ESSAY
Viral Anxiety Requires Infectious Wisdom
POSTED
April 21, 2020

At the time I write this, many in the United States are under some kind of “lock-down” order. But, thanks to the internet, people are still able to communicate with each other. And people have differing opinions on which medical or scientific projection about our current pandemic is most likely to prove accurate. And they write to each other about them…

We might be doing so “under the influence,” if you will, of angst: “Anxiety in a man’s heart weighs him down, but a good word makes him glad” (Proverbs 12:25 ESV).

What concrete effect might be the result of one’s heart being weighed down by anxiety? It is one of many emotions that might affect one’s manner of speech. Consider the following culled shotgun blast of proverbs from Proverbs (and one from Ecclesiastes):

  • “A tranquil heart gives life to the flesh, but envy makes the bones rot” (Proverbs 14:30 ESV).
  • “A man of wrath stirs up strife, and one given to anger causes much transgression” (Proverbs 29:22 ESV).
  • “A glad heart makes a cheerful face, but by sorrow of heart the spirit is crushed” (Proverbs 15:13 ESV)
  • “A joyful heart is good medicine, but a crushed spirit dries up the bones” (Proverbs 17:22 ESV).
  • “A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger” (Proverbs 15:1 ESV).
  • “A hot-tempered man stirs up strife, but he who is slow to anger quiets contention” (Proverbs 15:18 ESV).
  • “It is better to live in a desert land than with a quarrelsome and fretful woman” (Proverbs 21:19 ESV).
  • “With patience a ruler may be persuaded, and a soft tongue will break a bone” (Proverbs 25:15 ESV).
  • “A man of wrath stirs up strife, and one given to anger causes much transgression” (Proverbs 29:22 ESV).
  • “If the anger of the ruler rises against you, do not leave your place, for calmness will lay great offenses to rest” (Ecclesiastes 10:4 ESV).

Now these passages tell us of a attitudes that are sinful (envy) or often irrational (anger, fear) and show us how they affect communication. The woman of Proverbs 29:22 argues because she is afraid (“fretful”). And when someone communicates under the influence of a powerful emotion he often elicits a powerful emotional response. Anger stirs up anger. It goes viral. It is a social contagion.

Remember, when Israel went to war they asked everyone who was afraid to leave the army:

And the officers shall speak further to the people, and say, “Is there any man who is fearful and fainthearted? Let him go back to his house, lest he make the heart of his fellows melt like his own.”

Deuteronomy 20:8 ESV

Fear is a social contagion that can cause social unrest and rebellion against leadership.

The possibility that Proverbs presents to the “son” (see my book on how much of Proverbs is Solomon speaking to his ideal son) is to put out a counter virus involving two steps:

  1. Refusing to lose himself in emotions despite provocation. Anger stirs up wrath normally, but you will make yourself abnormal.
  2. Responding calmly, presenting not only a convincing reply, but a good example.

Without a group of people who have heard the call of wisdom and who order their lives to model that wisdom, society can only slide into chaos.

There is an episode of the Twilight Zone that vividly illustrates the process. A strange object in the sky, inexplicable electrical anomalies, and a heritage of end-of-the-world fiction all combine to make people fearful. And anxiety makes them lash out in anger and then violence.

Instead of mysterious lights in the sky and tech failures, our fear is triggered by seeing empty store shelves and hearing reports of another celebrity self-quarantining, and more deaths. We have plenty of apocalyptic science fiction feeding the fire in our minds.

Whatever might happen (and I don’t know, just like everyone else who isn’t God), Proverbs has one solid piece of advice: calm down.

Or, as is more traditional to say: “fear not.”


Mark Horne is a member of the Civitas group, and holds an M.Div from Covenant Theological Seminary. He is a minister in the Presbyterian Church in America, and is the executive director of Logo Sapiens Communications and  writes at www.SolomonSays.net. He is the author, most recently, of “Solomon Says: Directives for Young Men” from Athanasius Press.

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