By Andrew McCarthy
Mr. McCarthy is a travel writer and actor, and the author of “Brat: An ’80s Story.”
A quarter century ago I was walking across Spain on the Camino de Santiago, the ancient pilgrim route. Two weeks into my 500-mile hike I was anxious, lonely and miserable. Each day was worse than the one before. I felt like a failure and a weakling.
One afternoon while walking through a parched field of cut wheat in the high plateau under blistering sun, I dropped to my knees and began to sob. My tears had caught me unaware and were unstoppable. I cursed whatever God I half believed in and demanded answers for why I felt so alone, so frail, so incomplete. I cried myself out, got to my feet and trudged on, six hours to the next village. I found a bed and fell into dreamless sleep.
The next morning I was back on the trail. Shuffling along, I couldn’t shake the feeling I had forgotten something. I stopped and checked my pack. Twice. Nothing was out of place or missing. An hour later I was taking a break beside a barn, snacking on a wedge of cheese and a hunk of stale bread. As I went to hoist my pack and soldier on, I became aware of hearing birds call, distinct and clear. I noticed how crisp the colors around me appeared, the burnt umber of the earth, the high red of a nearby tractor. The few puffy clouds overhead appeared to morph and shift in a way that felt almost preordained. The sensation was one of being wide-awake. Then it dawned on me — what I had “forgotten,” what I didn’t have, what I was missing. It was fear.
As we enter our third calendar year under the cloud of Covid, I have been thinking a lot about fear, its destabilizing, paralyzing hunger — and about travel and how we need its transformative power more than ever. Despite the slogans early in the pandemic that “we’re all in this together,” so many of the people I know have felt so alone, so isolated, so trapped, and yes, so afraid.
Fear seems to be the one commonality of the pandemic. And no one I know reacts well under sustained exposure to fear. Not all my fearful decisions have been bad, but nearly all my bad decisions have been made from a place of fear.
It strikes me now as strange that I had not been aware of fear’s presence in my life until that moment of its first absence. But anxieties born in childhood had become such a part of my rhythm that they were accepted without thought. Beside the barn I suddenly felt myself fully, without need to justify my being. It was a feeling like none I had known. I was, for the moment at least, free. Finally, I thought, here I am. And I wanted more of it.
Since I had experienced this sensation while on the road, it naturally followed — my reasoning went — that by traveling more I could build on this moment. In the void created by the absence of so much fear, feelings of joy and generosity rushed in, which led to connection with others and the world at large. I traveled to Asia and Africa, throughout Europe and South America. I met people who seemed so different, yet on closer inspection shared the same feelings I did. The farther from home I got, the more at home in myself I grew.
As variants spike and recede, it seems that Covid, in one form or another, will remain with us. Fear needs to be mitigated. And fear is a cunning and dangerous foe, a subtle and corrosive taskmaster, and it can bludgeon like a hammer. Not unlike the virus we now combat, or a politician hungry to remain in power, fear mutates, and finds a way to endure. Franklin Roosevelt. assured us that we had nothing to fear but fear itself. He knew, as many of us seem to have forgotten, that wherever fear calls the shots, trouble follows.
Fear demands submission while hiding behind good intentions. It incites wanton disregard in the name of independence. And when called out, fear is quick to justify itself: “If you’re smart, you’ll be afraid. Very afraid.”
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