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Nosophobia on the Front Porch

There is an attractive young family that lives nearby. If posed standing proudly on the porch of their modest mid-century two-story, they perhaps would have inspired artist Norman Rockwell to capture this contemporary American family. The parents handsome and educated, and their two young proteges round and ready. But Rockwell, an artist searching for the real and innocent, would have struggled with the forced smiles that belie any hope or joy- the type of joy that emanates from confidence in the future. Fear finds expression in the eyes and is similar to a look of bewilderment- a sense of anxiety that cannot be masked. Try as you may, fear cannot be smiled away. Perhaps Rockwell, by all accounts a compassionate man wishing to bring out the best, would have tried, knowing fear is not pleasant to see- it is not innocent, it is cold, but it is real. (The picture above is of a painting by Norman Rockwell)

The two young children, one born in 2020, and mom and dad never leave their home. Amazon and other delivery services make deliveries nearly every day. They have taken government dictates to remain distant and separate literally to mean stay at home and keep everyone away- for nearly a year now. As good compliant citizens and fearing getting sick from the virus, they have followed the orders of our state governor and ‘sheltered in place.’ You likely know of others just like them. They are unique in their resoluteness. Most others, it seems, have rejoined normal living in is as much as is allowed.

I only mention these good neighbors because of what I observed week after week when grandma and grandpa drive up to see the grandchildren. Mom and dad insist on standing on the elevated porch with holding the precious little tikes while gramps and grams stayed safely below on the sidewalk ten feet away. Safely separated, sometimes in the rain, sometimes in the snow, they’d stand apart while shivering from the cold.

With nearly 100 percent certainty, grandma wanted nothing more than to hold the newborn. To cuddle and feel the warmth of her soft cheeks to hers. To ooh and coo and coax out a smile. To swaddle and gently sway, and to ponder for hours who she most resembles. It is a love only a grandmother knows. You can see it in the eyes- a soft, confident smile that oozes joy from every crease. A fifth kind of love so divine and pure, language is too cold, too rational to offer proper understanding. It is the holiest of instincts. It is the greatest of these.

I watch till grandma turns back towards the car to leave. The forced smile, the one she gave the grandkids to give them reassurance that all is well, melts into a thick and heavy sadness. Head down, she shuffles slowly, wishing not to leave- but she is cold, dispirited, shivering.

In the car, she finds a kleenex and dabs her eyes before staring at nothing lost to her sadness. I watch, painfully attempting to imagine her thoughts- maybe her prayers. “Lord, why the pandemic? Why now? My grandchild needs me. Oh, I’ll be honest- I need her. To hold, to cradle, to cherish. I fear becoming angry, my Lord. Resentful of those who see life as a simple calculation of risk. That compliance is to be gained by any means. That life comes with many risks and is precious because it is precarious.”

Fear is one of those treacherous human emotions we believe is a rational response to danger but is nearly always irrational. Because ‘perceived danger’ is in the eye of the beholder, we take our fear and become consumed- phobic even. Some fear dogs because of having been bitten once. The resulting fear of getting bitten is known as daknophobia- most dogs are friendly. Others fear flying because of the very rare chance of an accident (aviophobia). The pandemic has exposed another phobia, the fear of getting ill, also known as nosophobia.

Fear may be cold and mostly irrational, but it is real. Just ask someone with a heart-stopping fear of snakes (ophidiophobia). Just the sight of one, real or imagined, will send them running in an irrational panic. Once calm returns, no amount of rational argument suggesting most snakes slither harmlessly through life posing no possible threat, will ease a fearful response to seeing one. And so it is with nosophobia. If fearing an infection of coronavirus, a rational discussion that most Americans will remain asymptomatic or suffer something approaching a mild to severe cold will not soothe the panic of a nosophobic.

If you’re still reading, you might now be curious how someone would dare equate the fear of becoming ill from coronavirus with the fear of snakes or getting bitten and any other of the phobias. After all, the numbers of the sick and dead are everywhere. Like battling any other phobia, we must attempt to bring some context- some rational perspective to those most fearful.

A good ‘medical researcher’ from Minnesota provides some interesting insight into the actual risk of dying from COVID-19 in his state (this data is as of February 3, 2021). Kevin Roche wrote ‘…for people under 40 there have been 72 deaths. There are 2,871,000 of this group, or over half the state population. Fatality rate is a vanishingly small .oo2%.’ Not untypical of an average flu year. Your chance of writing a New York Times bestseller or being born with an extra finger or toe is greater.

It should not surprise us that my neighbors stay in their home afraid to come out, or teachers too fearful of holding classes, or politicians who insist on using fear as a tool to persuade and manipulate. That is the most human of our condition. But there are consequences.

Another week passes, and grandma is back on the sidewalk. Week after week, she and her grandchild are kept separated because of an irrational response to a virus- a response incongruent with actual science or data. A response completely out of rhythm from the real world. A response that refuses to consider that COVID-19 is no more dangerous (except the elderly and frail) to most Americans than a typical flu.

In this age of nosophobia when many who hold unto their fear believing it is novel, unique, and without precedent, I’m drawn to the words of C.S. Lewis, who attempted to provide context to the fear-inducing threats of his age. He wrote, “In one way, we think a great deal too much of the atomic bomb. How are we to live in an atomic age? I am tempted to reply: Why, as you would have lived in the sixteenth century when the plague visited London almost every year, or as you would have lived in a Viking age when raiders from Scandinavia might land and cut your throat any night; or indeed, as you are already living in an age of cancer, an age of syphilis, an age of paralysis, an age of air raids, an age of railway accidents, an age of motor accidents.”

In his wisdom, C.S. Lewis did not attempt to negate the reality of fear, but rather place fear into a context that offers reassurance. Reassurance from the knowledge that all of history has had its fears. Yet, the world trudges on.

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