What are we afraid of?

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Throughout COVID I’ve seen a particular line of argument from some of my fellow Christians to the effect that the response to the pandemic marks out a society that is afraid of death.  Apart from the feeling that this comes combined with suspicion of interventions to mitigate against the virus and a little bit of criticism of Christians who support measures, I have another concern.

My concern is that I think the analysis is faulty and that risks us getting our apologetics wrong when engaging people around us. We’ll end up answering another set of questions that no one is particularly asking. So, to be clear about this. I don’t think the current zeitgeist is that people are afraid or hiding from death as some have suggested.

This doesn’t mean that people aren’t afraid of death. We see that fear emerge particularly when people get close to death either because they realise they are dying or because they see  a loved one die. However, the reaction to COVID doesn’t seem to primarily be that. Indeed, if anything, younger generations tend to be complacent about the prospect of their own mortality.

When people become anxious about COVID, in the main their anxiety is around the following things.

  • They are anxious about the prospect of new and tougher measures coming in that will disrupt their life.
  • They are anxious about passing COVID on to a loved one causing them to suffer.
  • They are anxious about the health services collapsing.
  • They are anxious about getting seriously ill, suffering and being alone in hospital.
  • They are anxious about a loved one going to hospital and not being able to go with them.
  • They are anxious about long COVID and the possibility of ongoing chronic pain.

Now I guess you could say that in one sense those things do reflect a fear of death, not in the sense of being scared of dying themselves but in terms of fear, anxiety and anger even at the consequences of living in a fallen world under the penalty of death. Indeed, whilst these things should not cause us to be overwhelmed as believers, I would go so far as to say that they are things we should share grief, anger and a desire to resist with our neighbours. In fact for the believer there is more reason to be grieved and angry at the presence and destruction that COVID brings.

So that it isn’t so much that people are hiding from and scared of death in the classic sense.  I remember that David Frost once commented that we have a phrase “I’m tired of living but scared of dying” however he said that he was “scared of living, tired of dying.”  It might help us to think through the implications of that worldview for our apologetic.

This also means that we will want to think carefully about how and why people react the way they do to the death of others.  When we don’t want our 80 year old family members to die, it’s not that we think death is avoidable.  It’s not that we don’t accept that their time has to come at some point. We know that one day we will say our last goodbyes to grandparents, parents, siblings and spouses.  Yet, we want to hold onto them here for a bit longer. This is partly because we know there is a sting, there is suffering in death and we don’t like seeing them go through it. It’s also the case that we love them, enjoy having them with us and will miss them when they are gone. Both are true and are reasonable responses to death. At the same time, sometimes I think we hold onto people in the face of their coming death and refuse to accept its possibility because we are scared of living, scared of life without them. We dread the aloneness; we fear not having them to turn to and look to.

And I think that we see that fear and that tiredness both in those who support COVID measures and those who resist them.  Once again, we choose our inconvenience, we decide which face of death we will hide from. Some of us hide from the face of death which is to do with human mortality but others hide from the face of death which is about living in a world subject to it.  When we try to pretend that vaccines, masks and social distancing are not at all necessary, we may well be hiding from death.

People choose their inconveniences and fears. The things they fear are the things that become their idols. It’s important that we are able to identify accurately what those idols are.

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