In a recent poll,fifty percent of Americans said that the pandemic has negatively affected their mental health. My guess is the percentage is much higher because, you know, denial. “I’m fine!” is our trained response to “How are you?” even when, or perhaps especially when, we ask ourselves.
I’ve been thinking about what it means to care about people in the abstract and people we know up-close and personal, including ourselves, and how we can’t effectively have one without the other. When I saw a recent photo of a large, white (and unmasked) man screaming in the face of a state trooper in Michigan during a protest against government mandates put in place to flatten the curve, my initial response was, Wow, what a jerk! and then, after some time to think, I wondered, What do we have in common?
Take away his disregard for the health and safety of those around him, I saw a person whose actions were motivated by fear (both rational and irrational) and not by an overarching compassion for humanity. “The government can’t tell me what to do!” is not born out of anger. Anger itself originates in fear, and in this case, fear that the government can, and will, tell people what they can do.
There will always be folks who lose their shi*t and those who keep it together no matter what crisis they’re faced with. While I am often the former, I live with the latter, one such folk who keeps it together. Even though Jim feels the underlying emotional impact of the uncertainty right now, and the fear of “What if I get it?” and the economic toll it’s having all around, he expresses his fear by caring about people, not screaming in their face.
Here’s what I mean. You know when you’ve reached the end of your rope and you can’t type another word or read another word or watch another minute of news? I reached that place on Friday. I couldn’t think anymore. I needed to talk to Jim. I slipped on my shoes, grabbed my cane, and started walking across the yard to the garage, gathering emotional steam along the way.
The dog had run out of the door ahead of me and she announced my impending arrival. Jim appeared in the doorway and his smile quickly turned to concern.
“What’s wrong?” he asked, and all that pent-up fear disguised as anger came tumbling out.
“I miss my kids, I miss my grandkids, my knee hurts, and I’m a horrible writer!”
He wrapped his arms around me and I sobbed into his sweatshirt for what felt like an hour. When I started to pull away, he pulled me closer, and I cried even harder.
“You did the right thing coming out here.” He knows I would stew in silence, or make mountains out of mole hills that had nothing to do with what was really bothering me, kind of like the protester.
We sat down and devised a plan for a social distancing visit with my daughters and the grandkids the next day. There was nothing we could do about my knee except talk about it, but acknowledging that it’s messed up and needs to be replaced helped untangle the abstract fear I have of never walking again. As for being a horrible writer, I know this is not true, but the fear in that statement is that I’m not good enough and that I’ll never be good enough, and saying it out loud lay bare that fear, too.
Listening, saying “I hear you,” can mean so much anytime, but especially now.
It doesn’t mean fears go away just by saying them out loud. But saying them out loud to someone who cares takes them down to their bare bones and they become more manageable. Solutions become more clear. Or if there are no immediate solutions, we can better eke out a way to handle the fear rather than deflecting it on to other people.
I’m heartened to see, in contrast to protesting, so many people demonstrating their care for others through their gifts and talents, their livelihood, and through simple random acts of kindness (even wearing a mask is an act of caring). Something I look forward to almost every evening is poet Billy Collins’s twenty-minute poetry reading/mini lecture on Facebook. Instead of watching it on full screen, I like to read and sometimes participate in the comment conversation that streams up the page. I feel less isolated, even for a short time.
Statistically, half of you are in the pandemic-is-having-a-negative-impact-on-your-mental-health camp. Or as I said earlier, probably more than half. How are you taking care of yourself? That is both a rhetorical question and a genuine inquiry. I might not know you, but I care.