These words were written by Henry Thoreau in 1851, in his journal entry of September 7th, and are most often regarded as the source of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s famous ‘Nothing To Fear But Fear Itself’ quote, enshrined within his 1932 Presidential inaugural address. In writing these words Thoreau himself was, in fact, picking up from the great French writer Michel de Montaigne – the man credited with the invention of the modern essay form – who, in responding to a contemporary criticism of the atheistic position, declared: “the thing of which I have most fear is fear”. Some translations of de Montaigne’s comment have it that his actual words were: “The thing in the world I am most afraid of is fear; that passion alone, in the trouble of it, exceeding all other accidents”. Both forms have great significance for us in the UK and, ultimately, in a fully vaccinated world.
In the UK, at the time of writing, almost 90% of the adult population has received at least one jab and almost 75% are fully vaccinated. Moreover, it is extremely likely that 21st century science will be able to keep ahead of any mutations. Given that eradication of Covid-19 is not within any realistically proximate view, having the highest decile of a population fully vaccinated is as good as it will get given vaccination risks & phobias. We are, thus, at an existential tipping point as to how we wish to live our lives in the not just the immediate future but in the longer term.
I exchanged words recently with a couple of my kind Ericle readers. One of them is a neighbour, who is a non-Arts academic at one of London’s leading universities. I bearded him with: “Well, are you beginning to put yourself about?”. His response was a “Certainly not!” and regaled me with the fact that his only contact with groups of people in the past weeks had been at 2 funerals of friends (elderly) who had died of Coronavirus. He, also, expressed concerns about the potential resumption of face-to-face student contact. Another, an eminent French cancer specialist, expressed similar sentiments with regards to crowds being permitted to gather at public events. To be fair, I am not surprised by their responses as, in similar recent conversations, I have received an almost universal similar response; which have led me to the conclusion that there is indeed a great deal of fear abroad in our land. I can understand this and why this should be the case. Man is a herd animal and one who has a strong endocrinal response to negative stimuli and for the last 18 months we have been subjected to the strongest imprimata to keep our distance from each other and to maintain impeccable personal hygiene.
Covid-19 is a particularly nasty disease for those who are inflicted with it. However, it is not the only nasty potentially unpleasant occurrence that can befall us as human beings, by way of disease or accident. We are fortunate to live in a century where medical science works so well for our benefit. However – at many levels, not just medical – we are encumbered by expectations of a normative quality of life that can trip us up by dint of our unrealistic assumption of these as being certainties. The question: ‘If not now, then when?’ was bandied about at the time when England was ‘unlocked’ in early-July and this is the question that other governments will need to be asking themselves as their countries approach maximal levels of vaccinations. However, I think that this question is more importantly one that needs to be addressed at the individual level. We must not allow fear to be the dictating factor in our decisions. For the overwhelmingly largest proportion of us, Covid-19 represents an existential risk that is quantifiable in micro-decimals. Returning to the FDR’s quote:
Let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.
It has to, and must, be a matter of personal decision. As we do this, we will be tested both as individuals and social beings. In the end, I truly believe that almost all of us will come to the inevitable conclusion that we must not allow a minimal risk to dictate our human behaviour and thereby effect the quality of our lives.