Losing Our Fears So We Don't Lose Ourselves

A few weeks ago, I traveled to Ghana and was surprised by the number of thoughtful and concerned emails I received. Friends and colleagues worried about me traveling to West Africa, though Ghana had not seen a single case of Ebola. In fact, the country continues to struggle with a deadly cholera outbreak but that had not made the international news, for cholera can be contained locally.

My organization is planning a trip for our biggest supporters to Kenya and Rwanda next March. A number of people have suggested we cancel or hold off planning, again due to fears of Ebola, though Kenya is located on Africa's East Coast, 3,500 miles away from the affected countries (Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea).

More distressing has been the vitriol I have been reading on social media regarding the health workers who have returned to the United States, both the young doctor who has contracted Ebola in New York, and the nurse who spoke out against being quarantined upon arrival. Ebola is a deadly disease and one that should be handled with great seriousness. At the same time, it is dismaying to watch people, who should make America proud by acting with generosity and a can-do attitude, and are by most measures acting as heroes, treated as pariahs instead.

When did Americans become so afraid?

We are a people attracted to slaying dragons and to rooting for the underdog. Historically, there has been no problem we have been unafraid to try and solve. The idea that there is nothing to fear but fear itself is in our national DNA. As a New Yorker, I'm even more confounded by the fear that feels new, different, disconnected to the tough resilience and grit I know is at the core of my city.

Yet increasingly our response to deadly diseases, as it is to foreign terrorists, is to shut our borders, batten the hatches, do what we can to protect ourselves.

At the same time, the best way to fight Ebola in the long-term is to build a public health system able to contain infectious diseases locally. Of course, in the immediate term, we must send humanitarian assistance during this time of emergency. And we must have the right protocols in place to contain cases of Ebola when we find them in U.S. cities. As human beings, we are capable of thinking and acting both for the short-term and the long-term. In fact, at our best, this is what we do.

There are a number of very brave groups taking on the task of fighting Ebola in West Africa. These men and women are doing what is right, not what is easy, including Doctors Without Borders, International Medical Corps and UNICEF, among many others. They need and deserve our support to stave the crisis, one that belongs to all of us.

America is so much better than we sometimes think we are. Fear makes us forget this. It makes us smaller when we have the chance to be expansive. We have the chance to rally around exporting the best of who we are -- our entrepreneurial drive, our can-do attitude and our philanthropic tradition that runs deep through American culture. The doctors and nurses and volunteers running toward helping to solve a deadly disease that we all rightly fear and ease immediate human suffering should make us immensely proud. They make us even prouder because they do it neither with recklessness nor the pursuit of financial gain, but from a place of moral purpose, a deep sense of responsibility and care for humanity. Through their actions, we see a reflection of the best of ourselves, and are reminded of what it takes to make the world, ultimately, not only safe but whole.