Things have changed quickly.
Comedian Norm MacDonald joked, “Think back a week ago. I loved back a week ago.”
While there had been newscasts about a virus developing over-seas, it wasn’t taken seriously enough in the US until only recently. Even on March 13th, after the president said it was a national emergency, even after the governor of Illinois said to stay home unless you are having a medical emergency, many weren’t taking it seriously enough.
Several partied that weekend in bars in close quarters and went to spring break in Miami. People returning home all at once were stuck in the airports for hours under the worst conditions.
While we could denounce them or those still outside, it is important to remember that we are all human. We are all afraid. It is very difficult to understand the gravity of a situation, let alone act rationally, when we are afraid.
Maybe you’re reading this in a town where the reality hasn’t quite hit. Even if you do understand, it is still difficult when you are accused of being hysterical, shouting that the sky is falling.
On Friday March 20th, Dr. Emily Landon, an epidemiologist from the University of Chicago gave an excellent and impassioned speech about the importance of what is going on and how we can help.
Personally, I think we need to ask ourselves:
“Do I know the histories of everyone I have been in contact with for the last 14 days?”
(The incubation of the virus until symptoms is up to 14 days.) The answer is inevitably no. I wonder, therefore, if we should all quarantine ourselves. Of course, everyone will need to make their own decision.
Bars and restaurants have now been shut down as well as any non-essentials. Schools are closed for at least a month, and I’m willing to bet longer. Those who can are working from home. We are coming to grips with our new reality.
“Some days, watching the news, I cannot help feeling as if we are all now living in a science fiction novel. But not, alas, the sort of science fiction novel that I dreamed of living in when I was a kid, the one with the cities on the Moon, colonies on Mars, household robots programmed with the Three Laws, and flying cars. I never liked the pandemic stories half so well…”
This wasn’t the version of a science fiction future I was looking forward to.
So what do we do?
Acknowledge our fears.
Acknowledge our hopes.
Both are vital.
Acknowledging our Fears
We do our best to face the anxiety. Philosopher and theologian Paul Tillich once wrote:
“Fear, as opposed to anxiety, has a definite object… which can be faced, analyzed, attacked, endured. One can act upon it, and in acting upon it participate in it—even if in the form of struggle. In this way one can take it into one’s self-affirmation.
“Courage can meet every object of fear, because it is an object and makes participation possible. Courage can take the fear produced by a definite object into itself, because this object, however frightful it may be, has a side with which it participates in us and we in it.”
– Paul Tillich, The Courage to Be, Yale University Press, 2000
By paying attention to the news, the world around us, our neighbors, our friends, and our own emotions, we can condense our worries into fears. And when they become fears, we can mount courage and act. We can better see what can and cannot be done. And therefore, we can act more decisively and meaningfully.
When we do not acknowledge what is making us anxious, when we try to distract ourselves, difficulty in decisions appear everywhere in our lives. The clouds of anxiety pervade our thoughts, miring us in the muck.
We all risk loss–loss of ourselves, loss of our loved ones, and loss of our livelihoods. And that is damn near paralyzing.
It can be all too easy to tune out. There is a draw to binge watching without discretion, to burying ourselves in drugs and alcohol and holding an end of the world party for one.
Engaging Our Hopes
Instead though, we can focus on developing those things we find meaningful. We can start by having an important role in taking care of those we don’t know, simply by staying at home. Beyond that, we can enjoy our time with family. We can video conference with our friends and loved ones. We can start those projects that have just been sitting there. We can enjoy more home cooking. We can take care of ourselves.
That is not to say don’t watch Netflix or play games. I certainly am. These are just as important as anything else.
But be deliberate.
Consider a small number of things to move forward today. Maybe 2 to 4 things as a suggestion, though everyone’s circumstances are different. Whether you are one of the lucky ones who can attend school or work from home or even be paid while off, or you are unpaid and terrified you’re about to lose your apartment, it is still important to clearly consider what you can move forward.
You can only act from where you are, here and now.
Moving something forward a little bit each day is likely more important than doing something all at once. Doing so helps you to build the structures needed to keep moving forward. Particularly when we don’t have the structure of the work day to guide and remind us, we need to have that much more sense of agency for ourselves.
Ask, what would be meaningful to move forward? And if nothing comes to mind, that’s fine. Set the question aside for a moment, but clearly consider when will you come back to it. In 10 minutes? an hour? tomorrow? Weigh the fears and the tendency to procrastinate as part of your decision. Set an alert to return to the question.
We are suddenly faced with time. We think we want more, but now that there’s more, it’s quickly apparent that there is still not enough.
Final Thoughts & The Need for Humor
Whatever happens in the next few months or even years will likely leave deep scars, physical and emotional, on those of us who survive. But part of that scar is how we can deliberately change to protect ourselves and work for a future. As Governor Pritzker said, and I paraphrase, whatever happens will change us, but whatever happens should change us.
We cannot become paralyzed with fear. And, we cannot drug ourselves on entertainment. Keeping our eye on our fears helps us stay grounded. Developing what we find meaningful helps us to continue engaging the world.
Meanwhile, humor is as important as ever. Here’s a bit of comedy from a couple of weeks ago, which feels like ages ago. Norm has said this might have been his last public stand up performance. My apologies if he’s not your brand of humor 1:
- While we could fault the audience for sitting near each other, most everyone was doing the same at that time. It’s just startling to see as is just about every show where I see people going out. ↩