I know nothing more about COVID-19 than any other reasonably informed layperson, so I’m not going to reiterate information that’s already circulated widely (or jeopardize anyone’s health by sharing info that might be wrong!). Instead, I offer my personal perspective, because to write about anything else today seems, if not solipsistic, then at least like pretending there’s not a green elephant in an orange tutu tapdancing in the center of the room.
What has struck me this week is how this situation brings out the best and the worst in people. (Warning: If you have any sort of irony meter, the final quotation in that NYT story will break it.) The other day, I overheard one of the most staggeringly cruel, heartless comments I’ve ever had the misfortune to be around. But I’ve also seen people step up — like a friend of mine, who stocked up on miniature bottles of hand sanitizer at a sale back in January for no reason she could articulate then, and has been handing them out freely this week. And my department chair, who has been a model of gracious leadership under pressure and amidst uncertainty.
Personally, I’ve tried to be understanding and kind to my students, but I have moments of feeling overwhelmed by anxiety and fear. I am grateful to be at the point in my healing journey where I can take a deep breath, step back, and parse out why I’m reacting in particular ways. Two years ago, I wouldn’t have had the emotional resources or the self-awareness to connect dots and talk myself down (with some crucial help from friends). But I need to be intentional in confronting the fear gremlins, because they are persistent and insidious.
My favorite Bible verse says, “There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear, because fear involves torment. But he who fears has not been made perfect in love” (I John 4:18, NKJV, emphasis mine). None of us is perfect in our ability to love, but I have to regularly remind myself that fear is incompatible with love — and that if I’m giving in to fear, then I need to look at where my love might need some shoring up.
So here is how I am choosing to practice love, toward others and myself, given what I know today — which is more than I knew yesterday and quite likely less than I will know tomorrow:
Taking social distancing more seriously. Initially I planned to power through and do my tiny part to help the economy, but I’ve read clear explanations of why that’s the wrong approach. So I’m shopping only for necessities, and I’ve stopped going to restaurants and — this is the tough one — the gym. This isn’t just about my health. Multiple people in my life fit into a higher risk category (elderly, immuno-suppressed, or both). I want to avoid infecting them and also stay as healthy as I can in case they need a driver, an errand-runner, or anything else.
Trying to give everyone, including myself, extra grace. This is new ground. We get conflicting information, and it sometimes changes within hours. We don’t know whom to trust or believe. Which means we are scared, and scared people often act in ugly, selfish ways. I’m trying to remind myself of this when I see and hear ugly, selfish behavior. And to cut myself some slack, too. People are dying, and I spent three days obsessing about whether my snake would starve if I couldn’t get to the pet store. It’s not that I care more about her than about humans — but I’m deeply worried, and feeding a snake is something manageable I can focus on to drown out the larger issues over which I have no control. It might be the same reason people hoard toilet paper.
Holding officials accountable, where appropriate, but remembering compassion. We absolutely should expect our elected officials to do their jobs — which include protecting our safety and health. We need to call them out when they make harmful decisions and obfuscate the truth. But making nasty comments and wishing death-by-coronavirus (or any other means) on them ultimately just corrodes the soul of the person expressing those thoughts. At least some of those officials are doing the best they can, and I wouldn’t want to be in any of their shoes right now.
Monitoring social media usage. My counselor friend told me at her practice, they’re encouraging clients with anxiety and trauma disorders to restrict social media. It’s a two-edged sword, because if we can’t gather in person, social media provides the easiest way to stay connected — but it also fosters misinformation and hysteria. I am fortunate to have friends who, for the most part, have been thoughtful, well-informed, kind, calm, and sometimes very funny. But I’ve also seen death wishes and full-blown hysteria, and that can send my own pulse skyrocketing. I’m being careful about what I post and share and respond to. And I’m about to step away from my online support group, because the raw pain and rage and panic people have been expressing lately are overwhelming.
Respecting boundaries. This includes decisions to limit social media, practice social distancing, and make informed choices about our own health. Also, I’m not stopping unannounced by anyone’s house right now, and I’m letting other people initiate hugs. Political discussions contribute to my anxiety, so I’m being emphatic when I’ve reached my limit of hearing about various politicians and need a change of subject.
Practicing self-care. We need to find ways to nurture our souls. At least for today, the outdoor areas of the Botanic Garden near my home remained open. I was able to walk the labyrinth, as usual, and received some clear answers, albeit not to the question I asked. Afterward, I wandered around and took photos and relaxed, while keeping more than six feet from the handful of other people I encountered. Later Rufus and I went to the park, again keeping (much!) more than six feet from other people.
Not trying to have all the answers. The problem of why suffering exists in the world is fraught, and all sorts of theologians and philosophers from various traditions have offered their two cents. In my experience, people who are suffering are not usually helped by pat responses or tidy theology or pithy platitudes. Let’s not play God and try to tell people why God is letting this pandemic ravage countries across the globe. Instead, let’s (virtually or physically) sit with those who are hurting, allow them to experience their grief, and give them the respect of not trying to wrap things up in a tidy bow.
Looking for humor. Laughter — genuine, deep, belly laughter — is incompatible with fear and anxiety. Be intentional about seeking humor in your life. Call your funniest friend and let them entertain you. Or watch this video and try his little chant for yourself. My dog is a goofball, so I’m sharing funny Rufus moments with my friends.
Finding the least harmful ways to indulge anxiety. Before my shopping moratorium, I went out to buy some basic exercise equipment. Then I started loading up my cart with gifts, and then I happened down this aisle with inspirational signs, and I needed ALL OF THEM, and suddenly I had like $200 worth of stuff. I had to stop. My friends don’t need or want all these random gifts, and I have nowhere to put kitschy inspirational signs. I made myself consider what I needed, could afford, or was tossing into my cart because I felt anxious (most of it). I took pictures of the sayings I liked, selected a few gifts, and weeded through the exercise equipment. And you know what? I’m glad I tossed all that stuff in my cart, because the act of putting things back on the shelves helped me feel in control of something. For the same reason, I’m taking like 87 books with me when I go stay with a friend this week; I won’t read them all, but stashing extra books in the trunk is a pretty harmless salve for anxiety, and it gives me options, which assuages some of the powerless feelings.
Showing up. Love shows up. That might look different during a pandemic than it does during other crises, but we just have to be more creative in figuring it out. I’m trying to let my friends know I value them — something I’m not great about doing most of the time. I also am going to stay with a friend who lives alone; we’re showing up for each other (although Rufus is the guest of honor!). I’m looking for other ways to be present with people, whether that’s checking in with them, especially those who are alone and/or struggle with mental health issues, or being flexible in how I help my students finish the semester.
Remembering there is more to life than coronavirus. Good as well as bad. This morning, I was awakened by a distraught neighbor who came over to tell me about a tragedy her family had just suffered, unrelated to the pandemic but more complicated because of it. Life is still happening, and I want to be present for it. I’m going to keep working on my healing, and I’m writing — and will probably blog about — things that have nothing to do with the pandemic. And as soon as I finish this post, I’m going to read a werewolf novel because fictional monsters sometimes help me cope with real ones. I will exercise caution and take care, but I am determined not to let fear — or panic or obsession with COVID-19 — take over.
Friends, how are you practicing love right now — in your life, toward yourself, toward others?