we want to believe it, yet we fear.
Most Sunday mornings around 8 a.m. my wife Felicia and I are at First Baptist Church in Salem cooking breakfast for kids who ride the bus to Sunday School and services. I was a little over an hour later than that this past Sunday, and as I drove to the church at 201 N. MacArthur I passed Country Mart grocery store, where signs noted the store would be closing earlier so shelves could be restocked and the building made as virus proof as possible. Next was Sonic, where the type of yellow tape you see at crime scenes covered the seats in the open-air dining area, letting visitors know it’s off limits until further notice.
I got to First Baptist and signs on the doors let visitors know that church as we know it would not be held today. Only one side door was unlocked.
The signs are everywhere. Fear, though we know it isn’t supposed to dominate our lives, is everywhere.
We are hoarding groceries and hand sanitizer; Selling off stock in a panic; Watching the Center for Disease Control ticker as it makes us aware of the number of people who have COVID-19 and how many have died from it. How close is it getting to us?
I went inside First Baptist Church, just like I have thousands of times in the past 25 years. The preacher was there. The music minister. The piano player and the organist. A singer and a flute player performed the special music, and the technical crew upstairs made sure everything was looking great on television and Facebook Live.
But as you already know, this was a different day. The pews were empty because no more than 10 people are supposed to gather together. That number is sufficient for services, by the way, because Matthew 18:20 reads, “For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.”
I was there to take a few pictures for the newspaper – help document that historical moment – because that’s what newspaper people do. I was there to get pictures of a preacher preaching to an empty house, as he thanked God for modern technology that allowed the Word to go out.
There is a lesson in that. While COVID-19 strikes fear in many of us and anxiety in all of us, there was a way to beat it Sunday morning if you have Wi-Fi or cable television. And at Sonic, you can still drive up and get a SuperSonic Double Stack Cheeseburger and an order of onion rings – one of the greatest meals ever created – despite the fact you have to eat it in the car or take it home. Many of our local restaurants and other businesses are getting creative in these times of trouble. And the good news at Country Mart is the extra hours will give them time to re-stock on toilet paper, milk and bags of potatoes, some of our favorite things to hoard.
I am not making light of the COVID-19 situation or minimizing it. People are losing their jobs and their businesses. People are losing – for the short term anyway – their 401Ks. People are sick and dying.
People are, as I wrote earlier, fearful. But we are also resourceful, resilient, brave, caring and helpful. For every story of a scammer taking advantage of COVID-19 there are a hundred heartwarming stories about the way someone helped someone else. Maybe we can’t erase the fear and the anxieties of the unknowns we face, but we can overcome them.
We have been here before. Half the world’s population died in the Plague of Justinian in 541 and 542 A.D., 50 million died during the Black Plague from 1346-1350 and HIV/AIDS rages on and has killed 39 million people. Flu epidemics such as the 1918 flu (20 million deaths), Asian Flu from 1957-58 (two million), Russian Flu from 1889-1890 (one million) and Hong Kong Flu from 1968-1969 (one million) certainly caused great fear during those times. As recently as 2009, the swine flu (also known as H1N1) infected over 700 million people.
But this is today, and the stories passed down by our grandparents and the history books pale in comparison to living such a nightmare in person, watching the stores close and the body count climb, all the while trying to figure out if this is the real deal or a bad case of overreacting. I don’t remember all of this happening in 2009.
For most of us, we can do little except what we are told to do and try to overcome both COVID-19 and the fear that comes along with it. We have done it before, and sooner or later America and the rest of the world will be back in church and sitting in the sun at Sonic without a fear in the world.