A Pandemic of Courage: How to Overcome Fear During COVID-19

By Dr Sam Collins

Back when I used to offer training for women on public speaking, I opened my seminars by asking the audience to guess the top three fears people have in life. 

“What’s number one?” I’d say.

The audience would call out, “Public speaking!”

I’d say, “No. Death.” And the audience would laugh. “How about number two?”

“Public speaking!” They called.

“No. Divorce,” I’d say. “Public speaking is third, the only two things above it involve people dying and getting divorced!” And all of us would laugh together. Little did we know what was coming. 

Today, the number one fear is literally upon us. The world is on hold. We couldn’t even host a public seminar, much less get anyone to have a laugh at my usual segue. 

It’s a time when just popping out to buy food is more like running the gauntlet, taking a potentially life-altering risk. 

As coronavirus crashes its way through our communities, schools, workplaces and homes, we have all been advised daily of the many practical things we can do. By now we all know the drill.

I have never cleaned or learnt so much about cleaning products in my entire life. 

I have many days of over-eating, and frequent nights binge-watching Downton Abbey into the early hours (just now realising what everyone was raving about).

My homeschooling abilities with three kids, running my own business, and my patience with everyone being at home, calling for me every three seconds, is beginning to stabilise… 

Well, aside from that one day when I was feeling the overwhelm so intensely I screamed ‘F*** you all!’ from the top of the stairs whilst husband and three kids looked on, mouths agape. 

I’m also pretty sure I haven’t ever seen our dog do a double-take before.

And then I could barely breathe—the instant gratification of shouting loud enough to shake the walls was not worth the guilt and shame that followed.

We are all doing what those who can do are also doing: we’ve hunkered down at home, tried to reduce our costs, we stare into our TV’s and iPads as though they were crystal balls. We wonder when the virus will peak. We check the victim counts. We read about possible vaccines. We search for cleaning materials and toilet rolls. 

We wait. We live in fear.

When I remember, I count my blessings, appreciate my husband, and I try to meditate. I do my best to avoid Facebook which, even now, presents those perfect families who are managing things so well, going out for perfect bike rides, with perfect kids, doing perfect homeschooling, with perfect extracurricular activities. Oh, how I hate those posts!

Then of course, there are the people who have used this time to lose all that extra weight, get fit, and become the perfect knitter (something they always wanted to do when they found the time)!

Yet, far less advertised, are those who have put on weight, are drinking (probably too much), and can’t stand the thought of knitting or taking on anything new during this time—let alone a new hobby. For millions, lockdown is not about reading novels and quality alone time, it’s lost jobs and dreams, hardship, and food parcels.

The Beast Comes at Night

And then, there are the times when the fear really gets to me. And when it gets to me, it grips me like a vice. My torso feels crushed, my thoughts run wild, I get impatient, snappy. And then the panic—the dark force of panic creeps up from behind. 

“The beast comes at night,” says Chris Cuomo of CNN, one of those publicly documenting his fight with the virus. 

For many of us, we haven’t faced this ultimate fear before. It is new and it is crippling. Yet, if you have faced this foe, you know the battle has to be intensely fought.

For the first week or two, I had fallen into a routine of reaction: hand washing, cooking, cleaning, homeschooling, Downton Abbey, working from home, and managing my business as best I could. Keeping up a positive attitude for those around me.

Pure coping mode. Pure survival.

But I also began noticing there’s something unique about this fear event. It’s not just one fear, it’s literally a dogpile of fear, a compound fear like we have never experienced.

It’s not just that we could die, it’s that everyone we love is in danger. And if we don’t lose our lives, will we lose our jobs, our home, our business, our way of life?

And it is also important for women to recognise the ways that, according to experts, fear has been passed down to us through our upbringing.

As girls, many of us were raised to maintain the desire for protection from others—parents and family, and later seeking it from partners, bosses, and jobs — instead of building and reinforcing our own sense of protection and inner strength. 

Paradoxically, however, fear is less attributable to personal failure than our being more astute, intuitive, and perceptive. The most fearful women are often those with better levels of imagination and intelligence. Once our minds get going, the fear takes over.

The Voices of Fear

When fear speaks, he’s not alone. In fact, he has a whole team, each with a different voice that he uses to break us down. There are probably as many voices of fear as there are people on the earth. I’ve been dealing mainly with three of them:

The Voice of Condemnation

“Don’t eat so much, you’ll get even fatter…”

“Unhealthy people are the most susceptible to coronavirus…” 

“No parent should be allowed to give their kids that much iPad time…”

The Voice of Guilt

“You’re a terrible homeschool teacher/mother/sister/wife…”

“Why aren’t you using this time to plan for your business/art project/new hobby?”

“You aren’t a frontline worker, what do you have to complain about?”

“You aren’t in a developing country, imagine that, get over yourself…”

The Voice of Scenario-Planning

“What if you can’t make your mortgage payment?”

“What if the economy never recovers?”

“What if the virus goes and comes back?”

“What if you die and leave three kids, a dog, and a husband?”

The thing that fear doesn’t know is that this event is not just a moment for our ultimate fear to be realised. It is potentially a moment for each one of us to learn the ultimate lesson of fear: getting it to surrender. Right here and now, in front of us.

The Virus Surrendered

Recently, a news story came on television. It reported how 102-year-old, Italica Grondona, a woman from Genoa in Northern Italy, is now one of the few centenarians to survive the coronavirus. She survived both the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic and COVID-19, not to mention every world crisis in between. 

But it was what her nephew told to reporters that hit me: 

“She loves life, dancing, and music… The virus surrendered in front of her.”

How is it this non-discriminating virus surrendered to Italica when all the evidence should point the other way?

Then another news report came through: a young man from New York City with a wide, fearless smile was being interviewed about his job delivering groceries to fellow New Yorkers. He told the reporters:

“It’s scary, but people need me… and I feel like a superhero.”

What is it that this man knows that we don’t?

And then I realised—this fear isn’t mine. It is a black cloak I have allowed to smother me. I have allowed this fear into my house, my head, and my heart. It’s circulating like the virus—looking for prey in every thought, every action. I am entertaining it, feeding it, chatting away to it, and making it welcome whenever I can. I am fear’s hostess, and doing a great job at it.

As humans, fear is not what we are about. We are a hope and faith driven community that seeks to live and not die. And while burying my head under the covers and having a lot of tea and toast provides some temporary relief, it is bowing to fear.

Curiosity, trust, courage, faith, and presence are the antidotes to fear. 

Confronting this demon was U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s first task when he came into office during the Great Depression in 1933. He offered a tremendous insight when he famously said: 

“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” 

So how is it we let in fear so easily, yet courage and faith seem to have gone off somewhere interplanetary of late? Where is courage hanging out? Who is feeding our souls for these qualities? 

Not the news media. COVID-19 may be killing us physically but it is the never-ending fountain of fear based reporting attacking the heart of what allows us to live and feel free, even under quarantine.

Not our leaders. Coping and surviving in the moment and reacting to what is needed right now are their understandable focus. 

Where are our inspirational leaders?

They are right here. Inside ourselves. Right now.  

A Pandemic of Courage 

Methods for beating fear generally fall into a few categories: 

Care nothing for anything, including your own life. 

I don’t subscribe to this one.

Confront, name, and come to understand your fear and thus, build courage by facing your demons. 

There are motivational strategies aplenty here: Feel the fear and do it anyway… Confront your fear head-on… What’s the worst that could happen?… F.E.A.R. is False Evidence Appearing Real…etc., etc.

In this instance, for most of us, these strategies really don’t work because we are dealing with the dogpile, the beast, the Five-Star Field Marshal of fear.

For this one, there is no other way than for us to make the General surrender, to get him to somehow lay down his arms before us, than this:

Believe so deeply in some cause that you are willing to walk through any fire, no matter how scorching, because of your belief.

In my experience, this is how wars are won.

What is the cause that we must believe in in order to prevail—to win our own personal war? How is it that battles have been won when the odds said no? There are so many examples of courageous women to inspire us, including:

Aung San Suu Kyi who led the pro-democracy movement in Myanmar, held in house-arrest from 1989 to 2010.

Indira Gandhi who became the first female prime minister of India, assassinated by her own bodyguards after countering a Punjab insurgency.

Harriet Tubman who was born into slavery but escaped and went on to rescue 70 other enslaved friends and family members and then went on to fight for women’s suffrage.

Rosa Parks who refused to give up her seat to a white passenger on a segregated public bus, catalysing the civil rights movement in America.

Malala Yousafzai who spoke publicly on behalf of girls and their right to learn when, on her way home from school, a masked gunman boarded her bus, asked, “Who is Malala?” and then shot her and two of her friends. 

For these women, it was belief—faith—that built up enough courage to slay the dragon they faced, no matter what it was. 

A person may wish to act courageously, but we may be constrained by the social structure we live within. These constraints could include gender norms, but also may include other factors such as poverty, poor health, corruption, or political influence. Despite the obstacles, these women found a way to challenge the very structures of society.

 And they aren’t the only ones.

Research shows women disproportionately outnumber men acting for good across a wide variety of activities—from helping to save the lives of Jews during the Holocaust, to joining the Peace Corps, donating kidneys, and volunteering for overseas service with Doctors of the World. Women are majority recipients of the Righteous Among Nations award and far outnumber men among volunteer organisations.

Women comprise the majority of frontline healthcare workers globally. Women not only make up most hospital staff, but also the bulk of nursing home and home care workers. We also hold a large portion of retail and service industry roles—jobs that businesses quickly cut as customers plummeted.

In February, a now-infamous photo made its rounds on social media. Posted by U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, the image, which showed the members of the U.S. Coronavirus Taskforce, left many asking a single question: “where are the women?”

Yet the women who are leading the charge politically in their countries are being cited as having the best response to Coronavirus.

As women, we must connect to and believe in our right to be here—that we are worthy of leadership, that humanity will prevail, that we prevail. That whatever is coming is good and creating greater equality across the globe.

We must create a pandemic of courage that spreads rapidly into our heads and hearts and homes and communities.

We can find inspiration in the ultimate courage-takers today: those fighting against the disease, caring for the victims, and seeking a cure.

We can see the courage of all those who are on the front lines working hard to support the infrastructure of our countries, providing us with medical and food supplies.

We can seek out and list our own personal heros, examples of those who are innovating and creating solutions for the future.

Yet ultimately, the ONLY place to find courage is inside ourselves. 

The Fight for Our Future

Maybe some of the most courageous things we can do today are to turn off the news, to eat better, and to take care of our bodies and our minds. To ignore the voices of fear and say, “no, I refuse to let you in.”

“I command you to surrender!” Say it to fear out loud, and stand tall and firm. It really helps. It is our will—our connection to our inner determination—that needs to be strengthened right now. Indulge this part of you. 

We must also reimagine how the world might be better after this has passed. To trust that there is meaning and purpose here. 

Yet, more than anything, it is courageous to start to lead, to participate, to do something today that feels purposeful and more than the fearful daily grind. To speak up and make sure there is equal representation for women. To not back down in this unprecedented time.

When there is so much uncertainty about the future, it leads to paralysis. And while I fully endorse gratitude for the moment, we must look to the future. It gives us hope and something to aspire towards. If goals are lost, if meaning goes, we do die.

Complete this sentence outloud or write it down.

“It’s 6 months from now and I am…”

Be optimistic and aspirational. Fight fear when he comes into your head and says, “What’s the point?” or “How will you know?” Do NOT let him win. He must surrender today. Right now. Laying down his arms at your feet. 

Can you see it?

And once you see it, teach it to someone else—a partner, a child, a parent, your workforce. Let your courage spread to all those around you.

Courage is a Raging Heart 

The root of the word courage is cor, the Latin word for heart. In its earliest form, the word courage meant “to speak one’s mind by telling all one’s heart.” 

If we dabble with the word a little more, we can come up with “rage of the heart.” That intense, uncontrollable heart response. The kind that enables us to walk through fires, fight for our rights, speak up, and do what we did not believe was possible.

According to Alexander Atkins, there are six types of courage:

Physical courage.  This is the bravery at the risk of bodily harm or death.  It involves developing physical strength, resiliency, and awareness.

Social courage.  This type of courage involves the risk of social embarrassment or exclusion, unpopularity or rejection.  

Intellectual courage.  This speaks to our willingness to engage with challenging ideas, to question our thinking, and to the risk of making mistakes.  

Moral courage.  This involves doing the right thing, particularly when risks involve shame, opposition, or the disapproval of others.

Emotional courage.  This type of courage opens us to feeling the full spectrum of positive emotions, at the risk of encountering the negative ones.  It is strongly correlated with happiness.

Spiritual courage.  This fortifies us when we grapple with questions about faith, purpose, and meaning.

Source: Atkins Bookshelf

While all the forms of courage have a valid place right now, it is emotional and spiritual courage that will nourish and sustain us as we emerge and build a new future.

And I will be the first to tell you, I am not brave. I worry all the time. I don’t like driving or heights. I still get hives before I speak in public. But courage and bravery, in my view, are not necessarily the same thing. 

Bravery suggests a kind of fearlessness. Brave people face danger willingly, even eagerly, for they are not afraid.

Courage is different. 

Courage is less about fear and more about something deeper, something, I think, that has to do with one’s spirit or soul. 

Courage is doing the right thing, even in the face of those who tell us we are crazy or stupid. Courage is taking a stand and living with it. 

Courage is also about growth. A brave person may fight when called upon, but it takes courage to be willing to change one’s mind if that is the right thing to do.

Many of us are not noticeably brave. But our courage can be astonishing.  So connect with your raging heart. Find your will. Refuse fear and demand a surrender.

Let courage expand within you and it will radiate all around you. 

Now that’s an idea that needs to spread.

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