CN: Extensive discussion of the mental and financial impact of Covid19, mention of existing oppressive systems.
I tend to have a pretty hard time during a national or global crisis. My primary method of deprogramming my anxiety that has been my baseline for as long as I can remember has been teaching myself that the external causes of that perpetual state of fear are long gone and I’m safe now. When something happens that genuinely decreases my safety, it’s impossible to keep my anxiety from reverting to its normal habits, in an attempt to protect me. It’s very hard to tell myself that I’m safe because I may not be.
I don’t generally broadcast this state of panic because I don’t want to drag others into it with me, which is why, if you follow me on social media, it might be surprising to you that this is what my emotional landscape has looked like. I also make an effort to avoid withdrawing or disappearing, which means I have to continue engaging with what’s happening outside of my apartment.
But what do you say to your community when you’re scared, don’t know what to do, and you still want to offer them some kind of comfort?
My current plan is that I am going to write the assurance that I need right now and hope that we all feel its benefits.
Flow Chart Thinking
A few years ago, I identified that my brain’s means of processing and responding to the world was like a flow chart. At each dividing point, I knew what all of the possible pathways looked like, and what the next set of possible pathways were as well. I often had planned out answers for 3-4 layers ahead of any step in a process. I made my decisions with the security of knowing that it was the best possible option of the ones listed in my chart.
This mechanism made me extremely effective at tackling anything with a complex system or high levels of organization because I could anticipate and avoid so many problems. Unfortunately, it made processes that involved a learning curve or necessitated making mistakes along the way, exceedingly difficult. I truly could not handle failure at all.
This flow chart wasn’t just the general structure of my brain, it was a coping mechanism. If I know four layers ahead, what is going to happen, I don’t have to be scared of messing up. Knowing everything about everything was supposed to keep me safe.
It followed that the worst feeling in the world was when I followed the path of my flow chart into an area that was empty. Not knowing what the next steps were, was terrifying to me, and for many years, I coped by simply backing up and returning to a pathway where the steps were known and visible to me. I avoided the unknown at all costs. And it was costly.
This fear of the unknown has been particularly unwieldy during the pandemic, and for good reason. The threat is massive, far bigger than any local organization could hope to tackle, our country has lacked leadership and guidance on what we should do or how we should respond, and the information we have had to try to come up with our own plans has been incomplete.
It’s human to fear what we don’t know and for me, in particular, the total lack of certainty around just about every aspect of my life was debilitating. I would tell myself that worrying about it wouldn’t make it any more likely to turn out one way or the other but that assurance wasn’t enough to disengage my nervous system, which was on high alert all the time. I just couldn’t set the anxiety down.
Filling in the Blanks
When people lack a clear idea of what they should be doing, they fill in the blanks. Lists of “tips and facts” about the virus that had been copied and pasted into new posts and edited, three, four, five times, were shared thousands of times over multiple mediums. Rumors about how you catch the virus, how you prevent it, how we could stop it, spread and stuck. Misinformation was common. All people wanted was a straight clear answer and because we completely lacked that, these memes and lists and tweets filled the void, and people clung to the information like their lives depended on it, even when it was demonstrably false.
As the focus of our world shifted, I started double-checking the sources of every new piece of information I stumbled on that wasn’t straight from the CDC or New York Times, and if it was untrue, I would let the person who posted it, know.
Usually, when I correct misinformation, I offer the real answer to replace it with or offer an article debunking the accusations entirely. Usually, my correction amounts to, “No, that’s not true” or “Actually, this other thing is what’s true.”
But when researching and correcting information about Covid 19, I noticed a funny pattern. Almost every time I spotted a false claim about the virus on social media, I couldn’t counter with “That’s not true” or “actually this is what’s true.” My answer, almost every time, was “Actually, we don’t know the truth, yet.”
This pattern was incredibly frustrating because our brains want something to hang on to and uncertainty is incredibly unsatisfying. It’s one thing to let go of a random false piece of information that doesn’t apply to you or before you’ve started implementing it but quite another thing entirely to let it go when the information impacts you personally. Occasionally, I’d read such a claim that would fill me with terror: I read one that one of my health conditions significantly increased my risk level if I caught the virus. I read an article that said I’d have to stop taking one of my key medications if I got the virus, or it would make it worse.
In the process of searching for information that would quell my panic and that was also true, I noticed another pattern. “Actually we don’t know yet,” was the best assurance there was to offer. Our panicky brains interpret “We don’t know” as “probably the worst-case scenario, then” but if we don’t have enough information to know that it’s the best-case version, we also don’t have enough information to know that it is the worst-case either.
“We don’t know” means there’s still a definite possibility that things could turn out to be the version we hope for. There’s a whole spectrum of “positive” possibilities in addition to the “negative” ones, and just because someone happened to post one of the negative possibilities on Facebook, doesn’t mean that one is more likely to be true. It’s just the only one that’s concrete enough for our brains to latch on to.
We have to have to watch our brain’s response to unconfirmed information carefully. It’s easy to hear “X makes the virus worse” and because you heard it first, you believe it’s more likely to be true than “X makes the virus better” or “X has no influence on the virus.” Because our brains much prefer something over nothing, it’s easy to assume that it’s true that X makes the virus worse, “just to be safe.” But if we don’t actually know whether or not X makes the virus worse, it could also be true that X makes the virus better, and that we’re harming ourselves by avoiding it. Making decisions off one data point is a natural reaction to uncertainty, but it doesn’t make that information any more likely to be accurate.
I did not know whether or not my condition would make me more vulnerable to the virus. I did not know whether or not doctors would recommend I stop taking one of my key medications if I got the virus. I had to treat the state of not knowing as being just as solid and evidence-based as knowing the answer would usually be. I had to see “We don’t know” as a concrete answer for my brain to hold on to. I didn’t need to worry and plan for every possible bad thing I didn’t know about yet, I only needed to worry and plan for the things I did know. That was a good thing.
One of the most important lessons from my practice of moving away from “flowchart thinking” came from a big event I hosted for my dance community. In planning the event, I decided to host a game that I created. As I fleshed out the details of the game, I realized that leading it required so much attention to detail and in the moment decisions, there were infinite opportunities for something to go wrong. I didn’t have time to rehearse my part and prepare for every single possible scenario. There was no way for me to learn this whole flowchart in time.
I instead had to embrace the fact that unexpected problems were inevitable and that I could trust myself to cope with that when it happened. Thankfully, I pulled it off, the game worked, and the mistakes made were easy to bounce back from, which by itself would’ve been a great positive lesson for me. What I learned was even better.
The game was on its final round which would give us our winners. The contestants were divided into groups A and B and were supposed to dance in place to the music. As soon as the music changed, members of group A were to grab a partner from group B and dance with them and the Group A member left without a partner would lose the game.
The dancing started, the rest of the community had all eyes on the final contestants, the music switched, and in a second everything changed and collapsed in on itself: Instead of two couples of A & B forming, the two men in group B spun towards each other, threw their arms around each other, and began dancing! No one in group A had won, ONLY the last two members of group B won -- the shock and realization that they had fundamentally broken the game in the best way possible washed over the crowd in an all-encompassing wave, and the room was overwhelmed by laughter and applause.
There was absolutely no way I could’ve predicted that outcome. No matter how many scenarios I played in my head and rehearsed ahead of time for the game, I never would’ve anticipated that one, nor could I have orchestrated it. It was a genuine, in the moment, innovation that circumvented all my plans and gave me one of my happiest moments as an event organizer in my life. Forgoing the flow chart meant that I had to risk finding myself in the worst possible scenario, but it also freed me up to find the best one.
I realize that my nerves around a party game aren’t really comparable to the scope of damage the virus can do and has done. But I’m finding that in order to have any kind of peace of mind about the virus, I have to use a similar attitude as I did with the game. If my goal is that no one will die or suffer from the virus, I have already failed thousands of times over. It is an impossible goal. And it’s okay to grieve the resulting loss. If I take it as a given that there will be loss, there will be disruption, that I will get sick eventually, it’s much easier to take an honest inventory of what I need to do to prepare.
I am also not ruling out the possibility that something good can come out of this tragedy.
Where Will We Go From Here?
There are so many societal issues-- health care, societies being worn down by capitalism, the lack of accessibility for disabled people, the degradation of the working class-- that are so big, so embedded in the structure of our society, it’s really hard to imagine how we can ever hope to fix them.
When you attempt to change a system from within, whatever solutions you attempt have to survive the current system, which results in a bias toward what we’ve done in the past rather than what we want to do in the future. Changing systems from the outside requires an amount of power and influence that most social justice and environmental groups simply don’t have but even then, top-down approaches to change leave you with surface-level improvements and crumbling foundations. I’ve wondered for a while what our path forward could possibly be other than fully dismantling these systems and starting over. But short of a violent revolution, how do you start that process?
The thing I can’t stop thinking about is the idea that destruction is necessary for renewal and growth. I’m not talking about the destruction of lives. No matter what mindset trick I give you, the depth of the grief over tens of thousands of lives lost cannot be ignored or pushed away. It is real and I have no desire to sugar coat how hard that loss is.
But the virus has destroyed life as we knew it. Our needs have changed. Our priorities have changed. What supplies are important and how you get them is different. Who is making money and who is left penniless is different. Where we spend our time is different. How we eat, how we socialize, how we work, how we care for our bodies, how we relax, these things have all changed dramatically. Our system has been completely and thoroughly disrupted.
And I can’t stop wondering if this disruption is the first step to the system-wide changes that have seemed unattainable.
As hundreds of industries grind to a halt, resulting in the loss of income for millions of people at every level in the economic system, will we shift the burden of that loss onto financial institutions instead of onto the people the systems are supposed to serve? As schools and businesses restructure what they offer to be compatible with a remote, fully digital set-up, will we normalize the flexibility and accessibility that working and learning from home can give us? As massive populations overwhelm our hospitals and the lucky ones get to come home with bills for thousands of dollars during a time they have no income, will society step up and start paying for health crisis’ that no one chooses and no one can plan ahead for? As grocery workers, cashiers, cleaning staff, delivery drivers, and sanitation workers become some of our most fundamentally essential, life-saving, and dangerous professions, will we shift how we value and repay the necessary work they do when the crisis is over?
Will the non-negotiable reality of a life-threatening disease and its societal consequences force our hand to make changes we’ve needed for decades?
What will we innovate? What will we normalize? In the wake of the destruction, what new structures will we build to replace what we lost?