My university announced today that face-to-face classes will not resume for at least two weeks after spring break. Over the past few days, I’d watched on social media as friend after friend posted that their institutions were transitioning to online instruction, so this move wasn’t unexpected. And while I dislike teaching online, I realize that in the face of a global pandemic, it’s the height of privilege to quibble about my personal preferences. I am far more fortunate than many people in that I can keep doing my job.
Nor have I panicked about COVID-19 itself; statistically, I’m in the group likely to experience, at worst, mild to moderate symptoms. Stephen King, whose age places him at greater risk, is telling us this is not The Stand. And the people in my life who fall within higher-risk categories do not seem worried, although they are taking appropriate precautions.
But after my last students had left tonight — calling out variations of “See you in April! Or not!” — I made the mistake of lingering in my deserted classroom in a deserted building on a rapidly emptying campus to click through a few news stories.
And that’s when the gremlins started shouting.
Because I read about the massive layoffs COVID-19 has already caused and the likelihood that those will continue. Then I (foolishly) checked a blog whose author was talking full global crash the likes of which we’ve never seen. In the moment I didn’t think to remind myself that he’s always an alarmist — and usually wrong. Instead I jumped into full-blown meltdown.
In fairness, some of my concerns are valid. We’re presumably not going to face a food shortage so severe that bands of ruffians will try to steal Rufus for their dinner. (Yes, when I type it out, I see how irrational that is.) But if my gym closes, if local shops and restaurants shut down, where will I find human contact? I’m an introvert, but on days when I have no interactions with other people, I tend to circle the emotional drain like a spider trapped under a gushing faucet. How could I possibly survive a two-week quarantine?
After I left campus, I visited my counselor friend, who graciously helped talk me down (and bought us dinner, over-tipped the DoorDash driver in case his income takes a hit, and sent me home with an entire case of Zenify). She reminded me that panic is a trauma response, not a healthy reaction to this situation. That I can stop by her place every day, and we can work out together. That Rufus and I can quarantine ourselves with her mother in Florida, and if I have to, I’ll hire a pet-sitter to make sure the snake and cats don’t starve while I’m gone.
What’s challenging is that any hint of a post-apocalyptic or dystopian future triggers me. (I hate that word, but I don’t know a better way to put it.) One of my high school teachers would sit on his desk, swing his legs back and forth, and tell us gleefully about the mutations people would experience from nuclear fallout when NORAD was bombed, but lucky us, we’d all be dead. He also liked to point out signs that Western civilization was in decline and gloat that when things got really bad, our generation would have to pick up the pieces, and good luck with that. At a formative age, I toured the command complex inside Cheyenne Mountain, and a few years later I spent two weeks at a “Christian leadership camp” that was a thinly disguised exercise in brainwashing (complete with sleep deprivation, minimal privacy, fearmongering, isolation from outside influences, and almost no time to process the massive amount of information we were thrown), all prepared to equip us for a dystopian future if we didn’t manage to stop the apocalyptic juggernaut.
The fact that none of those grim predictions came true should maybe alleviate my anxiety, but it does not. Mention of worst-case scenarios — pandemics, economic crashes, food shortages, and the like — puts me back into a time and place when I felt trapped, isolated, powerless, invisible, voiceless, and helpless. And, as Bessel van der Kolk has helped me understand, those associations activate my brain’s fight-or-flight response, and I revert back to viewing the world like a teenager poorly equipped to sort through bullshit from adults who projected their own insecurities and bitternesses and failures and paranoia onto us.
Eventually my counselor friend calmed me down, and I headed home. I figured I’d spend the rest of the evening chilling with a good novel, because it’s the official start of spring break.
But I could not concentrate. I started a book, but the anxiety gremlins stirred around the edges of every paragraph, clamored louder with each page I turned.
I’m learning that although I have to be very careful of them, sometimes they tell me things I need to hear. Sometimes when they don’t let me concentrate on one thing, it’s because there’s something else I need to be doing. So I set the book aside and considered what that might be.
And I thought about a passage I had recently read in Brene Brown’s The Gifts of Imperfection:
Most of us have experienced being on the edge of joy only to be overcome by vulnerability and thrown into fear. Until we can tolerate vulnerability and transform it into gratitude, intense feelings of love will often bring up the fear of loss.…The dark does not destroy the light; it defines it. It’s our fear of the dark that casts our joy into the shadows….If we’re not practicing gratitude and allowing ourselves to know joy, we are missing out on the two things that will actually sustain us during the inevitable hard times. (p. 82)
On Tuesday night, I had an experience of profound joy and peace and power (which I’ll probably write about soon). It was one of those experiences that changes you, shifts something fundamental within you. You can feel yourself healing. This season of my life has been punctuated with those encounters, and I’ve learned by now that they’re always followed by valleys of doubt and anxiety and anguish. I’ve started to realize that when I’m in the bubble, I need to prepare for the crash. I try to carry reminders of the peace, joy, beauty, love, and/or delight with me, but it’s a struggle.
Brown pairs joy with gratitude, which surprised me; she suggests that an attitude of thankfulness and appreciation lays the groundwork for joy. I think I’m pretty good at embracing moments of ecstasy and transcendence, but resentment often stifles my gratitude. She convinced me, though, that it’s a practice I need to cultivate.
So I’m going to shamelessly steal her idea of “TGIF” blog posts that focus on gratitude (you can find it on p. 81):
I’m trusting that I am moving into a season of restoration and renewal and fulfilled promises.
I’m grateful for walks in the woods, for signs of spring, for the way the natural world reminds me of patterns and consistency and God’s faithfulness (as illustrated by most of the photos in this post).
I’m inspired by the many ways love shows up in my life:
I’m practicing my faith by fighting the anxiety, writing through it, and asking for help from people who I know will be honest with me and help slay the gremlins.
And my inner circle holds some fierce gremlin-slaying warriors, whom I am so grateful to have in my corner. Love and thanks to you all, as we walk together into the uncertainty.