Freedom over fear or fear over freedom, which do you choose?
Our town is full of whimsical little libraries: places people can go to get a free book or add one to the library’s collection. But when concerns over COVID-19 overwhelmed southern Oregon, the folks who run the little library closest to my house put a lock on its door.
I used to walk by that library every day, on my way to the public library. I’d pass the little library where I would drop off a bag full of books. Then I’d walk to the actual library to pick up research materials, an audio book I ordered, or the new Michael Connelly police thriller. At the big library there was a shelf of free paperbacks. If our little library still needed more books, I would grab some of those paperbacks to restock the little library on my way home.
That little library and our town’s library have always been two of my happy places.
Then, for a long time, the town library was closed. After that, when it finally re-opened, there were lines taped to the ground outside it so people could socially distance while they waited to enter. Inside it was the opposite of warm and welcoming. Though people were presumably there voluntarily, they looked terrified: Wearing their masks, flinching away from each other, and scolding anyone who they felt came too close.
Instead of a happy vibrant place, the public library became a place of fear and worry.
Rethinking friendships during coronavirus
Then there’s my best friend. Let’s call him Sam. A gardener, an educator, a parent of teens, and a deeply kind and generous person. When COVID-19 concerns first hit, we went for a hike in the mountains and then out for coffee. I could hear the worry in Sam’s voice when he confessed that he couldn’t think about anything else, that his teens were terrified, and that his husband, a biologist, was also beside himself with fear.
I listened with compassion even though his fear didn’t resonate with me. Yes, coronavirus was worrisome, a novel virus that, like the Black Plague that swept Europe, could be deadly. But I felt that worrying about it, obsessing over it, and letting COVID-19 fear overtake me wasn’t going to help keep me or my family safe. My friend was very emotional about it. I was analytical. My response to the unknown is to educate myself. So I started to research, learn, interview experts, and talk to people with differing opinions than my own.
I haven’t seen Sam in over a year. As I watched the virus morph into something less dangerous and felt reassured by the numbers, Sam became increasingly afraid. I read 35 peer-reviewed articles about wearing masks (you can find citations here, here, and here). Sam watched the news. He and his husband believed only what they saw in the mainstream media and what they were told by Oregon politicians. So they hunkered down, masked up, and stayed far, far away from friends, family members, and everyone else.
Fifteen months of living in fear
In fact, a lot of people we know have been living in fear for over fifteen months now. The fear has become an addiction of sorts. Even as things open, so many Americans, particularly in Oregon, still feel terrified. It’s common to see people in our town driving by themselves in their cars wearing two masks and those teal-colored latex gloves.
“I’m not sure I’m ready to go to a movie theater,” one friend told me last week. “I got both shots but I can’t trust everyone else is vaccinated,” another said to me yesterday. “It’s safer to just stay home.”
Depressed tweens and teens
The public schools were closed to in-person learning for over a year. Parents report that their tweens and teens were spending twelve or more hours in bed, too depressed to get up, binge-watching Netflix. Self-harm and suicide rates among young people, including 12-year-old Hayden Huntstable and 16-year-old Spencer Smith, have skyrocketed. According to the CDC, suicide attempts rose by more than 50 percent.
While teens took out their depression on themselves, others controlled their fear by calling the sheriff to complain about people who were gathering, and by reporting businesses to OSHA for allowing people with valid medical exemptions into their stores without masks.
I got a surprisingly hostile email from a local politician basically saying “You people” (meaning those of us, including Scott Atlas, M.D.; Paul Thomas, M.D., and Michael Levitt, Ph.D., and me, who have pointed to the evidence that shows that the response to COVID-19 has been more dangerous and harmful than COVID-19 itself, especially in our area; and that coronavirus is treatable without ventilators or lockdowns) are “wrong,” “crazy,” “dangerous,” and “misguided.”
I find the name calling and unkindness baffling. That the vitriol has been coming mostly from left-leaning friends also puzzles me. Conservatives seem to have adopted a live-and-let-live attitude. Liberals, on the other hand, are quick to shame and scold anyone not doing things their way.
As strange and incomprehensible as it is, it seems that some people have enjoyed being fearful, isolated, and unhappy. Many have been furious at those of us who have championed freedom of speech, freedom of movement, and other basic human rights, and haven’t been willing to live in fear.
Life involves risk
The idea that we have to choose between being safe and being free is absurd, says Rick Kirschner, N.D., a naturopath who is also the co-author of the bestselling book, Dealing With People You Can’t Stand. “Because you can’t be safe if you’re being free. Life involves risk. Every single thing you do involves risk … Everything worth doing requires risk. So it is an anti-American paradigm that has been widely adopted. The people who bought this COVID narrative have thrown away ‘be free.’ And they’re mad at you and me for being free because it makes them not ‘be safe.’
“But here’s the interesting irony,” Kirschner continues. “You can’t be safe! You’re not safe. Ever. Life is a calculated risk every step of the way. I’m mowing the lawn and I could pull a muscle or hurt my hand. That’s just the nature of life.”
Freedom over fear
My husband and I met a grandma at the park. She was smiling from ear to ear as she watched her granddaughters race across the grass and roll down the hill. “I quarantined for two months at the beginning,” she told us, “and I didn’t see these beautiful girls.” She grabbed the littler one, a black-haired 5-year-old with a sprinkling of freckles across her nose, and hugged her. “That wasn’t living. I couldn’t do it. I decided I’d rather take my chances with coronavirus than miss out on something this precious.” Her granddaughter wriggled away.
I’ve made new friends this year. Some have gotten the vaccine. Others haven’t. Our politics may not be the same. But we agree on the basics. Hugs are important. Live and let live. Freedom over fear.
Six months after the little library closed, I started walking a different route towards town. It took a little longer. But it also took me past a little library that has stayed open this whole time.
Published: June 22, 2021
Last update: June 27, 2021