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Opinion: Coping With Fear in a Changing World

Photo: Dan Gaken/Creative Commons

We’re in the first months of surge 2 and here I am again, wondering where we all are, where we’re headed and when will this end? 

This time my fear has significantly diminished in ways that make me consider whether I’m just too weary to worry, more blasé than my circumstances warrant, or just feeling lucky to be where COVID-19 cases and deaths are lowest. Last March my predominant thought was that the planet is purging the toxins of us humans. What could make more sense than to start by purging the older people, maybe too addicted to our bad behaviors to make the necessary reparative changes?  

What accounts for my greatly diminished fear and dread compared with the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic? Perhaps the increase in knowledge about the virus and how to treat it. Maybe it’s the vaccine or the fact that I know only one person who’s been infected. It’s probably all these things, but clearly I’m feeling somewhat disconnected from the disaster all around us. Los Angeles County will soon begin to explicitly ration ICU beds and that will likely move across the country. Again, the elderly with comorbidities. How could it be otherwise? Every time CNN shows us the face of a death, I cry. But then the 352,000 of us who aren’t here anymore leaves me only a little astonished. 

Lately I’ve been thinking how our brains perceive and manage danger/threat. The amygdala is good at helping us respond immediately to threat. Context is important. Watching the video of that mountain lion that recently stalked a young hiker in Utah, I felt anxiety, but not the terror I would have felt if I’d been the one on the trail with the mountain lion following 15 feet behind me.  The amygdala perceives if the threat is real. So maybe living in a relatively safe little state with fewer people willing to act as superspreaders has silenced any alarms that might otherwise be blaring. 

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My spouse thinks humans are simply incapable of sustaining high levels of anxiety for too long. She reminds me the Syrians don’t sit in their houses quaking with fear. They still read to their kids, make dinner, and take out the trash. But no, I disagree. We already have evidence that the hippocampus of children who live with chronic fear/anxiety shrinks in size. The Syrians carry on because crisis competence accelerates when circumstances demand it. 

So for now, I try to focus on my good fortune to live where I do. Nevertheless, I see turbulence ahead. I still believe the planet is purging toxins and the toxins are us. It wants to survive. My deepest fear is for our grandchildren. There will be more fires, more floods, new and more potent viruses. The lives of these children cannot possibly resemble ours. 

Every month I put a little money in their 529 accounts. I want them to go to college. When we visited our 16-year-old grand-daughter in Oregon last February, I encouraged her to think about achievements and activities she would need for her college applications. Less than a year later that sounds absurd to me. I’d rather encourage them all to paint, plant gardens, write and tell stories, make and store food, knit, sing, conserve water, learn the phases of the moon, learn to be quiet enough to hear.

Be happy with less, which is no doubt more.

Jan Hare lives in Montpelier.