It is said that when electricity was installed in the White House, 23rd President Benjamin Harrison, who had been in several battles in the Civil War and had been commended by Lincoln for his service, and his wife were so afraid that they would be electrocuted that they refused to touch any of the switches. Servants would be dismissed well before bedtime, and as a result, the couple learned to sleep with the lights on.
It seems in our culture today we have grossly misunderstood fear. We seem to believe that fear is the opposite of bravery. It is not.
Fear is a natural reaction to perceived danger. All living things feel fear. It is a vitally important part self preservation. Fear is not the reaction; fear is the stimulus.
There are two extreme reactions to the experience of fear. The most familiar one is cowardliness. I am sure that no one who served in the Army with Harrison would have called him a coward on the field of battle, and yet clearly, when it came to electricity, he was. His fear so gripped him he was unable to act, an act that even the smallest toddlers do billions of times a day in our world. That is one poor reaction to fear—the inability to act—but that is not the only.
We have seen demonstrated in recent months, as we have in the past, the other opposite poor reaction to fear: rashness. The rash person rejects fear out of hand. They engage in dangerous, and foolish, activity because they do not want to pay any attention to their fear. This typically results in injury or death if it becomes a pattern over time.
I feel fear. If I let it overwhelm me, I am a coward. If I ignore it completely, I am a fool. So what do I do?
I allow fear to be tempered by wisdom. Consider Harrison. Did he simply order his troops in every battle to run headlong into the enemy? No. That would have resulted in massive losses of life. Instead he, like other military commanders, looked at the danger and at the objective and weighed the options. That is bravery: the ability to acknowledge fear, the dangers involved, and to react to the best of your ability.
If I am in a fire and I let fear overcome me, I will die a coward. If I am not afraid of fire and I run into a burning building, I will likely die a fool. My father, with training and equipment, ran into burning buildings for 30 years as a firefighter knowing the dangers and knowing the need. He knew what happened to people who did not fear fire as well as what a failure to act would do. That was bravery.
So when it comes to masks or social distancing or altering your life during the pandemic, you have a choice:
Ignore the fear because you have a right to go about your normal activities without a mask. This is rash and foolish behavior.
Lock yourself away and have no interactions with anyone at all. This is cowardly.
Become well informed, follow the directions of people who know more than you do, wear your mask, stay six feet apart, and avoid unnecessary interaction with others.
That is wise and brave behavior.