Someone once explained to me that each of us has, what she described as, a smoke alarm at the back of our brain. This alarm is both necessary and helpful as it warns us of impending danger. However, some of us, myself included, have a highly sensitised alarm that can go off for both life-threatening situations and for everyday problems that do not pose any immediate danger. When something triggers this internal alarm my palms sweat, my stomach lurches and my head spins. The difficulty has been that my brain hasn’t yet learned to identify and clarify the level of danger that is approaching. And so I can wake up in a cold sweat because I hear an unusual noise downstairs, my delicate sensors and imagination kick in and immediately I am convinced that there is a dangerous burglar below and myself and my family are in mortal danger. Of course it’s possible that this may be true, so to some extent my paralysing fear may well be justified. However, my difficulty is that I can have the exact same overwhelming response when I realise that I left my car unlocked overnight. My very active imagination goes into hyperdrive as I think of everything that might have happened. My internal alarm shoots up to a ‘ten’ when in reality a ‘two’ or ‘three’ out of ten is warranted: After all the worst that can happen is that someone can steal my car, a serious enough event but in no way comparable to a violent attack on my family or home. All this to say that there are levels of fear, measurable differences in how we should react in any frightening situation. I am learning to literally take an extra breath, and to consciously work out ‘Is this a three, or an eight?’ It is a simple exercise but one that has begun to help me cope.
Fear is a natural and necessary reaction to a given situation. The surge of adrenalin it produces can be helpful to us as we prepare for fight or flight. However unremitting fear and tension can actually paralyse us and hinder our appropriate response. Fear is a magnifier – it often exaggerates the reality to stimulate our reaction.
So, if you share my difficulty in differentiating between imminent life-threatening danger and something we should simply be aware of – then you must be having a very challenging few weeks. The emergence of Covid 19 in January seemed such a distant problem, one we hoped would be contained locally. Its arrival in Europe, especially in Italy would have heightened our unease and anxiety – who knew so many of our young people travelled to Northern Italy on school trips!?! The emergence of the virus on our shores has triggered full scale alert for some of us, concern and anxiety for others. It probably doesn’t help those of us with hyper sensitive internal warning systems for others to play down our fear by telling us to calm down; it certainly doesn’t help for a few sad individuals to deliberately manipulate websites to suggest that local schools or hotels are on lockdown.
It is more than ok to feel afraid, it is what we do with that fear that matters. It is tempting to allow our fears to define us, to isolate ourselves physically and emotionally from others. Most often our fears are not for ourselves but for loved ones, especially for those who might be physically vulnerable. Headlines screaming at us about ‘killer viruses’ don’t help, neither do lists of other fatal illnesses that are out there killing thousands more than Covid 19 – although social media can be positive, and will certainly be important should we need to shut down our daily activities and contacts, but I too often feel worse after scrolling through endless posts and ‘insights’ on my newsfeeds. So what’s an appropriate response to our current situation? I have always been impressed by my children’s ability to ‘walk through the fear’ a mantra we tried to teach them as they were growing up. It is too easy to avoid fear-filled situations, to go around rather than through; but such evasion steals our ability to learn and to train ourselves how to cope with whatever we are facing. So much of what is ahead is completely beyond our control, this is one of the reasons we feel so full of fear. The decisions and actions of other may well determine our health and well-being, but such is the hidden nature of the early stages of this virus that we either curl up into a ball, or we get up, shake ourselves off and live.
Fear must not define us, because when it does, it leads to gossip, misinformation, further isolation and even violent outbursts. We will get through this, how we get through this is up to us – we can either withdraw or reach out. I remember in 2010 with the weeks of heavy snow in the run-up to Christmas, ringing a number of my older parishioners to see if they were ok, if they needed anything. Everyone of them assured me that their neighbours had been in checking on them, getting them provisions. Some short few years later, in another snow-ladened season, the response was different, no one was calling in to see them, no provisions or support were being offered. We are a growingly individualistic society and one of the serious challenges Covid 19 presents us with is a justifiable excuse to ‘self-isolate’ emotionally as well as physically – we cannot let that happen. We must look outwards, to identify the fear and confusion in others, especially those most vulnerable, to come alongside them and assure them they don’t face this crisis alone. Thankfully we have ways of communication and connection that were simply not available ten years ago. With a bit of creativity and a lot of compassion we can encourage others and help them to ‘Be Not Afraid!’