I have the great pleasure of welcoming author Laura E. Wolfe, who wrote a wonderful guest post about fear and the coronavirus. Here is Laura, in her own words:
Laura E. Wolfe is the author of Sasha and the Dragon (2017) and the forthcoming novella Gerasim (2020), both from Ancient Faith Publishing. She’s using the current social distancing suggestions to catch up on her TBR bookcase, play more board games with her kids, and continually chase her working-at-home husband out of the kitchen when she’s trying to teach the kids a history lesson. She’s also been playing a lot of Just Dance 2020 with her daughters, to the eye-rolling embarrassment of her teen and preteen sons.
With out further ado, her wonderful post:
What are you afraid of?
Let’s talk about fear.
A few years ago, I wrote a fairytale about fear called Sasha and the Dragon. It was published as a children’s book, but I like to think that as with most fairytales, what it has to offer can be appreciated by all ages. In the story, a little boy named Sasha is afraid of many things: his Baba’s terminal illness, unkind neighbor kids, the loneliness of displacement and the threat of unfamiliar surroundings. His fear continues to grow until it colors all aspects of his life. Sound familiar?
It should, because that’s what fear does. It spirals and feeds on itself, and left unchecked, becomes an organizing principle. There are biological reasons for this: When the limbic system is activated by a stress response, the prefrontal cortex doesn’t function at its normal capacity. Since that’s the part of the brain that’s responsible for executive functions like emotional control, memory, planning and prioritizing, it’s easy to see why fear is such a destabilizing experience. Fear reduces our ability to think clearly and live purposefully. In the story, Sasha’s fears permeate his life until they manifest as an actual dragon.
The dragons that are threatening us today include not just pestilence, but also economic fears, political fears, fears of the unknown and uncontrollable, and fears about how the world around us is changing. It would be easy to behave like unbelievers and let the dragons wreak their havoc on our hearts. But that would be to forget that what Satan intends for us as evil, God wills for us as good. This is how Sasha finds his courage, because he turns to Christ in prayer even in the midst of his misery. Even though the dragon is too big for him to bear, he trusts that God already knows the way. After all, He is the Way.
When we refuse to let fear be in control, when we humbly set aside our own desires for the world and the future, we can acknowledge the reality that was true all along: God is in control, and always has been. Sparrows don’t fall from the sky and hairs don’t fall from our heads without His knowledge. In my story, God is shown to be ultimately in charge when St. Michael intervenes and slays the dragon. But more importantly than the death of the dragon itself is that the way that Sasha sees and interacts with the world changes. Instead of being overcome, Sasha is able to rejoice in the beauty and light around him, to pay his spiritual gifts forward to his Baba, who receives with joy, and even to reach out to the neighbor kids, who don’t know what to do with his spirituality.
The neighbor kids never will understand, you know. Even and especially when we act in faith, they will think we’re a little loopy at best, dangerously crazy at worst. The culture we create will be dismissed, misunderstood, and outright derided. This is especially evident in our attitude towards death. The world is absolutely terrified of it, to the point where it cannot tolerate acknowledgement of it or even discussion of it. And so our civil authorities often resort to hysteria or sentimentalism, unable to bear the burden of the inevitability of mortality. No one must die, no one must get sick, no one must suffer.
But Christians? We’re different. We say our prayers, light our candles, burn some incense, chant the Psalms. In the nation of Georgia, they doused the streets with holy water. We tend the sick and the dying, even if it puts us at risk as it did for Fr. Nicola Yanney a hundred years ago. And then we do something even crazier: We accept that sickness and death happen and acknowledge in humility that God grants us the profound gift of giving meaning to our suffering. Like Righteous Job of old, or St. Nicephorus the Leper in recent history—like all of the martyrs, really—we release the power of sickness and death from their holds over us. We laugh at their impotence, because they are already defeated. Christ is risen and death is overthrown.
Baba doesn’t speak any words in my story, but her actions speak loudly enough. When Sasha offers her a feather from St. Michael’s wing, she responds to Sasha with love, gladness and gratitude. Even though Sasha was afraid of his Baba’s illness, Baba never was. She suffers the end of her life with warmth and joy, and she sees with the eyes of faith. Baba understands what we all too easily forget—that remembrance of death is not a morbid neurosis, but a wonderful gift of maturity.
The new coronavirus has not changed that fact that you and I do not know the hour of our deaths, nor what sufferings still lie in store for us on the rest of our lives’ journeys. God willing, I pray for many years, but the truth is that today might be the last day of my life—whether due to illness, accident, or something unforeseeable—and I will do well to remember that and act accordingly.
In a sense, nothing external changes for Sasha in the story. Baba is still dying, his neighbors are still mean, and the city is still loud. But something important has changed, and that is that Sasha has relinquished his desire to control and manage the world around him, leaving that formidable task to heaven, and he has directed his will towards changing what he has some power over: developing his connection with Christ. The only control we’re supposed to acquire is self-control, and God knows how impossible that task can seem at times.
One last thought for you. Fairytales can be dark, and mine is no exception. There are some in our contemporary culture who think that such things are not for children, who believe that children’s imaginations must be sheltered from any image that could be interpreted as frightening or ugly.
Yes, the dragon in my story is scary, and I certainly wouldn’t force an unwilling child to read a story that scandalizes him. But more importantly, the evil is defeated—St. Michael shatters the dragon. That is the point. We would be wise to remember that more frightening to a child than a picture in a storybook is an adult that is panicking and afraid. An imagination fed on fairytales is able to stand up with Sasha, with the good miller’s daughter and the unlikely hero, even with Sarah in the Labyrinth and cry out to the dragons and David-Bowie-goblin-kings, “You have no power over me!”
Despite the efforts of evil to make us think otherwise, the world around us is still beautiful, no matter what happens, and a Paschal spring is blooming in America. Like Sasha after he sees the angel, all we need to do is open our spiritual eyes and everything around us changes. The kingdom of heaven is God’s freely given gift to us—appreciating it and giving thanks for it is not a mockery of suffering, it is an affirmation of meaning.