The home Elaine built here in Rio is very modern. Imagine three rectangular solids, each slightly smaller than the other and slightly offset, stacked on top of each other. The ground floor of the house was built with the idea that the outdoors should be part of the home and as a consequence the living room and sitting areas are floor to ceiling tinted glass panels that double as sliding doors. During the days this lets the sunshine in, sans the heat, and allows us to look out onto the flora that surrounds our house. At night the tinted glass becomes almost black and gives the illusion of being surrounded by darks wall that protect us and our privacy.
It is now early fall here and the almost unbearable days of heat and humidity of summer have relented into a more bearable form. It is still hot during the day, shorts and t’s are the uniform of the day, but at night it becomes much cooler. Often, on these cooler evenings we will pry open the sliding glass doors and let the cooler fall air in while we sit on the couch and chat.
The other night was just one of those evenings. Elaine was sitting on the couch, her legs underneath her drinking a frosty Heineken out of glass (she is not a savage) and I, drinking a few milliliters of aged Cachaca. We were chatting about our very exciting day of self-isolating, she very involved in the chat groups in which she participates and I was countering with dialogue about some particularly egregious error (I cannot remember which one as there have been too many) by the current occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. And then for a few moments we said nothing. Each lost in their own thoughts.
Elaine broke the silence when she looked over at me, almost as if she were ashamed and said, “My darling, I am afraid.” My wife is very courageous. She is a bad ass. She is a jaguar. She is fierce. For her to say, she is afraid is a monumental statement. One that should not be taken lightly. So I asked “What are you afraid of?”
She replied “Of everything. This Covid 19 thing. Bolsonaro (Brazil’s Trumpian President) disregards social distancing. He is more concerned about the economy than he is in people’s health (where have I heard that before.) I worry that it is going to get far worse before it is going to get better. All of this dying…”
Of course, my first thought was to console her. To make her feel better about a situation that is impossible to feel good about. I offered “My love, to be frightened is a very reasonable response to the situation we find ourselves in. I am scared as well. These are fearful times. But what choice do we have. We make the best decisions for ourselves and for our family based on the information we have and move forward with our lives. Courage is doing what you need to do despite whatever fear you must be feeling.”
I could tell that my words were not having the palliative effect that I hope they would. They were not helping her cope with the awful feeling that inhabits your soul when you are inhabited by fear. So, I added “Remember what Franklin Roosevelt said, ‘The only thing we have to fear’ itself. He meant that to carry on we need to dismiss our fears and carry on with the task that is at hand.”
Still little comfort appeared in her eyes. “We will get through this together. When you falter, I will steady you and when I stumble you will help me up. “
This made her give up a half smile and realizing that this was far to deep a pond to plunge into right then she changed the subject and pointed to our cat Romeow, who at the moment was terrorizing a small lizard, and said “isn’t he a magnificent hunter.”
Late that night, after awakening due to a particularly vivid dream about being at Costco, I began to think about fear. (Middle of the night is absolutely the perfect time to think about fear. Ask Stephen King. It is also particularly well suited for thinking about responses that would have been better than ones you had given during the day. ” As a consequence, I began to think about our couch conversation earlier in the evening. The first thing that came to mind was a quote from a book I had loved as a teenager, Dune by Frank Herbert. (I won’t go into the plot line as it is too complicated nor the particularly awful movie made by David Lynch and staring Sting as it, was awful.” In the book one of the main characters says this about fear:
“I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.”
For a 15 year old full of teenage angst and anxiety the quote had been an important one. It helped me understand that fear will help you make awfully bad decisions. That in the moment of fear it is best if you put it aside but when the moment has passed that you should take the time to understand and perhaps even embrace that fear so that you can better cope with it when it reappears.
It was useful advice then and it is useful advice now.
This morning a friend of mine died of the Corona19 virus. I am sad for his passing as he was a good man with a jolly outlook on life. But it also spurred on a fear in me. I am terribly afraid of catching the virus and being among those who succumb to it’s ravages. But I cannot let my friends death and the fear that it reinforces in keep me from making good decisions. I will make decisions that while acknowledging the danger of the disease do not overly effect my decision making process.
I won’t for example stop my daily walks through our neighborhood. While there is some risk as I encounter a dozen or so people on every walk I think of it is a minimal. I maintain social distancing rules even when the folks I see seem oblivious. These walks help me get exercise and think and are needed to maintain my sanity in these insane times.
I will not let it effect my travel plans. This morning I made yet another reservation for Elaine and I to return to the United States. Traveling these days is not a joke. You are spending long hours where their will be large number of people congregating and then even longer in an aluminum tube that is sealed. It is not something that should be undertaken without thought but while fear would keep me hunkered down, a more rational mind would suggest that returning to the US when the first wave is over and where we can have a more robust life makes sense.
Fear most of all should not influence our communication with other people either directly or through social media. We are all frightened. (And if you tell me your not I will know you are a liar.) We need to realize when people are being particularly ignorant about a fact or relying too heavily on hope for a solution to our problems that they may be foolish in your eyes but they are also frightened. That they may not have thought through the situation as thoroughly as you or perhaps cannot muster that type of reason. But whatever the provocation they may have provided you they are frightened. And so are you which could lead to prickly and unpleasant conversations that don’t need to be.
If you think they are being idiotic, stupid, ignorant, or just being a jackass be gentle because they are frightened and because your response may be infused with fear as well.
And with that I rolled over and went to sleep as thinking anymore about fear at that moment would have kept me awake.