It would really be a colossal understatement to say we are living in trying times. I remember elementary school bombing drills where we hid under our desks in the 1970’s. The explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenger. Fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Writing letters to soldiers stationed overseas during the Gulf War in 1990/1991. The World Trade Center bombing of 1993. The dawning of the new Millennium when everybody wondered what computers would do, and apocalyptic theories found their place into the news. Genocides. Natural disasters. The attacks of September 11, 2001 rocked our world. The global financial crisis 2007 wreaked havoc. I’ve witnessed times of tremendous change and turmoil in the world, moments in social history when no one could really predict consequences and what was going to happen next.
But the level of fear and uncertainty people around the world are currently experiencing is unprecedented. I hear it in their voices on the phone, it comes across clearly on the news. Social media is awash in varying degrees of fear and worry and confusion. We are afraid of getting sick with this virus, of having elderly family members and friends become sick, of having children get sick. People are desperately worried about lost wages, mortgage payments, rent payments, car payments, feeding their families. Stock market losses from lost confidence in turn further add to the panic. Disinfectant, face masks and toilet paper have become the most sought-after commodities across the country. We fear being ill. We fear the damage to the economy, and to the businesses that won’t survive it. We fear months of home schooling all our children. We fear the long-term impact on our health care system. We fear the loss of control. We even fear each other.
Fear is a natural thing. It is not a weakness or a flaw. The fight-or-flight response, also known as the acute stress response, is a physiological reaction that happens when we are faced with something mentally or physically terrifying. The response is triggered by the release of a flood of hormones that prepare your body to either stay and deal with a threat (fight) or run away to someplace safe (flee). Our ancient ancestors faced major dangers in their environment and could either fight or flee. In the face of the pandemic most of us are left with only the choice to hide. We can say we are fighting the threat by removing ourselves from it, who is that we are fleeing the threat by to social distancing ourselves. But I think for most people it doesn’t feel that way. It feels like by hiding we are not fighting or fleeing, we are instead having to freeze big parts of our lives while swiftly adapting other parts to fit within this new paradigm
Driving a car is something any rational person should find pretty frightening. Think about it; trucks and other vehicles careening down roads and highways, all guided by painted lines and occasional traffic lights. Your rational mind knows that everyday people drive over the lines and run traffic lights. My own husband was killed by a drunk driver. Then there are the accidents caused by drowsy drivers, texting drivers, drivers distracted by mobile phones, arguments, eating, drinking, smoking, combing hair and putting on makeup. But those who can still get in cars and drive. My eldest child got her driver’s license a couple years ago. I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that one of my biggest fears is of her being in a car accident.
I live with multiple sclerosis, which has stolen almost all the activities and pursuits I was involved in for my entire life and left me mostly homebound as well. I am an only child whose mother was killed by her fear of doctors, husband was killed by a DUI driver, father died quite suddenly just a few weeks after getting a clean bill of health. As far as family goes, my support system is almost laughable. From 2008 into 2009, I spent about 14 consecutive months in hospitals and physical rehab centers.
I have religious faith, though I confess I frequently question it. I bear the sole responsibility for my home and all the living creatures in it, the 2-legged and the 4-legged ones. A couple of very kind friends have told me that they “don’t know how you do it.” People generally seem surprised that I have not lost myself in a liquor bottle, fallen into depression, withdrawn mentally and intellectually from life, and given up entirely.
So, I have actually spent some time thinking about it. I think we as human beings have a grounding force inside of us, and I am fortunate enough that mine seems relatively strong, or at least accessible without concerted effort. The grounding force is not simple optimism. It is not about having one’s head either in the clouds or buried in the sand – choose the analogy that you prefer. It is not denial of the negatives. It is also not handing all responsibility over to a partner, another family member, government, or religion. Yet the way I’d describe the critical grounding force is Internal Faith (IF). I do not mean religious faith, which I realize is also internalized, but it is derived from an external belief system that we adopt. So, I know that may be confusing, but hear me out.
I am referring to a deep, instinctual Internal Faith we are born with. That Internal Faith is what powers us through times of fear, uncertainty, worry and stress. It is stronger than anything. It enables us to center ourselves. It enables us to help ourselves and others in the most trying circumstances. Internal Faith frees us to look for deeper meaning, despite our pain, worry, stress and fear.
Internal Faith is knowing that at our very core we are more than all the challenges we will ever face, and that we can handle whatever life throws at us. And it can throw a helluva lot at us.
This won’t be the last crisis humanity will ever go through. I am certain that it is not the only crisis any of you have ever gone through. It is unique because it is quite likely the only crisis that everybody is facing, at the same time, everywhere in the world, (except Antarctica). As individuals, we are shaped not by how things go when things are going well, but by the most difficult times.
From a fairly young age we figure out that life is good and bad, pain and pleasure, risk and reward, opportunity and challenge. Birth and death. Right now, schools, movie theaters, bars, clubs, restaurants, bowling alleys, escape room places, and stores are closed. Sporting events are cancelled, concerts are canceled, boardwalks closed. No church services, no temple services, no mosque services. All social events are on indefinite hold. Many people are now newly unemployed, and whoever can work from home is now obligated to do so. ‘Essential workers ‘are moving about in a world that feels suddenly desolate, like a movie set for an apocalyptic feature film. These people are also putting themselves in more of harm’s way, to serve the greater good.
Action is empowering. We can make people happier by means of a telephone call, text or email. Sit outside on your balcony, backyard, or on your front steps. Walk your dog. Walk yourself, just be sure to keep your distance from other people that you may encounter. People on Long Island in New York are posting pictures of rainbows in their front windows or drawing them on the glass or on the sidewalk, as a reminder that better days are coming. Local martial arts studios, dance schools, art schools are posting live events on their websites or Facebook pages, so people can participate from their homes. Teachers are devising creative ways to connect with their students while continuing lesson plans long distance. People are looking for ways to help out local businesses that are trying to survive with curbside service that abides by the rules of safe social distancing. Religious services are being shared by live streaming.
In this technological world we are pretty much all familiar with the concept of rebooting. Well, the world is being given a chance to reboot. We have to take all the precautions possible to minimize new cases and stop the virus spread, flatten the curve. While we are doing that, tap into your reservoir of Internal Faith. You may have a lot of experience doing that, or it might be your first time. It doesn’t matter. Use it. IF you do, you increase your chances of coming out on the other side of this a better person. IF you do, you can make your life richer in ways that really matter for your future happiness. Right now, nobody knows how long this is going to continue. Will it be 2 months, 4 months, 6 months or longer? The one thing we do know is that however long it is, eventually the necessary social distancing measures will end and life will gradually return to a new normal. IF you utilize your internal resources, you can emerge invigorated and ready to be the best you can be. Together, even while at a distance, we can do this.