These are dark days for humankind.
A dreaded virus has been let out of the bottle and creeps among us, stealing our peace, our joy.
With astonishing swiftness, COVID-19 has turned our world upside down, upending our routines, our social interactions, our investment accounts, and our feelings of security—reminding us that life is inherently uncertain, as much as our ego minds would like us to think otherwise.
But there’s another monster afoot, and he’s every bit as dangerous as COVID-19. Maybe even more so.
His name is Fear, and right now the beast has got us firmly in its jaws.
I’ve spent a lot of time studying the beast of Fear, simply because it ran me and my life for so many years. I know from personal experience what havoc this beast can wreak in one’s life, its ability to drag us down into its swamp of despair and make us its plaything.
You could say I have developed a nose for Fear. I’m a fear-hound. And right now, I am smelling the beast everywhere.
I smell it at the grocery store amidst the long lines and empty shelves.
I smell it in the stock market where fortunes and retirement savings are being lost.
I smell it in the emotional toll it is taking on people, in our collective angst and anxiety and depression.
I smell it in the doomsday way we are talking, as if we are at the end of time, as if we as a nation have not faced and overcome crises before—as if this virus, nasty as it is, could hold a flame to the remarkable powers of the ingenuity inside our human heads and the spirit within our hearts.
The scariest monsters are those we cannot see, because then we can add to them with our dark imaginings. If we can see it, at least we know what we’re dealing with. We can gather rocks and courage and gird ourselves for battle.
What makes the novel coronavirus so scary, beyond the fact that we can’t see it, is that we know so little about how it works. All we know is what we see and hear on the news, which is grim indeed. Upwards of 1,773,084 people infected around the world. The death count at 111,652 deaths and climbing. Entire countries and cities locked down. Schools and restaurants closed. Sporting events and concerts cancelled.
Compounding our anxiety, we live in a media-soaked age where the headlines come at us in surround-sound from every corner. Go to bed to bad news. Wake up and it’s worse.
These are the murky waters where the beast of Fear likes to tread. Human beings don’t do well with uncertainty. Where there is a vacuum in our knowledge, we fill it with worst-case scenarios concocted by the remarkable powers of our imagination. The bigger the information vacuum, the bigger the beast we fill it with.
The good news—the great news, the news that should make us jump for joy—is that we are fortunate to live in an age of remarkable medical science. Even as we fret and hoard and make ourselves sick with worry, some of the world’s most brilliant scientists and medical minds are working at breakneck speed to understand this dreaded contagion and find effective ways to stop it and treat those who are sick from it.
We’re talking thousands of people. Hundreds of organizations and companies. All working together to put this pathogen back in the bottle, just like we did with smallpox, yellow fever, cholera, scarlet fever, typhoid fever, the Spanish flu, polio, measles, whooping cough, HIV, swine flu, and a long line of other dreaded diseases. The progress these incredible people have made in such a short period of time is nothing short of breathtaking. It’s only a matter of time before this work yields breakthroughs.
But we don’t see it, because Fear has us whipped up into a frenzy, thinking that this time is different, that this truly is the end of time.
Such is the way of the beast of Fear. When we are in the grips of Fear, we lose our perspective, our optimism, our faith, our sense of humor. We see things darkly. We forget the incredible, amazing resilience of nature and of the human spirit.
We forget that we have been through much worse things and gotten through them, and that we will get through this as well—if only we stay calm and rational.
Fear is a stupid beast. It is the basest of human emotions, arising from the lizard part of our brain that sees life as a fight-to-the-death battle. It is entirely instinctive and reactive. It seeks to keep us safe, even though it lacks the brain to know what it wants to keep us safe from.
Fear can be every bit as deadly as a virus. It kills by stealing our rationality, turning us into dumb, driven beasts. No one thinks clearly when in the fog of Fear. When we don’t think clearly, we lose our ability to solve problems and we just run around like a scared bunny.
When we let the beast of Fear into our minds, it does what any beast does when we open the door to it: it runs wild, trashing the place.
When we let the beast of Fear into our minds, we speak differently. We catastrophize. We assume the worst. We use a lot of “what ifs.”
When we let the beast of Fear into our minds, we are dominated by the fight-or-flight response and the nasty chemicals it releases. We freeze, or we run. Either way, doesn’t get us anywhere productive.
Here’s some other really good news: while we don’t know as much as we’d like about COVID-19 as of yet, we do know a lot about Fear and the way it works. So while we take precautions, like social distancing, to reduce our chances of getting the virus, we can also do things to keep ourselves from being infected by Fear.
Here’s what I’m doing to keep the beast of Fear at bay in my life:
>> I meditate. Every day, if possible, for at least 10 minutes. To find that immovable center place of peace and safety within me.
>> I stay active. I exercise at least a half an hour every day. When I can’t go to the gym (which I can’t now because the gym is closed!), I go for a brisk walk or a jog or do calisthenics or yoga.
>> I turn off the news. Yes, it’s important to stay informed. But once or twice a day is enough, for God’s sake. Then off go the electronics.
>> I spend time in nature. You won’t see a bad headline or catch a virus in the company of trees. With spring finally here in Pennsylvania, I’m finding plenty of reasons to cheer in the budding trees and blooming flowers—evidence of nature’s remarkable resilience, which is in all of us.
>> I am careful about the words I say and think. Words have a way of infecting our moods and the moods of those around us. We don’t have to be Pollyanna-ish in talking about this virus, but we can and should be factual and, yes, hopeful.
>> I actively look for blessings. The smallest of them: food on the table. Roof over my head. A job that pays the bills. People who love me and whom I love back. The blessings are all around us, if we choose to look.
>> I practice mindful self-care. I stay vigilant to how I’m feeling, and when I’m feeling overwhelmed, I do something that brings me back to Earth, whether it’s listening to music or going for a walk with the dog.
>> I remind myself of four magical words. I learned this from my dear mother, and they are the words she would tell her kids whenever we were going through a hard time: “This too shall pass.”
It will pass. The smarter and calmer we are about it, the faster it will pass.
We will defeat this virus. We will defeat it and the beast of Fear will slither back to the swamp where it belongs.
And I will say, “Good riddance.”