In the face of Ebola, don’t panic in public

October 17, 2014 Howard Kenyon No comments exist

Sure, the world can seem very scary at times. But is the sky really falling, Chicken Little?

Well, it may well seem like it for the victims of Ebola and their families. But why the panic here in the U.S., especially among those of us who worship the Prince of Peace?
I work every day with people who live on the rim of disaster. I am amazed by the resiliency and calm so many of them show in spite of the overwhelming odds they face. They fight so hard to keep from falling even further into financial or medical chaos. They struggle daily just to keep body and soul together. I’ve learned much by living and working among those who, by most standards, are destitute. They are so far underwater they do not feel the waves of public panic overhead.
When I lived in China, our team had a saying, “Don’t panic in public.” If you have to panic, we reasoned with more than a hint of humor, at least do it in private where you don’t infect a bunch of people with your emotional meltdown.
There was plenty to be anxious about – what with SARS, international tensions, floods, water shortages and power outages. On occasion someone on our team would get all panicky over some situation and the panic would spread like wildfire over parched land. Thus the saying arose as a means of keeping our emotions in check.
Yet I watched the people around us who had lived through far worse upheavals and calamities. How steady they could be! They taught me that when the world is falling apart, your worst enemy can be a sense of panic.
Even the most stoic among us can become tense with anxiety. And many have suffered traumatic experiences in life that leave them hyper-sensitized in certain settings. These are not what concern me at the moment.
What I am talking about are the people who seem to invite crises, as if it is somehow necessary for their wellbeing. Unfortunately, their love of crisis isn’t all that helpful for the rest of us and our wellbeing.
As a teenager at a statewide boys’ camping event, I watched as a certain adult leader charged around the parade ground like a bull moose in heat, blasting everyone with his megaphone. While our small troop watched from the sidelines, one of our adult sponsors, quipped, “He needs the world in a mess to find his own quiet.”
That sponsor, Art Hannah, was a slow and steady kind of guy with a healthy mix of gravity and twinkle. At a moment of uncertainty on the trail, he’d say, “We’re not lost, just confused,” as if that was meant to be the better option. But he taught us that when the world seemed very insecure, the last thing we wanted to do was panic. Or run around the field battling everyone with a bullhorn.
I’ve thought long about Art’s quip the past few days as pundits on the airwaves and friends on social media have all been in a fuss. Maybe with all this panic they are hoping to find their quiet in the falling sky.
Suppose they are right this time. Even if the sky isfalling, the question still is whether that is sufficient cause for panic. I am convinced it is not.
First, panic is not very helpful. It sends everyone into a useless frenzy. In the past few months alone there have been a dozen national and international events that have created panic through a wide swath of our population. Then just as suddenly these events are old news and everyone turns to something else to energize themselves. If we do get around to sorting things out, we do so at only the most superficial level, never really solving anything with our passing agitation.
Second, continual panic leads to disbelief, cynicism. Like the boy who cried “wolf” one too many times, people stop believing the repeatedly panicked messenger. When a headline pops up on Facebook, I find myself looking first to see who is posting it before bothering to take it in. I’ve learned to avoid the noise of wolf-criers.
Third and even more damaging – and here I speak to those in my own faith community – why would anyone desire our brand of faith if we who profess to follow the Prince of Peace show evidence of anything but? A person filled with God’s peace doesn’t deny the troubles all around, but neither is she thrown by them either. If anything, she becomes a calming center in the storms of life.
Fourth, take the effect of panic one layer deeper. Those of us who focus too long on the darkness risk becoming consumed by it. As with Jesus’ disciple Peter trying to walk on water like his Master, we fall prey to the churning waves beneath our feet merely by looking at them instead of Him.
This week the voices of the sufferers and survivors in West Africa have become smothered by the crashing wave of Ebola panic in our own American heartland. Even so, I have sought hard to listen to those voices speaking from the other side of the Atlantic and have been amazed and reassured by what I have heard even as I have prayed for peace for their peoples. For so many, the epidemic is much closer than the constant blare of the television. It is down the street and next-of-kin.
One woman, who has so far avoided the sickness herself, lives in the midst of those dying in her village. I am struck by her calm. Not a stoic, hold-it-in-at-all-cost denial, but a calm that is marked all at the same time by tears of sorrow and cackles of joy. She speaks of the loss of a great treasure, the ability to hug family and friends. She has not had a hug in three months. Here is someone whose sky is not falling even as the earth beneath her seems to give way. I am strengthened by the inner hope she exudes in the midst of this most painful ordeal.

I am saddened that the panic on our own shores is making it hard to hear those who are suffering with a real epidemic. We need preparedness, yes. Hyper alarm, no.

Sometimes when the Chicken Littles are ranting on Facebook and the boys in the news are crying wolf one too many times, I just click off the power button and think about what Art said.
And then I remind myself not to panic in public.

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