“Have you noticed that everyone seems to be afraid these days?” Michael Rosenthal asked Pastor Walter Mitty. The two friends were sitting in the café in Bernie Rolvaag’s bookstore.
It was Thursday and Mitty still had some of the smudge left over on his forehead from the Ash Wednesday service the night before.
“I guess so,” Mitty answered. “Say more.”
“Well, the Dow dropped like 3,000 points in what, three or four days? That’s all about fear, isn’t it?”
“You mean fear of the coronavirus?”
“Yeah, or what the virus will do to corporate profits. Wall Street doesn’t care about people getting sick. They don’t fit on the bottom line.”
Michael took a sip of his coffee, and with a mischievous grin, Mitty asked, “You giving up lattes for Lent, Michael?”
Michael, unsuccessfully trying to look offended, continued, “And now we here in Poplar Park might even be in danger soon.
“Now that you mention fear,” said Mitty, “I’m amazed Trump’s popularity hasn’t moved downward at all, even after the impeachment. I fear the Democrats in the House really miscalculated and played right into his hands.”
Michael took a deep breath and said, “I wouldn’t say I am afraid as much as I am anxious about what will happen in November.” Laughing, he added, “And conservatives are scared to death that Bernie might get elected.”
“Come to think of it, I was talking to Carla Hernandez the other day,” said Mitty, “and she said her agency was having a hard time convincing the Latinx population that it’s OK to send in the census. They’re afraid of being deported even if they don’t break the law.”
“On top of all of that, Walt, I bumped into Zaphne the other day and she repeated her fear again that this virus pandemic is nothing compared to how climate change is going to make the planet unlivable.”
“Did she add that Social Security will run out of money by the time she is ready to retire?”
“She did,” Michael answered. “And went on to say that the culture wars in this country scare her too.”
As Mitty listened to his neighbor’s story about Zaphne, he thought about his two nephews back in Manitowoc who were only a few years younger than Zaphne, and he confessed to himself that he was fearful about what kind of world his generation would pass on to them.
“Sorry to not pay more attention to my two best customers,” said the bookstore owner as he pulled up a chair. “I couldn’t help but hear what you were talking about.”
“So do you find yourself feeling afraid?” asked Michael.
“I do,” Bernie answered, “but you know me. My mind always goes back into history and the first thing I thought about was how FDR responded to fear. In fact, I wrote some of his first inaugural speech down so I can remember it.”
“You mean the ‘all we have to fear is fear itself’ speech?” asked Michael.
“Right,” Bernie answered but before he could launch into his rendition of FDR, Fr. Bob Sullivan walked in, smiled at his fellow Poplar Parkers and sat down at the table.
“No cappuccino today,” the Franciscan said to Bernie. “It’s Lent. Have to fast and pray.”
Michael shook his head and laughed as the bookstore owner hustled off to get the coffee.
“So what world problem are you three solving?”
“Fear,” Mitty replied.
Fr. Sullivan was just about to say something when Bernie delivered the coffee and immediately launched into what Roosevelt said to Americans during the darkest days of the Great Depression.
“I am certain that my fellow Americans expect that … I will address them with a candor and a decision which the present situation of our people impel. This is preeminently the time to speak the truth, the whole truth, frankly and boldly. Nor need we shrink from honestly facing conditions in our country today. This great Nation will endure as it has endured, will revive and will prosper. So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”
“It sure speaks to our situation,” said Michael with a sigh.
“Except for one thing,” Bernie responded. “Two sentences later Roosevelt said, ‘In such a spirit on my part and on yours we face our common difficulties. They concern, thank God, only material things.”
Bernie paused and he added his own commentary. “I’m afraid our nation’s main problem isn’t material.”
“I agree,” said Fr. Sullivan. “And it reminds me of a story Thich Nat Hahn told.”
“The Buddhist monk?” asked Pastor Walt.
The Christian monk nodded. “He said that when the boat people — the ones fleeing Vietnam as the war was ending — when they got out into the open sea and the big waves, some of the boats tipped over and people drowned.”
Michael, Mitty and Bernie leaned forward waiting for Fr. Bob to finish the story.
“And he said it wasn’t the waves that tipped the boats. It was because the waves frightened the people in the boat, and because they panicked, they were the ones who, tipped the boat over and drowned. It wasn’t the waves outside of them. It was how they responded on the inside.”
That night as Pastor Walt was getting ready for bed, he looked in the mirror in his bathroom and noticed he still had some of the Ash Wednesday smudge left on his forehead. “No getting around it,” he said to himself. “We’re mortal and that means we’re vulnerable and that means that sometimes we’ll get scared. So how do we keep our little boat from tipping when the waves seem so overpowering?”