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Fear is a normal state in human beings. At one time another, we’ve all experienced it. Soldiers know fear when they dive from bullets; some of us know fear when we need to drive on black ice; others experience fear when our children are seriously ill. We’ve all known fear.
Fear should also be a temporary state. It heightens our senses and awareness to notice when our safety or well-being is threatened; once the emergency passes, however, our bodies, for the most part, should return to a “normal state,” which is different for each person.
The long-term problem, as I understand it, with the stimulation of the amygdala, is that we become conditioned to fear those things that caused our original fear. Those are learned responses that cause both physical and emotional reactions. I would like to suggest that the times we live in, which many people experience as chaotic, will have a long-term impact on our citizens and our society. What happens when much of society lives in fear?
When children are raised to be fearful, whether they are taught to fear death by climate change, nuclear bombs, Islamist terrorism, how does that distort their view of the world? How does it affect their quality of life? What happens when it damages relationships? How fearful will they become?
I began to think about this question just this week-end. I have a very dear friend who generally has an optimistic view of the world. She has guided her husband through two devastating bouts of cancer, and has dealt with her own cancer battles. In spite of her positive views, whether it is her temperament or her life experiences, she is fearful, particularly regarding her health. The coronavirus has intensified her fears to a new level, as I learned this week-end.
Saturday night I received an email from her, asking if I had concerns about the coronavirus, since she and her husband were joining us for a Sunday matinee stage play. My husband has a weakened immune system, is 74 years old, and has damaged lungs. So we do track COVID-19. But I also try to respond to the news with what I call common sense and reason. I wrote back to my friend, “No concerns.”
Sunday around noon we picked them up and went to a Panera Bread near the theater. My husband and I were in the front seats (we don’t like the girls in the back, guys in the front split), and when we got out of the car, I went to my friend to give her my usual big hug. She turned sideways and gave me a sideways hug; it was clear that she would have preferred not to hug at all. I don’t remember what I said at the time, but I’m sure my surprise showed on my face.
Later when we were driving home, we talked about it a bit. She said she was just being careful; that she was practicing not hugging people; that she hated to hug people and end up with their perfume on her hair and face (I don’t wear perfume); and she added some other explanations. The bottom line: she was afraid of the virus. At this point in Florida, we have 22 million people and have had two deaths.
This experience has caused me to ask about the long-term effects of the virus. In a culture that is already over-stimulated by fear, what will be the long-term repercussions, if any? What are the risks to the relationships among people? Will COVID-19 limit risk-taking in general? Will people be prone to isolate themselves so that they can feel safe? What might the damage be to the workplace, to friendships, to families?
In the next several months, I expect that we will know the damage that the virus has done in the short-term: people will become ill, incapacitated and some will die.
But will there be the long-term effects from people living in uncertainty, worrying about whether they will live or die?Published in