Two phrases on most everyone’s lips these days are “I’m frightened” and “I feel confused.” Both responses seem natural – even wise – in response to the global epidemic that has entered our current existence.
First, Some Experiential History
Since the fall of the Soviet Union and with it some relief from the constant press of “High Noon,” I’ve asked people in interviews all over the world – from Port Jefferson, New York to Port Mosby, New Guinea — “Tell me something about what your life is like, nowadays?” Of course, each individual has their own story, but there is an underlying subtext, sometimes voiced with the bottom-line, “The world is too fast, too competitive and too complex.” When talk naturally turned to the advent of social media and globalization, I heard conflicting feelings. One such sentiment, seeming even to surprise the speaker who stated it was, “Things are always advancing, getting better, sometimes for the worse.”
Then, sometime later, the world started to be shaken anew by terrorism – not on the battlefield or in remote areas on the other side of the globe, but in our own neighborhoods. In the US, we had the collapse of the Twin Towers and with it the downfall of the national belief of American impenetrability and invincibility. France experienced terrorism in its in churches, newsrooms and cafes. Indonesia, for example, was also not exempt. Added to terrorism were economic downturns such as in 2008. And on it goes. The felt outcome of those societal insults I heard while speaking to people was, “I used to see the future opening before my eyes. Now I see the future receding, retreating from view.”
Over time, terrorism itself altered somewhat – from nationally- or organizationally-sponsored violence to a more problematic situation now called “asymmetric warfare,” denoting the possibility where one person motivated by its group’s doctrine but acting on its own can cause mass catastrophe. This kind of lone terrorist is, in a sense, similar to Covid-19 – it’s decentralized and unpredictable.
The world has been in a background state of dis-ease for some time now.
Now at 2020: Fear and Confusion
This brings us to today, with everyone under the threat of the Coronavirus pandemic. Many – most – people have been ordered to stay home, some of which who have lost their jobs. Hospitals are under-equipped, and staffed by courageous but fearful doctors, nurses and all healthcare workers. They and we civilians know the smell of fear is in the air. That’s normal.
We ask basic questions about this invisible enemy: How long will the pandemic last? How bad will it get? Will I get it? How best do I protect myself and my family?
Even experts have to hedge answers to these questions. Why? Because in the absence of a vaccine, the key factors at this stage are data collection and valid information-sharing. In other words, science. Not politics!
In addition to fear caused by the real threat of Covid-19, there is a pervasive and generalized anxiety people feel. This anxiety, for the most part, is caused by a situation of unpredictability. Humans are constituted to feel most comfortable knowing what’s next.
Not knowing what’s next, the most common state of mind that many people now experience is a sense of confusion caused by having so many contradictory feelings – feelings that exist together, at the same time: For example,
- Hope and fear.
- Wired and exhausted.
- Numb and flooded with many emotions.
Also, a sense of confusion emanates from the contradiction between:
- Home, job, school and home-job-school-all-at-home.
- Vacation time and I-don’t-know-what-to-call-this.
- Happy to have more time with my spouse and children and get me out of here.
The mind finds it hard to settle down.
So What Can We Do?
Denial of the Coronovirus threat is maladaptive, but so are paranoia, catatonia and running in-place. Given this terrible predicament, we might name a positive attitude, Be Present To What’s Now Absent…and amongst what’s absent is our normal routines. Herein lies an opportunity to go beyond our everyday cocoon of routine actions.
This is a tick of the clock that we can color with a tinge of “luxury” — luxury in having a time to rest, to be free of some external demands and to be inventive – to go beyond our familiar ways of doing and being.
We sometimes hear in this period of home-stuck, “Be creative.” Left as an isolated phrase, this dictum really is not helpful. But what really is the wellspring of creativity? It’s sensuality — the ability to experience your own experience of your own experience. FEEL. Don’t isolate yourself, especially from yourself. With much fewer external demands impinging on your natural activities and rhythm, this is a chance to be with yourself and see what’s in you — spontaneously, intrinsically.
It’s also a time in which we can consider – for more than a split-second – how we can carry forward our recognition that we are all alone and we are all connected. Astronauts who have flown in an orbit free of the usual on-earth or near-earth context talk about what is called “The Overview Effect.” This points to the change in cognitive point of view that comes to one when made to step out of gravitational constraints and peer from outside the normal way of viewing the world. Astronauts say it changes you. You have to step out of a “system” to comment on it. Well, we are flying high inside our homes.
There can be a certain delight in this, and strength. We would all do well to remember what Bruce Springsteen said in his 2012 SXSW keynote: “If you are able to keep two completely contradictory ideas alive and well in your head and in your heart, if it doesn’t make you crazy it will make you strong.”