COVID-19 and the Inordinate Fear of Death

COVID-19 and the Inordinate Fear of Death

By Kevin McCarthy 3/23/2020

I’ve got toilet paper and hand wipes. I got my Lysol spray and I’m washing my hands constantly. I’m not shaking hands or touching my face. Why does it seem so many are feeling this ceaseless dread, a dread that keeps building and building? A dread that compels us to another run to the local grocer and join the frantic hordes hoarding more toilet paper, more Lysol, more hand wipes. Have we gone mad? Well, yes, we have, and it would behoove us to step back and analyze the genetic code of our out-of-control dread as much as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is presently seeking to understand the fundamentals of the COVID-19 virus.

Whereas the coronavirus is manifesting a huge burden upon physical health, another disease known as fear is presently manifesting an equally heavy burden upon our soul.

Fortunately, for the latter, a vaccine is readily available and easily distributed. More on that later, because before we can know the cure, we must have a clear discovery of the elements of the disease. The first and most obvious element of the dread that presently permeates society is caused by the fear of death.

Humans have always feared death. This fear resides in the deepest crevasses of our psyche. There have been various ways that people have dealt with the fear of death. Typically, the instinctive and secular way people deal with death is to proceed upon the path of denial. It is especially so for the media-driven popular culture of today. Death isn’t on the radar screen; the popular culture only promotes the here and now and the prospects for immediate gratification.

However, when death encroaches upon our sphere of denial, such as in the case of the death of a loved one or a well-known figure, we profess our “shock” and declare unequivocally that death is a tragic event that should have never taken place. Many will mourn at the funeral of the deceased and speak in muted tones referring to the deceased in past-tense terms, “Bob, was a stand-up guy.” Was?

Why do we do that? Strangely, it is probably an attempt to somehow cordon ourselves safely within our cocoon of denial about death. We keep death at arms’ length, deeming it to be an awful thing that only happens to the other guy, the poor thing, and will never happen to me.

When my father passed away many years ago, I was shaken into a new consciousness about death and, also how the popular culture seems to have no place for it. The hospital in which my father died had its ICU on the top floor. It was a small rural hospital in North Carolina. To transfer his body to the morgue, the nurse and I had to take the only elevator to the basement where the morgue was located. This was also the only elevator in the hospital. As we stopped on each floor, the elevator doors would open and new passengers, distracted in conversations or reading materials, would embark. It was truly amazing to see their sudden recognition of who else was in the elevator, the shocked and flustered expressions and the quick retreats that ensued on every floor. I never knew people could walk backward so quickly, saying, “I’ll take the next one, thanks.”

Today’s COVID-19 pandemic and the constant media drumbeat about the growing number of dead and dying challenges our carefully honed denial mechanisms. It’s like we mistakenly got on the elevator to the morgue, the doors closed behind us and we’re on a painfully slow ride of indeterminable length while the media inculcates the warning that the number of people annihilated by death is sure to rise.

Everything that usually could distract us has been removed. No sports to watch, no restaurants or nightclubs to frequent…we can’t even go to church. We just hear the sound of the angel of death scratching at our door.

Are we being tortured? What are we to do in such an unexpected circumstance? There is no recourse except to get a grip on the full measure of life. “Getting a grip” always entails facing harsh realities, making tough decisions and knowing deep down we can do this. If you’ve been feeling the walls of dread closing in upon you, it’s a pretty good indication that your mechanism of denial is crumbling. It’s time to get real. But that’s a good thing because now you can face the reality of death and ask yourself some honest questions about it.

Is death the complete annihilation of our existence? If so, how is it that we can not only conceive of eternity but also long for it more than anything? No one wants to die. Even atheists wish to live forever. If life ends in death and is the complete annihilation of our existence, then wouldn’t life be meaningless, a cruel and sick joke imposed upon those who long for it so? If that were the case, shouldn’t our default setting then be one of bitterness and blame for having to live a life of denial to assuage the dread of our inevitable impending death?

On the other hand, if there is a path to eternal life, could there be a more precious gift? Could there be a greater joy produced for having received it? Wouldn’t the life of bitterness and blame be suddenly washed away in a tidal wave of blessing and be transformed into a life of gratitude toward a most benevolent Creator?

This was the question that Harrison Okene faced in May of 2012. He was the head cook on a tugboat with a crew of 12 that, with two other tugboats, were pulling an oil tanker off the coast of Nigeria. In the dead of night, while the crew slept, the tugboat suddenly lurched forward, quickly capsized and sank; taking the entire crew to the bottom. By some miracle, although the ship rested upside down on the sea bottom some 100 feet below the surface, Okene found a pocket of air. He alone was the only survivor at the bottom of the sea in total darkness.

What would you have done if you found yourself in such a predicament? Wouldn’t panic and dread seem a most likely response? Wouldn’t it be normal to feel anger, bitterness and blame for this woeful state that had befallen you through no fault of your own?

Harrison Okene felt nothing of the sort and, instead, conducted himself in an entirely different manner. Knowing his story can serve as an important guidepost for us today, a shining example as we face our life crisis with the threat of the COVID-19 pandemic all around us.

As the temperature dropped to freezing, Okene, dressed only in boxer shorts, recited the psalms that his wife had texted to him each night before he went to bed. One particular psalm, sometimes referred to as the Prayer for Deliverance was closest to his heart. It was the last psalm his wife had texted him the night his ship had sunk: “Oh God, by your name, save me … The Lord sustains my life.” Okene kept faith with the psalm he recited, and promised to “give thanks in your name, Lord.”

It is such a mind of faith that awakens us to the promise that the death of the body is not the annihilation of a person’s existence. The mind of faith perceives opportunity even in the darkest hour while the mind of unfaith only perceives the difficulty and most dreaded outcome. It is the faithful mind that recognizes that life can continue everlastingly. It is one of the reasons that the story of Jesus has been so compelling. Jesus conquered death.

Because of such faith, Harrison Okene did not panic and remained calm. In fact, because of that, he was able to survive for 72 hours until rescued. In such a calm state, he used less oxygen and maintained carbon dioxide at manageable low levels. Had he panicked, his heart rate would have increased as would have his breathing. It would have been one more sad example of fear causing the very outcome that is dreaded. It is the insidious nature of inordinate fear and it is what, no doubt, inspired Franklin Roosevelt to remind us during another world crisis, “we have nothing to fear, but fear itself.”

In these troubled times, let us remember the words of Psalm 32:7, “You are my hiding place; you will protect me from trouble and surround me with songs of deliverance.” Let us, today, be reminded of that fact as we hold high the example of Harrison Okene, a true champion of courageous faith in the protective hand of God’s deliverance. Let’s be prepared and do all we can to fight the COVID-19 disease, but above all, let’s keep the faith and do not panic!

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