Compassion in the Midst of Fear (Pandemic Edition)
Fear defeats more people than any other one thing in the world. - Ralph Waldo Emerson
We are living in a time of great fear, but this is nothing new. Humans have long operated from a place of fear and those in power have often harnessed this fear to enact social action. Think terrorist attacks, Nazism, witch-hunts.
If you can get a group of people to fear collectively something or someone(s), you create a powerful force driven by one of the most basic human emotions.
Fear isn't unique to humans though; we see it displayed throughout the animal kingdom. I see it right here at home on a daily basis. Wild rabbits in my yard dash away upon catching sight of me. Loud noises startle my cats, though they are natural predators. My black lab is leery of strangers and becomes aggressive towards most men. And my husband is regularly terrified when I hide under the bed to grab and claw at his ankles. (#WifeOfTheYear)
Fear by itself could hardly be considered a bad thing. If we had "no fear," as the popular saying goes, we might go around taking selfies with grizzly bears or tap dancing off scaffoldings. Obviously, fear is necessary for survival and many of our innate fears have been naturally selected throughout our evolution.
When we become afraid, a complex biochemical response occurs starting in the brain; more specifically, the amygdala. Hormones are released that trigger the flight-fight-freeze response that calls us to action (or, in the case of freeze, inaction). We feel the effects throughout our bodies - increased perspiration, fluttering tummy, rapid heart rate, dry mouth, etc.
(That's a perfect description of how I feel right before I have to speak in public. Cue the panic attack!)
We are not designed to live in this state 24/7. Fear should be an acute response to an immediate threat. But in the modern world, many of us live in fear on a daily, or even hourly, basis. We worry about everything to the point of panic - being late to an important (or unimportant) meeting, messing up our family's dinner (once again), having our in-laws come over and see our wreck of a house, if we're royally screwing up our kids - you get the idea.
Usually these fears are decidedly NOT life or death matters. But every once in a while, they really are.
Few things strike fear into our hearts more than a virus threatening global pandemic. Viruses are invisible to the naked eye. They may be lurking anywhere and everywhere. You can pick up these germs from places as diverse as a nasty public bathroom door handle to your 1st grader's adorable, chubby little cheek. Instead of something you can actively fight off and defend against, this thing is INSIDE YOU and you're at the mercy of your immune system, which (admit it) you've been trashing for years with soda, fast food, and hours sitting on your behind binge-watching re-runs of How I Met Your Mother (it's timeless, am I right?). Unlike fears about shark attacks (avoid oceans) or tight spaces (don't take elevators or crawl into those terrifying plastic playground tunnels), it seems there is little we can do to avoid a deadly virus. Except, perhaps, to avoid all human contact (hello darkness, my old friend).
Folks all over the world remain decidedly split on the "Social Distancing" issue. My newsfeed shows representation from both camps - mask wearers and mask shunners, if you will. The Masks and the Mask-Nots. The "Shut It Down" side and "Open It All Up" team.
But, let's be clear: even though both sides have come to different conclusions, fear is present within, and often driving, the members of each group.
Many are afraid of the virus, if not for themselves, for their more susceptible loved ones. They feel it best to practice the most careful forms of social distancing and personal protection. They feel the benefits these measures provide outweigh any associated burdens. Many believe it is our duty to protect the more vulnerable populations, and some consider those who are not on board with these precautions to be selfish and/or ignorant (yikes!).
The fear present on the other side is a little harder to identify and has more diversity, to be sure. How about fear of losing one's livelihood from mandatory shutdowns? Fear of losing connection with friends and family due to travel restrictions? Fear of losing your retirement nest egg and being forced to work for many more years to recoup the losses? Fear of missing your favorite weekly gals' brunch with bottomless mimosas and gossip? It's all there and it's all legit. And people who are ready to get back out into the world are feeling frustrated with those who are condemning them for this wish. They may even directly blame those in the opposite camp for the effects we are experiencing (uh-oh).
You might not see eye to eye with anyone on the other side of this debate, but we can all come from a place of understanding of and compassion for the fear that lives within all of us. Just because my fear looks different than yours, and we may arrive at different conclusions because of this, does not mean that we cannot have empathy for each other during this time (or any other). The basic human emotion and survival mechanism that is fear unites us all.
I choose to extend grace to all humans as we weather this storm together. I see, feel, and respect your fear, though it may differ from my own.
You may be familiar with the serenity prayer, a favorite amongst those in the recovery community:
Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
the courage to change the things I can,
and the wisdom to know the difference.
Let's practice a little wisdom here, shall we?
What can I not change? I certainly cannot change the existence of COVID-19. I cannot change the actions of my government over the past couple of months. I cannot change the actions of others, including their willingness to wear masks, stay home, wash hands, etc. I cannot change the fear that exists in the hearts and minds of others.
What can I change? Sure, I can add a mask and subtract a crowded concert or busy retail store, but let's dig a little deeper. I can change how I approach others, including those with whom I disagree. I can change my reaction to external circumstances outside of my control. I can open my heart to compassion and understanding in this difficult time.
No matter what I believe, I can choose not to be a jerk to those who think differently.
Look, it's no great feat to be kind and caring towards those we love; of course we feel compassion towards those within our inner circles. Instead, the hallmark of emotional maturity is working to understand and appreciate the viewpoints of those with whom we disagree. When we do this, we not only show grace towards others, but we gain immeasurable serenity for ourselves.
I wish you wisdom, courage, and serenity, now and forever.
"I laugh, I love, I hope, I try
I hurt, I need, I fear, I cry
And I know you do the same things, too
So we're really not that different, me and you."
Not That Different, Collin Raye (1995)