Why Panic Won’t Save Us

A response to Peggy Noonan

“Sometimes paranoia is just good sense.”

So writes Peggy Noonan in the Wall Street Journal. Her point is well-made. Everyone should take the COVID-19 virus seriously, listen to experts and make choices that take into account the well-being of others. These are high-stakes times. Churches and schools are shuttering for weeks; hospitals sit on the brink of being overrun. There are moments when wisdom and compassion look like overreaction, and right now is one of those moments.

Still, I wish I could tell Peggy Noonan that panic won’t save us. It never does.

The Bible has much to say about fear, and nearly all of it is either a promise or a warning. On the one hand, God’s people have boatloads of promises from our sovereign king that he is with us and fights for us. Fear, even fear of death, melts in the beams of eternal love and security.  On the other hand, God’s people also have many warnings about misdirecting our fear. Jesus warned us that we ought not fear those who can kill the body but not the soul, and the context implies that misdirected fear can be a sign that our souls are not as safe as we think.

There is a kind of “fear” that gives birth to prudence. Washing your hands many more times than usual because of a viral contagion in your community is prudent, and it comes from an awareness that failing to wash could endanger you or someone else. To some extent that is fear, but it is healthy.  But we should clearly distinguish fear from panic. Noonan writes

“Don’t panic” is what nervous, defensive people say when someone warns of coming trouble. They don’t want to hear it, so their message is “Don’t worry like a coward, be blithely unconcerned like a brave person.”

Noonan is a brilliant columnist, but I think she’s wrong here. For Christians especially, courting panic is not rooted in realism, it is rooted in the opposite. A heart captivated by crippling, all-consuming panic is living in a fantasy world, in which there is no God, no divine power over pathogens or nations, and no promise of forever good to all those who love God and are called according to his purpose. Panic says, “This fearful thing is ultimate, thus it is worthy of my fullest dread.” That’s not realism because it’s not true. Coronavirus is not in charge because God is.

That’s not a false dichotomy, it is a crucial one. Contrary to the scoffers who sneer at those who offer “thoughts and prayers” in moments of cultural unrest, remembering God and his power are part of what it means to respond rightly to real threats. In an essay in her volume The Givenness of Things, Maryilnne Robinson points out that one of the most noticeable characteristics of a secular age is its widespread fearfulness. Commenting on Leviticus 26:37, Robinson writes, “Those who forget God, the single assurance of our safety…can be recognized in the fact that they make irrational responses to irrational fears.”

Of course, coronavirus is not an irrational fear. But the power of panic is in turning normal concerns into abnormal ones. One of the clearest signs we have surrendered our emotional lives to the reign of fear is that we swap putting our real daily burdens on the Lord for trying to mentally stomach all kinds of imaginary trials. In The Screwtape Letters, the demon Screwtape counsels his underling to spiritually attack a human by redirecting his attention away from what’s actually happening and toward what could happen.

Your patient will, of course, have picked up the notion that he must submit with patience to the Enemy’s [=God’s] will. What the Enemy means by this is primarily that he should accept with patience the tribulation which has actually been dealt out to him—the present anxiety and suspense. It is about this that he is to say ‘Thy will be done,’ and for the daily task of bearing this that the daily bread will be provided.

It is your business to see that the patient never thinks of the present fear as his appointed cross, but only of the things he is afraid of. Let him regard them as his crosses: let him forget that, since they are incompatible, they cannot all happen to him, and let him try to practice fortitude and patience to them all in advance. For real resignation, at the same moment, to a dozen different and hypothetical fates, is almost impossible, and the Enemy does not greatly assist those who are trying to attain it.

God’s promises that he will always be with us, that he will strengthen and establish us, and that nothing will ever separate us from his love in Christ are so precious precisely because they are calibrated for the exact suffering we are facing. The voice of panic tells us that unless we fantasize sufficiently about every possible kind of suffering we may face, we will be unprepared, out of control, and ultimately left alone. But faith is honest and clear-eyed. It sees the trial right in front of it, but it also looks above and sees the One who tells it to cast all cares on him, because he cares for you.

While giving in to panic may feel like “realism” in the moment, it actually hinders our ability to serve others well. Several years ago it was revealed that the icebergs that decimated the HMS Titanic were spotted with more than enough time for the ship to turn and avoid them. But the  second officer panicked after seeing the icebergs and turned the ship the wrong way, leading the Titanic directly into harm.

This isn’t just about theological correctness. Wise actions, the kind of wise actions that preserve life, almost never happen in a context of utter panic. Emotional fortitude is realism minus impulsiveness. That’s why we’re supposed to let the fog of anger response pass before speaking (Psalm 4:4). It’s why wisdom is found in a multitude of counselors (Prov. 15:22). Panic tends to turn inwardly on itself, rejecting patience as foolish and outside review as pointless. That the overwhelming portrait of the Christian life in Scripture is one of calm and humble submission to wisdom tells us how much God values a heart freed from panic.

Panic won’t save us. Instead of panic, let there be wisdom. Wisdom can heal the flesh and refresh the bones (Prov. 3:8), and it actually starts with fear—not of a pandemic, but of the Lord (Prov. 1:7).

photo credit: Gage Skidmore

The Spiritual Grace of Fandom

What fandom offers us is precisely the thing that virtually every other facet of our culture wants to take away: Self-forgetfulness.

You can learn something important in front of a TV on a balmy Sunday afternoon in late October. You can learn about the value of leadership as a veteran quarterback calmly and surgically leads his team to overcome a deficit in the fourth quarter. If you see a silly penalty completely change a game, you might learn what Rudyard Kipling knew, that victory usually begins with “keeping your head when all about you / are losing theirs and blaming it on you.” You may reflect on the dangers of arrogance as a haughty celebration gives way minutes later to a devastating injury, or on the beauty of the perseverance of an undrafted, un-heralded player who dazzles. Football, often scorned by its cosmopolitan cultured despisers, has much to say if we will listen.

“Lessons,” though, are not the primary reason to be a fan of sports. Viewing a football game as a microcosm of cooperation and personal virtue is helpful, but it’s a bit like opening the Bible and never reading anything but Proverbs. The truth is that fandom has a spiritual value all its own. Watching sports for the pleasure of the contest, and even more, investing oneself emotionally in the triumphs and defeats of a particular team, is a valuable moral discipline.

Sports fandom is rarely talked about positively, and for reason. Like we do so many other things, Americans often worship sports. Sport is a seductive idol, not least because its competitive nature offers an intoxicating short hand for measuring one’s self-worth. We tend to accept radical and unhealthy commitment to sports in a way we don’t accept for hobbies, relationships, even work; a man who ignores his family so he can broker more stocks and buy a bigger house is a deadbeat, but an athlete who ignores his family to train for the Olympics simply knows what it takes. (Why athletic victory in this context is purer than money is not clear.)

Granting that we ought not worship sports, can’t we admit that, given the choice between cheering on a team and spending 3 hours thumbing through Instagram, measuring ourselves against immaculate “influencers,” the former is a better option? What fandom offers us is precisely the thing that virtually every other facet of our culture wants to take away: Self-forgetfulness, the opportunity to let our own personalities be swallowed up, just for a moment, in the drama of something objective, outside, and bigger.

For a social media generation, one worries that we are losing the simple practice of actually being a fan. Ours is a curated, algorithmic, selfie age, where our inner lives are constantly being farmed out by technologies that encourage us to think about ourselves more, to look at ourselves more, to compare our ourselves more. We say that digital distraction is a serious epidemic. Have we asked what it is we are so distracted by? Answer: We’re distracted by ourselves—our Likes, our Retweets, our FOMO, our image to others.

If we think in terms of cultural liturgies, we must conclude that the dominant liturgy of our Western life is one of constant attention to ourselves. Everything around us encourages us, either explicitly or implicitly, to bend inwardly on ourselves a little more, to be a little more attuned to our own emotional or psychological state. The discipline of letting ourselves get lost in something, of losing track of ourselves so that we forget to log-in and make sure that what we’re doing compares favorably to others, is a discipline that directly assaults the advertising-soaked liturgies of late capitalism. Some have suggested that in the social media era our attention spans are shortening. This may be somewhat true. Yet perhaps it’s also true that our attention spans are actually shortening when they’re directed toward offline life, but flourishing when we’re logged in. In other words, maybe we’re not losing the ability to focus on analog realities, but the desire.

There’s a spiritual cost to all of this. Screwtape understood how valuable keeping people wrapped up in a suffocating liturgy of “Look at me” can be. Self-forgetfulness fosters authentic desire, and authentic desires are vulnerable to being turned toward God.

I myself would make it a rule to eradicate from my patient any strong personal taste which is not actually a sin, even if is something quite trivial such as a fondness for country cricket or collecting stamps or drinking cocoa. Such things, I grant you, have nothing of virtue in them; but there is a sort of innocence and humility and self-forgetfulness about them which I distrust.

The man who truly and disinterestedly enjoys any one thing in the word, for its own sake, and without caring two pence what other people say about it, is by that very fact fore-armed against some of our subtlest modes of attack. You should always try to make the patient abandon the people or food or books he really likes in favour of the “best” people, the “right” food,” the “important” books. I have known  a human defended from strong temptations to social ambition by a still stronger taste for tripe and onions.

Fandom, for all its potential to be absurd and obsessive, is a “still stronger taste” that can help discipline the soul against the temptation to shape our hearts in the image of the fads and opinions of the world. A fan is a fan first and foremost because he’s having fun. He’s a fan whether he’s surrounded by fellow fans or whether he’s alone (though of course it’s more fun to be with other fans). Sports fandom can look awfully silly, but fans don’t care. Foam fingers and body paint are the artifacts of an authentic enjoyment that resists, often without even conscious awareness, the need to see if such an activity will play well with my “followers.” In this way, fandom is humble: a confession that what I’m loving is lovable on its own terms and not because it may win me approval from the internet’s marketplace of the Self.

As a fan, a little sliver of my joy is outsourced to someone and something outside myself. My favorite sports team can thrill me by playing well, winning games and exciting me throughout the season with their skill. My fandom unites me to my favorite team through the emotional investment I make in their well-being, so that my team’s wins feel like my wins. This is why you often hear sports fans say words like “we,” “us,” and “our,” under the apparent delusion that they are part of the team.

It’s this outsourcing of joy that contains spiritual grace. It’s the same grace we need in worship, to acknowledge that God doesn’t need us but we need him. It’s the same grace we need in fellowship, to (really, authentically) rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep. It’s the same grace we need in acts of mercy and love, especially when we know those acts will go unnoticed and un-thanked. And it’s the same grace we need to hold fast in a world that doesn’t think highly of this grace. Enjoying sports probably won’t curry favor with the fashionable people we admire or win us more clout, and that’s precisely why it’s so valuable.

Of course, it’s not just sports fandom that offers the spiritual grace of self-forgetfulness. Other things do too. When our attention is toward little pleasures that don’t get us noticed but do help us love, we find that these little pleasures refresh us infinitely more than comparison, or outrage, or constant connectivity. And we get a valuable, increasingly rare reminder that life is bigger than our pocket, and that God’s world needs to be lived in, not just talked about.