I suffered a sneeze attack while sitting in the stands at my son’s swim meet this past weekend. The “stands” were not the metal bleachers you’re likely envisioning. Instead, they were rows of concrete steps, draped in some of the filthiest, threadbare carpeting I’ve seen in a long time.
As I honked my third sneeze inside of thirty seconds into the crook of my elbow, I couldn’t help thinking, All these people are probably worried I have the corona virus. As you read this, you might be thinking the same thing, while simultaneously hoping you don’t come in contact with me any time soon. Of course, the more likely explanation is that the nasty carpet I was seated upon had stirred up all sorts of dust and microbes, and my body was simply doing its best to eject the offending allergens before they had a chance to do any real damage. Thank God for sneezes.
Two phenomena I’m seeing much of on the internet right now: fear, disguised as concern, over the spread of coronavirus, and from others, contempt toward those who are afraid. Neither of these are proving helpful.
I sell safety and personal protective supplies to contractors. Due to the public’s fear response, which has resulted in the mass buyout of disposable filtration masks and coveralls, many of my customers are now left without the basic safety equipment they need to perform their jobs. This has happened despite repeated warnings from disease experts that these masks are very unlikely to protect you should you come in contact with the virus. How many people, despite knowing this––perhaps even believing it in the rational part of their mind––chose to drop a hundred bucks on a ten count box of N95 masks from some crooked reseller on Amazon? Quite a few, it turns out.
I suggest this little strand of DNA, the one so precious we gave it a name, is not the most prolific epidemic threatening humankind right now, not even close. Sure, a virus is something to be concerned over, but any virus, even one as contagious as coronavirus, has limits. One has to come in direct contact in order to be exposed, and then that person has to fail to take precautions that would otherwise repel the virus.
But what of Fear? Fear might be the most insidious virus of them all. Unlike corona virus, Fear is not confined to flesh and blood; it doesn’t hide itself on dirty doorknobs or creep along un-sanitized tabletops. Fear is fast. It coasts freely along 5G highways, crossing the globe in an instant, infecting one human after another, not through membranes of flesh, but through modern, digital ones––those with strange names we’ve come to consider normal––Twitter, Snapchat, Facebook.
Health experts encourage us to wash our hands to protect ourselves from viruses; I don’t see anybody imploring us to wash our minds of media in order to protect ourselves from things like Fear.
One of my favorite Pixar films is Inside Out––the one where human emotions are depicted as little humanoid creatures in the main character’s head. In the movie, they never show the emotions of one character’s head interacting with those of another, but what if they could? What if that’s a fantastical illustration for exactly what happens all the time?
I believe it does happen all the time. Think of it. You walk into a room where two people have been arguing, and you don’t need to hear a word from either of them to know there is tension between these two. If Pixar portrayed such a scene in dazzling computer animation, they’d show tiny Anger imps jumping from each person’s head, shaking fists at one another. Of course, people don’t need to be in the same room for this to happen. They could be thousands of miles apart, arguing politics over Facebook; those Anger imps will still jump out and scream at one another through glowing iPhone screens.
If Anger is a screamer, Fear is a whisperer, sitting on your shoulder, muttering in your ear; every worst case scenario your brain is capable of imagining is certain to come true. Millions of people are afraid they’re going to get sick, afraid to the point of panic. That’s not me. My Fear imp is concerned over more trivial things, like letting people down. Every time one of my cherished customers calls and says, “Hey Luke, I’m sure you’re getting this question a lot: You got any masks in stock? Any suits?”
I hear those questions beneath the thump of my quickening heartbeat. I tap at my computer with cold hands, already knowing what I’ll find. I’m out. I’m out of everything. I’m supposed to be this person’s guy, and now I can’t help him, and now he’s going to have to go find some other guy. (I explain to Fear that the other guy is also out of everything, but Fear has never been inclined toward reason.)
We all owe Fear gratitude for keeping us alive all these years. Human beings have had a good run, and Fear is largely responsible. How many stupid stunts has Fear prevented you from doing? Without Fear, few of us would have survived childhood. Let us all thank Fear for everything it’s done to help us out. Let us thank our Fear, then tell it to calm down. If your Fear is anything like mine, it probably won’t listen. (Fear is a notoriously bad listener.)
I suggest an effective way to compel the Fear virus to back off is to introduce a different sort of virus, a good kind. Try kindness. Be kind to your Fear and be kind to that of others as well. If someone you know is worried about getting sick, don’t roll your eyes and tell them they’re stupid for being scared. Throw a little strand of kindness their way; tell them that if they do get sick, you’ll say a prayer that they get over it quickly. If we get enough kindness circulating, perhaps we’ll get over this corona Fear much faster.
There’s a meme going around: Keep Calm and Wash Your Hands. Maybe we should start a new meme that says, Keep Calm and Be Kind. Also wash your hands. And wash your disgusting cell phone while you’re at it.