Confronting the Plague of Panic

We are passing through a portal of concern the likes-of-which we have not experienced since World War ll. An invisible virus has seemingly shut down the world in many ways. This was unexpected and like other unexpected disasters it strikes fear in the hearts of many. Our forefathers however have endured much worse and not only survived it all but thrived. To thrive in fear there are basic principles of reasoned vigilance that need to be executed along with spiritual awareness.

Pandemic caused Panic in the Past

To gain a perspective on today’s pandemic I would like to examine another pandemic in history. In October of 1347, twelve wooden ships glided slowly into Messina. These Genoese galleys held cargo believed to be from the Crimea, but they also carried a silent disease that would be known as the “Black Death.” The sailors were all dying a hideous kind of death: their ashen-grey bodies were covered in dark sores and their tongues had turned black. The ship was ordered out to sea again immediately, but the virulent disease quickly spread regardless, much like a match being dropped onto a stack of dry straw. In the end, one out of three people in Europe would be dead. In some cities towns and hamlets, all would die.

The plague was the result of flea-infested rats. When the rat dies, the fleas would seek another host vermin, inserting its sticker into the host’s skin repeatedly, at which time, virulent bacilli were injected into the open wound. The results varied from dark sores encompassing the body, to swollen, painful, lymph glands throughout the body — gangrenous inflammation of the lungs and throat, unbearable pain, vomiting, spitting blood and horrifically-foul smelling breath. On rare occasions, a person might survive, but most of the afflicted died within three days. One could wake in the morning feeling perfectly fine, but, by nightfall they would be placed in a burial shroud.

The plague jumped from town to town so fast that many could not escape its deadly advance. Even if they could physically run from the encroaching terror, there was no place for them to go. Physicians could do nothing; priests were equally powerless, and terrified at the prospect of giving last rites lest they, too, become infected. All life as it had been known previously had abruptly ceased. It was like the end of the world, and, for many, that is exactly what it would be.

Narrow lanes and streets all over Europe echoed with groaning moans by day and into the long evenings. Gravediggers could be heard crying out, “Bring out your dead!” Robbers, for once, feared entering darkened houses, mothers deserted their own children, jails were abandoned, ships washed to shore with all on board having succumbed, and the common burial pits were filled to overflowing. In some locals in England, corpses were stacked five deep, with just a thin layer of dirt for a covering. The hideous smell of death oozed from the ground.

When the plague receded in its wrath, people turned from being fearful to being angry, and searched for what or whom was to blame. Jews were initially blamed for wanting to kill Christians. Many believed they had put poisons in the water supplies. The Jewish practice of eating certain foods, cleansing procedures and refraining from drinking from unsanitary wells and rivers made them the prime targets of suspicion, because these measures caused some Jewish neighborhoods to have much lower death rates from the plague. Jews, in some sectors, had unknowingly controlled death rates by owning cats who hunted the rats.

Christians, on the other hand, did not own many cats because of their association with witchcraft. As a result, there were far more rats in non-Jewish neighborhoods than in Jewish ones. Many reasoned the Jews caused the plague somehow and set out to lynch them. In Strasbourg alone it is estimated that eight hundred Jews were rounded up, taken to a cemetery and burned at the stake. In Speyer, Germany, massacred Jews were floated down the Rhine River in empty wooden barrels. Fanatical killings like this occurred in Poland, Austria, Spain, and France. The killings seemed to wane when some astute clergy noticed that just as high of a percentage of Jews had died from the Plague as had those of other religions.

Pandemic caused Panic in the Present

Just as then, today we are seeing those who are fearful beyond reason and their angry fingers of condemnation are being waved about. These angry ones need to find fault in someone. There must be a villain for them to excoriate. So we are seeing the blame game being aimed at everyone from politicians, to scientists, to doctors to clergy.

“How can this possibly happen today?” people are saying. After all, just 100 years ago, life expectancy was sixty percent shorter than life spans today. Infections caused by a simple cut that could kill back then are cured today with antibiotics and other drugs. Garbage trucks remove our standing rubbish when just century ago, filth piled in the streets. Clean water today is just the twist of a knob away, and food is freshly preserved with refrigeration. Just think of it, our pioneers had to take a rifle along with them into the woods just to relieve themselves because of hostile natives or animal predators—it is a wonder they could even go!

The Paralysis of Panic

If you are in a building and reading this article, the very walls around you — the wiring, the paint, the foundation, the roof, the insulation — all have been specially designed to offer a safer environment. None-the-less we sit in those buildings today and worry much more than our forefathers ever did. Even with all the vast advancements in medicine and health care practices, we are worrying more today than ever.

One of the reasons we worry more today is because of the mass media. Thousands of bits of information stream into our minds at a relentless pace. The media has an arsenal of print, web, cable, and radio outlets that pummel us with breaking news that often manipulates situations into far more perilous events than they really are. This tactic is designed to make us compelled to read, watch and listen. The news outlets may get their better ratings, but our brains are victims of their fear mongering. The Covid-19 virus is real, but when we are bombarded daily with images of mass burials and hospital reports of death-counts, the mind often goes from reasonable vigilance to a paralyzing all-consuming worry.

A Perspective on Panic

Fear is much different than worry in that fear is a good thing instilled in our instincts by our Creator to help us survive perilous situations. True fear is a full blown call to action by our senses when imminent danger presents itself. It is a rapid-fire call to arms by our internal defense system to save us from potential impending death. To illustrate this, try to envision yourself in this scenario; You are asleep in bed at night when suddenly you are woken by footsteps outside your bedroom window. There is the snap of a dry twig and you sit up straight in bed. The glint of a flash light beam reflects off your widow triggering your fear mechanism to jump into action in a split second. Your bodily systems shift into another gear. In the dark womb of your bedroom your heart immediately starts to pump more blood to the brain. A dose of adrenaline enters your body getting you prepared for the sudden strength needed in a potential confrontation.

In an instant your muscles heat up lactic acid for muscle speed needed to combat the intruder that is lurking in the shadows waiting for the opportunity to break into your home. The body at this time also introduces into our system a hormone called cortisol that makes the blood thicken in anticipation that skin will soon be bleeding from the trauma of the impending physical combat. The expression of fear which appears on your face will also help with the eminent risk as your eyes widen allowing for better peripheral vision. Your nostrils flare wide to suck in needed air to feed our involuntary systems which are now at full speed.

Then you hear it. There is a soft meow outside your window and you recognize the voice of your neighbor saying “here kitty.” Your heart immediately begins to slow down and your muscles relax. The moment of fear has passed, the possibility of danger has gone and the tick of the clock next to your bed and the sound of your panting breath are the only sounds you hear.

Contained within your skull, rests the most incredible creation in all nature, the brain. A simple blob of grey matter that has far more complexity than any rocket ever sent to the moon. That brain has a design mechanism that, on its own, will send a signal in a millisecond that gives us a radical physical boost that awakens razor sharp senses in that moment of need. That jolt of fear triggering help was never meant to be anything more than a temporary aide in the moment danger. It was not meant to be a long term fix, but nevertheless, some do lengthen that jolt which fear provides, creating an addiction called man-made worry.

The Problem with Prolonged Panic

When fear is manufactured, when its source is NOT real and genuine, that false fear creates a whole other batch of problems. Fear is an involuntary reaction that is meant for the moment of imminent peril. Worry, on the other hand, is voluntary and becomes a counterfeit kind of fear. When left unchecked, it will begin to rule our responses and direct the most important decisions we make. It interferes with our faith as we direct our hearts from God and wallow in the mire of continual worry.

Since worry allows us to do something with our fearful thoughts, it often becomes the crutch we limp through life upon. Maybe you have spent long nights worrying about your daughter being out too late with friends. You look at your watch minute after minute just to have something to do. You click your fingernails on the table; nibble your lower lip as you pace back and forth. “Why isn’t she home?” Every car that drives by, you look out the window with worried searching eyes. And then headlights drive up and she is home. All is well. You are once again okay, but are you? Do you start the whole process all over again the next time she goes on a date? Out of habit, do you pacify a manufactured worry that now haunts your thoughts over and over?

If you do so, then that manufactured worry becomes corrosive to your health and your faith. It is corrosive to mothers and fathers and businessmen and church leaders alike. It is corrosive to self and others around us. In the office, a worrisome person will spill out their manufactured worry in conversations. They will do it so often that it becomes unnoticed to them, but not to others around them. Worrisome conversations often turn into harmful gossip all because someone had a need to smear on a self-applied salve to ease their self-manufactured worry.

The Power over Panic

Manufactured fear cannot live within the same space as faith. One will thrive while the other dies. Hebrews 11:1 tells us that faith gives us “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”

Romans 10:7 says, “So then faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God.” To build a wall of courage against the onslaught of continual worry we need to build that wall high and strong using the Bible as our bricks and the words of Christ as our mortar. To conquer false fears, we need to immerse ourselves in the word of God. Studying the Word of God is necessary in building our strong wall of faith. David wrote in Psalms 56:3, “When I am afraid, I put my trust in you.” The question David is presenting is in whom do you trust? Again, fear by worry and faith in God will not, and cannot, occupy the same place.

Dr. Billy Graham once said, “Historians will probably call our era ‘the age of anxiety.’ Anxiety is the natural result when our hopes are centered in anything short of God and His will for us.”

Our manufactured fears manifested in anxiety and fear deflects our faith and interferes with our relationship with God. Worry is a crippling disease dragging our minds to a dark hopeless place. God however wants us to take off the shackles of worry so we can walk closer to Him. The Bible says in Philippians,

“Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God; and the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus.”

Philippians 4:6-7

If you want to conquer your innermost worrying, then focusing on the Word of God will set you free.