The deaths, when they came, were often as varied and idiosyncratic as their infected hosts. An impressive escalation in car crashes and drownings was surpassed by steep increases in accidental poisonings, jet-pack mishaps, and problems with parachutes. Balancing the scale, was a precipitous decline in hate crimes, domestic abuse, and border disputes.
In my leather-bound notebook I’ve been curating a list of escalating and receding elements I’ve seen, heard or read about since the pandemic took hold a year ago.
I turn the page, spreading the notebook open so I can see both pages.
The reminder on my phone chirps. Ten minutes until I lecture on Michael Chabon’s work, starting with the Mysteries of Pittsburgh, wandering into Wonder Boys, crawling into The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, and ending in Alaska, with The Yiddish Policeman’s Union. As I reach for my coffee mug, I knock over the small picture frame perched on the cluttered desk. I pick it up and set it upright again.
I half-smile at the quote, nestled in its mahogany frame, a gift from one of my sophomore students who was fond of embroidery. The threads of the cross-stitched letters dive in and out of the taut fabric, weaving with ease between the visible and the invisible. She'd given it to me a few years ago, a joke of sorts, as she'd stitched a few friendly spiders in the corners, dangling over the words in the centre.
There is no passion so contagious as that of fear. - Michel De Montaigne
I’d have to disagree with Monsieur Montaigne though, there is something more contagious than fear now. It’s called the Phago-Amygdala Virus Disease, or PAViD for short, which has infected, by the latest estimates, ninety percent of the planet’s population. More than six billion souls have a malfunctioning amygdala. The remaining ten percent are left to wonder whether they might be permanently immune, or wake one day to realize the virus was nibbling their amygdala at a more languid pace.
On the last page of my notebook I've pasted an image of a large, brown tarantula. Taking a deep breath, I flip to the picture and force myself to stare at it for five seconds.
Sweaty palms? Yes.
Rapid heart rate? Check.
Quick, ragged breaths? Undeniably, yes.
I close the notebook with a thump. My amygdala appears to be working within the expected parameters.
I open the folder on my laptop labelled ‘Lessons,’ scanning for today’s lecture on Chabon. But my eyes land on the Margaret Atwood lecture I gave six months ago. That was the day I’d had to explain the PAViD pandemic to my students. The news channels were reporting on how it was raging across Asia. The divorce rate was soaring, people were quitting their jobs, kids were dropping out of school, and Kim Jong-un was dead, dragged through the streets of Pyongyang by his own people. Governments were scrambling to understand PAViD, how to stop the spread. But it had already reached North America by then, though it remained undetected for a few months more.
“Professor Gaskell, what’s an amy-gee-dala?” Skanda had asked, as I was preparing to launch into my Margaret Atwood lecture.
“It’s pronounced a-MIG-dala,” I’d explained, “taken from the Latin for almond, because they’re almond-shaped.”
“So, what do they do?” asked Liam.
“They’re part of the brain that controls our fear response. When we perceive something, within nanoseconds the amygdala decides whether we ought to be fearful, and if so, what our response should be: fight, flight, or freeze.” I said. “PAViD is a bacteriophage, a bacterial virus, that eats portions of the amygdala.”
“Will it kill us?”
“Not directly.” I replied, “But as Henry Hallam Tweedy, professor of practical theology said, ‘Fear is the father of courage and mother of safety.’ Fear has been our constant prickling companion for millennia. It helps keep us alert, wary, always on the look-out for things that can harm us. It's a powerful motivator--"
“But Bertrand Russell said fear is source of superstition and of cruelty,” Skanda countered.
I nodded, “Fear of the unknown leads to superstitions and myths and even religions, as we struggle to explain the inexplainable. What fears do you have, that stem from the unknown?”
I invited them to write on the whiteboard. A list slowly emerged.
Strange noises in the night
People I don’t know
Eating something I can’t identify
Telling someone I love them
“Then there is the fear of losing our perceived status in society,” I continued. “This encompasses fear of failure, of being embarrassed, being rejected. Such fear often results in cruelty as we try to maintain our status by pushing others down. When do you feel afraid of failure, of rejection?"
Going to the beach, in a swimsuit
Speaking up in class
Being laughed at
Farting in a quiet room
Telling someone I love them
“Some argue that fear keeps curiosity in check.” I said. “If we don’t fear the unknown or being embarrassed, then we will try more things. But some of those things may be dangerous, even lethal. Also, if we do not fear authority, then what’s the impetus to obey? Will we resort to thievery and corruption and jaywalking and blasphemy, if we do not fear punishment?”
“But, hang on Professor Gaskell,” Maya piped up. “Just because we aren’t afraid of doing something, doesn’t mean we can’t understand the consequences of our actions. Fear is not the only reason we obey the laws, or why we follow the Golden Rule, to treat people the same way as we wish to be treated.”
“I guess we’ll find out, Maya,” I said. “We can hope that Napoleon got it wrong when he observed that ‘Men are moved by two levers only: fear and self interest.’ For if he's right, once fear is gone, only selfishness remains.”
The reminder chimes again, five minutes until class begins. I look out the open window of my office at the green lawn and benches filled with people lounging in the summer sun. Professor Xu gesticulates broadly as she converses with Orin, the janitor. Liam jumps down from a tree, yelping in pain as he twists his ankle. In the shade of the maple tree closest to my window, Skanda kisses Maya, and whispers, “I love you.”
In the lower corner of my window, swaying in the breeze, a spider weaves a web.