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Fear, Death and Other Pleasant Topics

Updated: Jan 25

It's a common question in these days of coronavirus quarantine--"How are you holding up?" And if I'm to be honest, not so well. The last few days have been better thanks to my spiritual practice, but up until then I'd been feeling anxious and close to something like a panic attack. This is unusual for me because I'm typically cool and calm. And being a minister, this makes me feel embarrassed. After all, I'm supposed to be all super spiritual and connected to the Divine, right?

Wes Realizes He's Only Human!

Except it's been a struggle to feel anything but fear. No, I'm not sick nor do I know anyone who is. My partner still has his job, so we have food, health insurance and otherwise everything we need. So what gives? I've been asking myself that a lot lately. Yes, this is an unprecedented global pandemic the likes of which I've never seen in my lifetime. Oh, that! Ha, I suppose that has something to do with my panic. Maybe I have high expectations for myself (no kidding!), but my fear has been so abstract, existential. I couldn't pin it down to one thing, at least not initially. But then it occurred to me, I was simply afraid of dying.

I know--welcome to being human, Wes! I realized that the coronavirus was making me confront my own mortality in a way that I never had. I'm generally healthy, so death feels way off in the future. However, that's only an illusion because I could easily die tomorrow from a car accident, an unexpected heart attack or something else. It's only my brain assuming death is far off. So here we have this virus spreading like crazy, something over which I have no control. That's another facet of this--my need for control, or at least the semblance of it. So being unable to predict or control what the virus is doing or whether I might catch it, I've been afraid.

But What If I Suffocate to Death and Other Fun Questions

Of course, this is all natural. Intellectually, I know that. But emotionally, why am I afraid of death, especially being a Pagan? As a Pagan, I view death as simply part of being alive. Everything lives and dies, including us. It just is. And afterward--who knows? Ironically, I'm not afraid of any afterlife. But it's the fear of losing control, of something sneaking up on me and cutting my shorter than I would like. I have plans, after all, stuff to do! I've also been afraid of, if not dying, then what I might suffer being sick with the virus. I imagine gasping for air, and that sensation terrifies me. But you know, there isn't anything I can do about that. If I happened to get those symptoms, I'd have to deal with them.

On the flip side of all this, I've been wanting to get out and help, either as an American Red Cross volunteer or simply help the local Pagan community in some way. For the Red Cross, I respond locally to home fires and other disasters, and I'm also trained as a Spiritual Care volunteer for larger disaster responses. And in the local Pagan community, I lead a monthly discussion group. But the virus has upended everything and there isn't much I can do. This has left me feeling helpless. On top of all this, I am scheduled to start a hospital chaplain residency in late August. Although I'm looking forward to that and it's what I've trained and studied for, I'm also scared. What will hospitals look like then? What if I get COVID from a patient and bring it home to my partner? How awful would it be for me to have spent all this time preparing to be a hospital chaplain only to get the virus and die from it?! I know, I know--honey, have a drink and calm down. But these are the things that have been nagging me for weeks.

What's the Worst That Could Happen? No, Really.

Fortunately, I'm beginning to come to peace with these uncertainties. One thing that has helped is that I've actually sat down and thought through all the worse-case scenarios. Doing this helps to cut through the fear, actually. It helps me process, and it's a way for me to realize, well, no one plans to die any certain way, and I'm not special. So, if it is my fate, so to speak, there isn't anything I can do about it. Better to accept and it move forward with dignity and courage. Those values are what I think count most.

My spiritual practice is also helping me confront these fears and transform them. This has not been easy, so please don't think I have some magickal answer. Over the last few weeks in my spiritual community, we've been doing solitary ceremonies at home, focusing on a different Vodou lwa. In each ceremony, the message I've been getting is how to work with and conquer my fear. I've been reminded that fear itself is natural and normal, and its presence alone doesn't mean I'm "not spiritual" or somehow weak. The key is what power I give that fear. Do I let fear motivate me and cripple me? Or do I use the fear to transform myself?

Look Ma, I Learned Something!

I'm still working on this, but here's what I'm learning. Maybe not earth-shattering, but I think they bear repeating if only to learn them more deeply.

1) Life is an unpredictable dance. Hiding out of fear and thinking we can control when we die is an illusion. Better to get out there and live with courage and dignity.

2) Before I can truly help others with their fear, like hospital patients confronting their mortality, I need to learn how to handle my own fears. The absence of fear is not strength but illusion and denial. Only by knowing what fear is like can I help others.

3) I am so privileged and some of my fears pale in comparison to what others deal with every day. My spiritual godfather once said, "You have everything--what are you afraid of?" He was right on so many levels, and I need to work on my understanding.

4) Fear is scary, and I often react to it by running in the opposite direction. This, too, is normal but not always helpful. Instead, I need to greet my fears, have them take a seat with me and listen to what they have to teach.

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