Overcoming Mass Fear

"Sometimes God calms the storm, and sometimes He calms the sailor."

I am reading an absolutely fascinating book titled "The Psychology of Totalitarianism", written by Mattias Desmet, a professor of clinical psychology at Ghent University in Belgium. It is by far the clearest, most insightful explanation of the global COVID response I have read. How did it happen that nearly the entire world abandoned all semblance of reason, experience, process, and individual freedom practically overnight in response to a mass outbreak of fear over a single event?

This book is incredibly deep, and I will have to read it multiple times to truly engage with everything Desmet has to say. He synthesizes multiple academic disciplines – the sciences, history, politics, economics, arts, philosophy – and presents a very compelling explanation. He puts his finger on the root cause of the phenomenon, and presents several ideas on how we can keep ourselves from repeating the same mistake again.

Today I want to discuss just one aspect of his analysis: mass fear. That is the one thing about the response to COVID that surprised me the most. I was completely taken by surprise by how many people were put into a state of abject fear over the virus. A few weeks, I could understand. A few months, maybe. But two years of fear? That made no sense to me at all.

It amazed me that facts and direct experience made almost no difference at all to the fearful. Like many, when COVID hit I read up on the topic, tried (and failed) to follow the confusing, contradictory information coming from our public health experts, and in the end had to go back to formula and form my own conclusions.

I had learned very early on that the COVID virus particle is only 100 nanometers across. That is incredibly small. 2,000 COVID virus particles would fit within just 1 droplet of water vapor, completely invisible to the naked eye. Obviously something that small isn't going to be deterred for very long by social distancing, plastic shields, face masks, lockdowns, or keeping people indoors. So why were people so incredibly committed to slavishly following these rather obviously futile practices? To this day you can still pick an argument online with people over the "efficiency" of these things, and the utter necessity of continuing to follow them. Forget the actual observed experiences that long ago proved conclusively that they are useless. People still believe.

What Desmet explains is that people need to believe. They were filled with fear about COVID, but were unable to do anything directly to protect against it.  Such free-floating anxiety is enormously unsettling. In response, people latched onto the COVID practices in order to assert a sense of control. Practicing the ritual of social distancing and displaying the totemic mask was seen as absolutely essential, completely beyond argument. "COVID may be bad", people told themselves, "but at least I am doing something about it".

But even more essential than reasserting a sense of control, Desmet explains, was the need to seek the security of the group, to reconnect and belong. It is one thing to have free-floating anxiety, but anxiety coupled with loneliness is completely unbearable. The surrender of self to the group is a form of self-protection, and especially so in a time of crisis. People will do things in a group that they would never do as individuals. The COVID response was an example of "mass formation", or the psychology of the crowd.

Desmet postulates that something like 30% of the population were true believers, people fully behind each and every piece of advice from experts, no matter how contradictory; another 60% were just following along, only partly convinced, but unwilling to make a point of it; and the remaining 10% were the unbelievers, the doubters, and (eventually) the agnostics. In general this squares with my own experience, except that I'd peg the ratios at 50% true believers, 49% followers, and 1% unbelievers where I lived in Northern Virginia.

So, how does one cut the nerve of mass fear?

Fortunately, as Desmet points out, a mass formation is inherently unstable. People have a tremendous capacity for becoming acclimated to nearly every situation. The free-floating anxiety which originally drove the formation loses its potency over time. The objections and arguments of the unbelievers and doubters begin to wear away at the edges of the followers, and as they slowly stop following the rituals and exhibiting the totems, the mass effect wears off.

That is why it is so vital for the doubters to keep on talking and making their case, right through the event. Society does have a tipping point, however. If the true believers are able to dominate mass media and government to the point where they can completely silence their opposition, then a state of totalitarianism will be the inevitable result. Then we will see true civic horrors such as those experienced by Germany under Hitler and by Russia under Stalin.

In addition to plain speaking of the truth, we must form healthy communities, continue to gather together and resist the pressure to be isolated from each other. This is where I think the Church should shine. What is the Church except the Body of Christ? Can the eye say to the hand that it isn't needed? Where would any single part be if not in relation to the others? We belong together.

Sad to say, I cannot commend my own local congregation's COVID response in this regard. In vain I tried to get the church leaders to adopt a default position of gathering in person, and to accommodate those who wanted more restrictions on an opt-in basis. Instead, isolation was our default. While this eventually did flip to the reverse, it went on for far too long. Even after nearly two years we were still forcing our kids as young as 2 years old to wear masks.

I say this to our shame. Did Mother Theresa maintain a proper "social distance"? Did Jesus avoid touching the lepers who begged for his healing?  Of course we don't want to put God to a test of our own making, but we also need not fear death. Of all people, we have absolute assurance of life eternal. Like the apostle Paul or the prophet Daniel, we can face any danger this world has to offer with boldness and confidence, knowing that God works all things for the good for those who are called by His name.

I'll close with a personal story. In one encounter on a Metro train, a young woman walked over from one end of the car over to my seat to lecture me about not wearing a mask. I could tell that she was genuinely weighed down by fear and dread. There were all kinds of things I could have said, but what I told her was, simply, that everything was going to be OK. We were all of us vaccinated. No one was ill. We were all being quite careful. We were all going to be OK. She responded, "But you don't know that for sure!" I said, that's correct. I don't know it for sure; no one knows the future for sure. But I do know that of the many things we need to worry about, this is not one of them. We've done what we can. Now we just carry on.



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