Monday, 2 March 2020


Ralph Waldo Emerson, one of our most quoted writers, said: “Fear defeats more people than any other thing in the world.”

There’s something disagreeable about seeing people panic. Something futile. Something demeaning. But fear can also be also something enormously powerful. Fear fills Shakespeare’s tragedies, fear of the unknown, fear of betrayal, fear of failure.

We are currently on the verge of an era of fear. The past few months in particular, has been full of fear and fearful with bush fires, floods and other disasters. Real gut-wrenching fear. The Covid 19 story is different. FOMO (the acronym meaning ‘fear of missing out’) currently fills our pampered lives; fear of missing out on holidays, business travel, the Olympics, parties, shopping and so on.

When I told a mother with several children that Professor Whitty, the Chief Medical Officer, had said if the virus intensified schools might have to shut for two months, she went white and groaned “having the children at home for that long that would kill me quicker than any virus”. She displayed genuine fear as she might at the prospect of an invasion by an implacable and ruthless alien force with insistent cries of “mummy!!!”

But fear of your savings and earnings being reduced, enforced time with your close family and of your life undergoing upheaval is not quite a fight or flight situation.

Fear was in the news more prosaically when a plan was announced to level up the red squirrel population at the expense of the larger, more aggressive grey squirrels originally introduced from America. How? By introducing pine martens to their environment who’d kill either species at random but whose prospects against red squirrels were less good than against grey. Why? Because grey squirrels are fearless and stepping out cockily to greet the pine martens would be promptly slaughtered. Red squirrels are terrified of nasty, bitey pine martens and flee uttering the squirrel equivalent of “mummy!”

As with red squirrels, fear is a perfectly healthy emotion – part of our defence system. It’s how we cross roads safely and avoid the perils of life.

But more mysterious is our wanting to feel fear through horror films or attractions like The London Dungeon where the success of the experience can be judged by the quantity and volume of screams. It is indeed horrible especially the experience, too real for laughter, of the ‘long drop’ when being hanged, the proximity to Sweeney Todd and the macabre descriptions of the Black Death. You are herded through nastiness where actors perform their roles with melodramatic relish. Fear can only usually be dispelled by laughter which is why those screams are usually punctuated by giggling.

But the threat of Covid 19 isn’t funny. It’s unknown. Welcome to globalisation which means there’s nowhere to hide. We’ll end up poorer and may have been briefly housebound but think of the reading, tidying and DIY opportunities. And think of the time we’ll have to reflect on the sort of interconnected world we’re creating.

No comments: