If irony was a commodity like oil, the COVID pandemic would be a net exporter. The current state of affairs is so drenched in irony that we’d be Kuwait-in-the-’90s rich if we could just barrel and sell it.
People are so afraid of getting sick and of getting others sick that their fear-related stress responses are destroying the immune system that might help protect them. If we actually cared about our health, we’d be rolling in dirt and eating at truck stop salad bars to shore up our systems against as many potential threats as we possibly could. Instead, we’re taking the Chris Traeger approach, seeing our bodies as a microchip and each antigen a grain of sand.
COVID-19 is a virus and a mirror. The saturation of the news cycle and profound implications on day-to-day lives has forced every single person to look at our deepest fears. The crisis has revealed that we are all afraid, just not of the same thing.
As an n=1 kind of an expert on the topic of anxiety, I’ll start by saying there are plenty of wrong ways to panic. Steering your car off a bridge because it occurs to you there might be a killer clown in your backseat is unwise and irrational. But panic pushes us into our fight-or-flight response, the homeland of irrationality. It’s impossible to panic and see the big picture at the same time. All you can do from your myopic fear state is weigh whether you want to punch your problem in the face or run home and hide from it forever. So, if we are sitting in deep fear about the consequences of a global pandemic, we are not being thoughtful about it, even if we want to be.
So let’s reframe.
First, can we talk about how we’re all out here, talking about our fears? People are freely expressing their angst and anxieties, and in many ways their friends and communities are making a point to show up and support that vulnerability. This is a “new normal” I can get behind! We are normalizing vulnerable personal expression while demonstrating new ways to show up for one another. But the profound opportunity to galvanize as a human community is getting squandered because our fear is informed by our deeply personal wounds. If our neighbor is wounded in a different way, their fear will manifest to reflect a different wound. Even as we collectively express our fear, we are getting lost in translation when we think that, because fear is being expressed differently, we aren’t sharing a collective sense of unease.
We’re wasting an opportunity for profound connection and human understanding by getting trapped in the details of how we’re showing up in our response to the pandemic.
For many people, the frightening part of COVID is that it is a devastating, mutating, unstoppable viral infection that attacks the most vulnerable in our society, devastating lung tissue and medical infrastructure. They fear the implications of catching the virus for their own safety and the safety of their families, especially their older relatives. They see COVID as a ruthless grandma assassin. They strap on personal protective equipment and vociferously encourage others to do the same. They believe that we’re stronger together and together means we all do the same thing, even if it sucks.
For another subset, the scariest part of COVID has been the dramatic shift in lifestyle, leading to mandated isolation. They are hunkered in their homes alone, left with their thoughts and their vices without normal daily activities to keep them engaged. Loneliness and the loss of order is the COVID boogeyman hiding in their closet.
For others, COVID is a convenient scapegoat used by an encroaching federal government to erode our rights and infringe on our individual liberty in the name of “public safety.” They cite the Constitution and low death rates and feel personally oppressed by a perceived destruction of freedom.
There is no wrong way to panic. The world is not black and white, all of us can be right. The fear expression is simply coming from where we fear loss the most, and getting in touch with that reconnects us to ourselves and, if we let it, humanity.
The great heart-wrenching irony of COVID is that the virus and the response to the virus exposes our deep personal vulnerabilities while simultaneously pitting us against the people who are just as afraid, but in a different way. The response to COVID feels like salving our paper cuts with sea salt. The way that we are responding to the pandemic is only making each of our vulnerabilities more powerful.
The Viral Spiral
That diligent majority that believes COVID is an indiscriminate, incurable force of nature that is out for us all protects themselves by staying safely indoors, wrapping themselves in latex and gauze if they dare venture out. They douse themselves in 70% isopropyl and dutifully share news stories about embattled hero nurses on the front lines. They quietly understand that if social distancing and giving side-eyes to the noncompliant were an Olympic Sport, they’d medal. They secretly hope maybe social distancing remains in place forever, at least until we can wrap the whole world in bubble wrap.
These people understand that COVID lives on surfaces and in the air and can pass between the asymptomatic in a deliberate, bloodthirsty circumnavigation aiming right for your sweet old granny. Their fear is the illness, their response is to #stayhome. They fail to recognize how the fear they feel, the sunlight they avoid, the social interaction they shun, are all tiny cuts that decimate their immune system and make them even more vulnerable to the thing they fear the most. They are programming their cells to be fearful and inviting all manner of dis-ease into their lives.
Alone for your Sins
Those who are most worried about the social implications of the COVID lockdown are similarly flummoxed. They see devastation in the lonely hours. They miss hugs, they miss their friends. If they respond to their fear by reaching out for connection, they are reaching into a brown paper bag filled with snakes. To share their thoughts on social media is to walk a thin line between right and wrong thinking. If they forego the stay at home orders, they risk being alienated from their Viral Spiraling friends for not taking things seriously enough. By trying to avoid loneliness, they will only feel more alone.
Silver-lining seeking optimists are some of the biggest losers in a pandemic. They might not be afraid of the same things other people are, which makes them feel left out. So even if they know that masks don’t really protect you from a virus that lives temporarily on surfaces, and also lowers the oxygenation of your bloodstream which is another drain on immunity, they might wear one just to fit in. The isolation of not being included in the COVID response is the biggest fear factor, so they participate in every viral tik-tok trend they can find, lest they miss out on some opportunity to build holy social capital.
But in doing so, they polarize their followers and forsake their own beliefs. They begin to feel like a fraud and need to choose between showing up authentically or showing up in a way that is acceptable to the masses.
Because the virus is heavily concentrated in certain parts of the country, there are plenty of otherwise rational people who see the response as a vast overreaction. Because they cannot see the implications of the virus itself in their daily lives, they only can see the impact of the reaction, which then feels like an overreach. They start wondering what in the hell is actually going on. Their hospitals are empty. They should be allowed to go back to work. They don’t think it’s right that some distant bureaucrat is insisting they stay home because some people a few states over caught a bug. They rage against the response which, in their eyes, is the real threat.
When they express this and take heavy flak from the Viral Spiral gang and the Lonelies, they double-down, beginning to feel that their freedom of movement is not the only casualty of the lockdown. Their very freedom of free thought is now being infringed! These are the first slow steps on the march toward tyranny. With visions of ramparts and rockets’ red glares, they jump at the chance to stand up and fight for what’s inalienably theirs!
In response, they exercise fundamental rights. They go out. They speak their minds. Maybe they protest. And their fear of being locked down becomes a stark reality as they are reprimanded by police who are on extra high alert. By pushing against an encroaching tyranny, they are poking the neo-fascist police state they fear the most.
Wake Up People
COVID is a human crisis requiring a human solution. We are being tested. But while a Viral Spiraler believes that passing the test requires strict compliance and N-95s, our Hoax Couturian brothers understand that they will be purely graded on their ability to stand up against those rules.
Where we are lost is thinking that those two groups of people are actually any different. They are both responding to fear with fear. COVID holds a mirror to what scares us, then shows us how the solutions that we find outside ourselves will only make matters worse in exactly the way we fear the most.
Acceptance is the first step to healing from the COVID-19 catch-22. Accept that our fears are valid. You have every reason to be freaked out when some spooky unprecedented virus starts killing people, and when the people who are supposed to be in charge of running the country just shut it down instead. Every single part of this is scary. You have reason to be afraid for your health and the health of your family. Now, hold in your mind the idea that if your fears are valid, so are the fears of your neighbor. We should worry about government overreach in moments of frailty and panic. The same people who run the DMV should maybe not be solely in charge of our health and well-being.
Let go of the need for certainty. It doesn’t exist. The sooner we understand that experts are just people, the sooner we begin reclaiming our personal sovereignty. No expert is ever going to tell us that everything is going to be okay, that’s not their job. No expert will save you or salve your wounds, or protect you from the people who you think are panicking wrong. Quit waiting for the chaperone to blow the whistle and scold the people you disagree with.
Healing starts with you taking the step toward healing from the pandemic by healing what you fear most about it.
Accept yourself. Accept your fear. Recognize how much of your behavior ties back to fear, and try to recognize that you’re not unique. Your neighbor is scared too, but since their wounds look different than yours, their reactions look different too.
We’re having a collective human moment, despite a diversity of reactions. It’s not profitable for experts, newspeople, politicians, or medical types to instill a sense of calm in the populace. We are being shown that we are responsible for our own sense of calm, which is needed “now more than ever.”
Instead of fixating on how people are showing up, realize that we’re showing up. Then choose calm. Calm people are healthier and make better decisions. That’s the connection and the cure.