For the last week I’ve been consumed with anxiety. It’s been on my mind and probably most of your minds, too. CORONAVIRUS.
Partially I’m worried for myself, as being a cancer survivor and recent recipient of a stem cell transplant puts me at a high risk for serious illness if I were to contract COVID-19. And when our healthcare system becomes overly taxed, which is inevitable, will I still be able to get my routine oncology care? What if, God forbid, my cancer were to relapse this year (which is unfortunately the period of highest risk for me), would my doctors be too preoccupied with their other patients to take care of me?
But much more than I’ve been worried about myself, I’ve been worried about all of us—about society as a whole. At first I was hopeful—maybe the pandemic could bring us together? Maybe it could instill in us a sense of community and camaraderie and common purpose, like during wartime or an alien invasion (according to every action movie I’ve ever seen)?
The problem, though, is that pandemics historically have not brought people together. When the enemy is a virus, it could be anywhere, or in anyone. The doubt and mistrust can infect every part of us, including our moral code. There has been a lack of clear leadership and no singular voice guiding us how to conduct ourselves when our individual desires may be at odds with society’s needs. In that vacuum some of our base instincts have taken hold.
I see the mistrust and suspicion seeping through on social media, first with the dismissive posts criticizing others for worrying. “It’s just like the flu, guys.” “You’re overreacting,” “Just wash your hands and you’ll be fine.” In the last few days that tone flipped rapidly toward somber as most people have started taking it seriously. But then the anger came out. “Stop going to the gym, guys!” “You’re being so selfish!” “What’s wrong with people?”
It’s happened with my own family. When the news started turning I called my parents to see how they were holding up and was alarmed to hear they weren’t reconsidering their vacation to Hawaii next month. “It’s no big deal, honey. We’ve seen it all” (as I desperately tried to convince them otherwise, I had a sudden sympathy for how they must have felt trying to get me not to do dumb stuff as a teenager).
Otherwise normal people are hoarding food and toilet paper. First time gun purchases are up. This guy stripped a state’s worth of Purell from mom & pop shops so he could gouge customers by reselling it on Amazon at a massive profit. Suddenly every person around us is a potential enemy: Did she just cough? Is he buying all of the spaghetti? Why is he posting a photo at the gym? That’s so irresponsible! Won’t she just stop worrying and get off my back already? It’s not that big of a deal!
Let me backtrack for a moment with a brief story. A few weeks ago I wrote my first blog update in a while describing how I’ve been recovering from my stem cell transplant over the last few months. I wrote about how strict my husband has been about making sure I follow the anti-infection protocols at home to keep myself safe and protect my baby immune system and I jokingly used the term “Nazi” to describe him.
As I wrote the words there was a whisper in the back of my mind that someone might be offended by the joke, but I was tired and it was too much creative effort for me to come up with another phrase that packed the same punch I was looking for. For better or worse, when you’re an adopted half-Moroccan cancer survivor raised Jewish married to a half Ashkenazi half Persian Jew you feel entitled to make a lot of jokes.
Out of the 10,000 or so people who subscribe to my newsletter I received three replies from people bothered by the reference. The first person was quite harsh and called me abhorrent, among other things. That reply went straight into the trash, although it did give me minor stomach pains because it caught me off guard and no one likes to be on the receiving end of meanness from a stranger.
The second reply wasn’t unkind at all and was in fact otherwise complimentary but the level of offense felt a little dramatic, like I had done something terribly wrong. I emailed her back. Wasn’t “Soup Nazi” from Seinfeld funny? What about that recent Curb Your Enthusiasm episode with the antisemitic dog that only heels at “Heil Hitler”? She replied that she didn’t think Soup Nazi was funny at all, and I thought that was fair, because at least that was consistent. I disagreed but I understood her point.
It was the third reply, though, that made me realize I was wrong. It was so simple. It just took me a sentence to understand. She just described how she used to use the term “Nazi” as a joke, too, until her German immigrant husband explained to her why it was hurtful, especially for people living where it all had happened. She nicely pointed out that my (German) stem cell donor could be hurt by it, too.
Well, how much more obvious do I need it to be? I may be slow, but I’m not dumb. Of course I didn’t want to hurt anyone. The first two replies just made me think I had offended someone, which I’ve found is quite impossible to avoid when you have more than 10 people reading your stuff online. But hurting someone? Now I got it. I mean, I’m not a monster. That’s the last time I’ll ever make that joke again.
What a gift, isn’t it? To help change someone’s mind, to patiently guide them toward being a better person? To share your own story of growth, as she did, to help another person see it’s possible for them, too? I was open to this woman’s point of view because own self-reflectiveness made her credible. If we want to have the capacity to change a person’s mind, and therefore their behavior, we have to set the example first; we have to be the kind of person who is willing to change our own. Perhaps there are many ways to be persuasive, but the only one I know is to lead with humility.
I generally don’t try to change anyone’s mind about anything, except my patients, who are explicitly paying me to do so. It usually feels like an exercise in futility and an inefficient use of my limited mental and emotional energy. Believe it or not I am not a very outspoken person—my husband lovingly referred to me as a “mute” for a while because of how little I talk in group settings. I guess being a better listener than talker is what makes me predisposed to being a psychiatrist.
But I’ve started to feel differently now in light of the crisis we’re facing; the experience of having my own mind changed has shown me that to put that effort toward another person is a sign of respect; it is a gift through which we can demonstrate our love. We are currently experiencing a crisis and we are obligated to help those who need guidance.
I was still ambivalent about this post, though, until last night. My husband and I ordered PF Chang’s for dinner, and over Mongolian Beef and hot & sour soup I vented my anxieties about having a public voice about something in current events. I finished eating and opened my fortune cookie. It read: Others will follow your lead in the coming months.
Fuck. It’s on. Let’s do this.
There are basics we all need to know and follow: To start, follow guidelines on social distancing, not just for yourself but for the community. We need to flatten the curve, spreading out the infections over time so the healthcare system is not overwhelmed with a bunch of sick people all at once (we don’t have enough ICU beds or ventilators for all the people who will need them). Young people need to participate, too— while they generally don’t get sick they are likely the biggest spreaders of the virus, since they are the most active.
Don’t hoard toilet paper or food—the supply chains are fine, the issue is that everyone got scared at once and bought more than they needed. Care about yourself and your family, but don’t forget about your community or society as a whole.
Keep abreast of the news and CDC guidelines as the situation is evolving daily. Run errands for people who are elderly or immunocompromised. Remember that the people who will be most affected economically are those at the margins of society. Give your cleaner the time off, but pay her anyway. Tip your delivery person 10% more than you usually do. Be 10% nicer than you normally are, especially on the internet. If you have money, share it. If you have time, share it. If you have social support, share it. Sublimate your fears into action.
Whatever action you’re considering, envision that it’s not just you taking it, but everyone. Would the the result make the world a better place, or a worse one? This is an opportunity for us to support our families, our friends, our neighbors, or communities, and society as a whole. It is an opportunity for us to give help and also receive it. It is an opportunity to set an example for others by how we act.
Be patient with others as they get up to speed. Teach others without criticism or condescension. Lecture others 10% less; act 10% less superior. Be gentle when you tell someone they can’t visit or you can’t hug them. None of us wants to hurt anyone. We all want to be good people.
What we are all facing right now is scary and uncertain. It’s going to get worse before it gets better. Some will die, and many will suffer. There will be loneliness, grief, anger, and economic stress. It is a crisis. And a crisis is a chance for us to let our actions be guided by love—to become the people we have always believed and hoped we are.
I don’t know about you, but when I was a child I indulged in more than a few adolescent fantasies about what an amazing person I’d be if only given the opportunity—like I definitely would have been sitting with Rosa Parks in the back of the bus and hiding Jews in my attic during World War II. Well, now’s my chance. It’s all of our chances!
Sometimes a catastrophe is easier to handle than a minor inconvenience, and I speak from experience as a two-time cancer survivor. The stress of a minor inconvenience can be indulged, every aggravation played out in our minds, every annoyance yielded to—whereas the reality of a catastrophe demands action. It’s a make-or-break moment for all of us to discover who we are inside.
Love is not just a noun, it is a verb—it is an act. It is what you do. It is an energy that, once created, can never be destroyed, but is instead set forth into the universe in perpetual motion, where it will exist for all of us, always.