Last week seemed to be a tsunami of shocking developments in the reaction to COVID-19. Every time I received a text or checked Facebook, there were new announcements: senior missionaries coming home from Europe, dramatic increases in numbers of people diagnosed in Italy, empty shelves in grocery stores, cancellation of the NCAA basketball tournaments, suspension of Church services and activities worldwide, and—right at bedtime—the announcement by Michigan’s governor that all K-12 schools would be shutting down for three weeks. Any one of these would be shocking and unsettling, but as they came one after another, I felt that I was in a fast-moving disaster movie.
During the day I received calls from my children, who live in various places around the country, far from me. As tensions rose, I shared with them strategies they could use to center themselves and create peace and calm in their homes, for themselves and their families.
One of the tools I find helpful is a Fear List. It is simple but very powerful. There are three steps:
- Identify our fears. We write a Fear List, which includes all our current fears, big and small. This is hard. It feels like writing them down might make them more real or likely to occur. Sometimes we sense a terrible possibility, lurking in the shadows, and we believe that if we avert our eyes it will go away. If we make eye contact, it might charge. But the opposite is true. When we can write down and name our fear, it gives us greater power. That power increases as we move through the next steps.
- Face and own our fears: When we name our fears and acknowledge the way they are controlling our lives, we begin to see things as they really are. Sometimes just facing that terrible possibility and shining a light on it helps us to see it in the context of our lives and our faith. We may realize we are powerless in a situation, but not helpless. Calling our fear by name begins the process of owning and responding to it in a healthy way. A slogan that reflects this is “name it to tame it;” we might already do this with our children, helping them to name the emotion they are feeling. When we face and own our fears, we begin to tame them.
- Prayerfully surrender our fears to our Savior: This is where we find real relief and comfort. Beside each fear on our list, we write “Even if this happens, my Savior will always sustain me.” If our fear is for our family members, we might add “and work in my loved ones’ lives for good.” There is a fundamental shift here, from our panic that we can’t control everything and keep bad things at bay, to releasing that impossible responsibility and trusting our future to a loving God. We exercise our agency by surrendering our fears to God, because He cannot take from us what we are unwilling to give.
I’ve used the Fear List tool over and over, for specific issues or for a general check-in. It is especially helpful when I’m facing something over which I have little control (pandemics, that kind of thing). I keep this tool in my back pocket.
Literally in my back pocket is another incredible tool. I carry a whole bookcase of scriptures and other books and resources. Two passages of scripture come to mind today.
In Joseph Smith—History 1:15 we observe Joseph’s fear of the dark and destructive power which seizes him. At the critical moment of becoming ready to “sink into despair and abandon [himself] to despair,” he exerts all his power to call upon God to deliver him and he is indeed “delivered from the enemy which held [him] bound.” Joseph exercises agency to call upon God for help.
Alma relates a similar experience to his son Helaman, though the backstory differs from Joseph’s. Alma is racked with torment and harrowed up by the memory of his sins. The thought of coming into the presence of God fill his soul with “inexpressible horror.” Yet when he remembers the teachings of his father, that “one Jesus Christ, a Son of God, [would] atone for the sins of the world,” Alma calls upon Jesus for mercy.
The change is instantaneous. He exclaims “my soul was filled with joy as exceeding as was my pain!” (Alma 36:14-20).
The lesson for me from both of these accounts is the same: I can exercise my agency to call upon God for mercy and deliverance. I can offer my fears, my darkness, my despair to Him and trust that He will lead me beside still waters. I exchange the struggle for surrender to my faith in His good will.
Turning to God and calling upon His grace and mercy is the foundation for the “peace which passeth understanding.” But I also learn from the story of a little boy who was afraid during a thunderstorm. His father told him he didn’t need to worry; God loves him and will take care of him. The little boy said “I know God loves me, but right now, I need somebody who has skin on.” Jesus Christ is my Savior, my Eternal Hope (and yes, He is embodied). But I also need friends “with skin on.” I need ministering sisters and walking buddies and a really good massage therapist.
Especially during a time of “social isolation” to inhibit the spread of disease, we need connection. Our baptismal covenants gather us to a community of Saints, to serve and be served. President Spencer W. Kimball taught “God does notice us, and he watches over us. But it is usually through another person that he meets our needs. Therefore, it is vital that we serve each other.” As I stay in connection with friends and family through phone calls, emails, text messages, and even social media, I am grateful for the ways in which I can continue to express and feel love.
While we must support one another in perilous times, there is no substitute for Jesus Christ, no other source of peace or salvation. I don’t need to earn His help; I simply need to ask. One of the most beautiful, sincere and effective prayers is “God, please help me.” That asking, that moment of turning to Him invites the love and power of Heaven As he comforts me, my hands are strengthened to lift others, to point them toward the Light of the World, and to walk together toward hope and healing.