On Fear

“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself” — 1933 Inauguration Speech of the 32nd president of the United States, Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Four years after the stock market crash of 1929, in the United States and countries rich and poor were struggling under devastating economic privations. Personal income, tax revenue, profits, and prices dropped, while international trade plunged by more than 50%. Unemployment in the U.S. rose to 25% and in some countries as high as 33%. Then, less than two weeks following Roosevelt’s Inauguration, Nazi leader Adolf Hitler was appointed Chancellor of Germany. By March 15, Hitler had proclaimed the Third Reich.

The Third Reich was heinous. It was something to fight against. Something to work toward destroying.  The atrocities committed by the Nazi Party were intolerable and after six years filled with tremendous sacrifices it was defeated. 

The Nazis ruled by fear. 

Resorting to fear to gain and maintain power is not especially original. 

Bullies in the playground rule by fear. Incompetent management often resorts to using fear. Ineffective politicians try to gain votes through fear of what the future might look like if they aren’t elected. Television news media seems to keep its audience captivated through fear-slanted reporting. 

Many Psychology professionals believe that fear may be such a strong motivator in part because fear somehow correlates to a fear of death. 

“I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.” — Frank Herbert, Dune

Fortunately, even the fear of death is not a sustainable motivation tool. Eventually even the most cowering fear-prone among us can grow weary of being afraid and choose instead to stand up for themselves and others. Where I live it appears many are experiencing a kind of fear weariness after two years of panic-inducing reports about the horrors of the worldwide Covid-19 pandemic. Some appear to be losing interest in the whole affair. 

As of the date of this writing, Covid-19 has been credited with infecting 317 million worldwide resulting in the deaths of 5.5 million people. In the US the number is 63.2 million cases resulting in 843,000 deaths. 

“The 1918 influenza pandemic was the most severe pandemic in recent history. It was caused by an H1N1 virus with genes of avian origin. Although there is not universal consensus regarding where the virus originated, it spread worldwide during 1918-1919.  In the United States, it was first identified in military personnel in spring 1918. It is estimated that about 500 million people or one-third of the world’s population became infected with this virus. The number of deaths was estimated to be at least 50 million worldwide with about 675,000 occurring in the United States.” — Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Yes, by a strict counting there are more deaths in the US from Covid-19 than there were from the influenza pandemic a hundred years ago. However, in 1918, the U.S. population was 105 million, less than a third of the 333 million people in America today.

Also perhaps worth noting: The AIDS pandemic of the 1980s claimed the lives of 700,000 Americans.

I find it interesting that the reporting is now moving away from the number of people infected with the virus and is focusing primarily on the number of deaths linked to it. It seemed to me all along that mortality rates were more to the point anyway. 

Ancient Greek Philosopher Epicurus believed that our fear of death is the worst fear we face in life because it pervades our thoughts while we are alive. According to Epicurus our fear of death stops us from living. To live properly and happily we must rid ourselves of the fear of death.

“I do not fear death. I had been dead for billions and billions of years before I was born, and had not suffered the slightest inconvenience from it.” ― Mark Twain

None of us existed before we were born and we are all born bearing a death sentence. Not one of us will escape the grim reaper, so it seems somewhat irrational to waste even a moment of our precious short lives fearfully fretting about the inevitable. Those who followed Epicurus’ teachings had this saying engraved on their final resting places: 

Non fui, fui, non sum, non curo (“I was not; I was; I am not; I do not care”). 

Epicurus believed that death was not to be feared. When a person dies, he does not feel the pain of death because he no longer exists and therefore feels nothing. As Epicurus would famously say, “death is nothing to us.” 

When we exist, death is not; and when death exists, we are not. All sensation and consciousness ends with death and therefore in death there is neither pleasure nor pain. The fear of death arises from the belief that in death, there is awareness.  — Epicurus

Most of the planetary population (currently 7.9 billion) is unlikely to become ill or die from Covid-19. It simply makes no sense to waste days, weeks or months of good health fearing a time of ill health that may never come. 

“When I look back on all these worries, I remember the story of the old man who said on his deathbed that he had had a lot of trouble in his life, most of which had never happened.” — Winston Churchill

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