I decided to leave New York and come back home to Canada during this time of uncertainty. I love New York for so many reasons, however I also love my parents, the Canadian health care system and in my heart, felt drawn to be in a more familiar place right now. My choice to retreat back home was in response to the fear and anxiety that I have been feeling over the past week.
Yesterday while meditating, I became aware of just how stressed and anxious I have been feeling and it is far more than I would have imagined. Despite having the benefits of a long-term meditation practice and a plethora of powerful mindfulness tools at my disposal, my response to the global pandemic we are all witnessing is to feel scared.
On a walk this morning in the slightly cool and brisk winter air, I reflected on the heightened state of fear that we are all feeling. All of us.
Many of us have taken bold, deliberate and intentional action to better prepare for the uncertainty and reduce the risks to society. Going into lock down mode involves working from home, keeping kids home from school, shifting gatherings from in-person to virtual, not going to the gym, yoga or restaurants, stocking up on the necessities and planning for a very different and unique day-to-day lifestyle. This is one response to the fear that many of us feel.
At the same time, in the face of the same global pandemic, many of us have chosen a different response. To carry on with as much normalcy as possible, and to hope to continue living with minimal lifestyle adjustments. This is also a response to fear. Fear of change to what we know and control. Fear of disruption to what we have become comfortable with. In the face of the unknown, we naturally cling to what we understand. We only understand though what has been, and do not understand what might be.
To take action right now is a response to fear. To not take action is also a response to fear. The fears that we are responding to are just different fears.
A friend shared with me several years ago that we experience two types of fear in our journey through life. Fear that keeps us living and fear that keeps us from living.
In the face of a global pandemic, with a large range and diversity of opinions, perspectives and insights coming from all directions, it becomes even more challenging to distinguish between the fear that keeps us living and the fear that keeps us from living.
To give into the wildfire of fear that is quickly being sparked through the many media and digital channels that we consume can be dangerous as it is not always grounded in truth and reality. At the same time, to block out the fear, to blame institutions and to blind ourselves to the facts is to be in a state of ignorance. Ignorance is not bliss.
A dose of fear is healthy and important, especially in this moment. Fear can serve a practical purpose to keep us, our communities and our world healthier and safer. Everything in moderation though, fear should not be limitless. Like my body that can only intake so much food or my mind that can only handle so much meditation, there is a limit to the fear. Once I acknowledge that fear is part of my reality, I can focus on how much and how to manage it.
I can make the choice to feed my fear by mindlessly consuming, scrolling and spreading content blindly on unregulated social media platforms. Or I can make the choice to manage my fear by exclusively reading trusted news sources and making even more time for awareness practices like meditation, yoga, journaling and reflection that help me feel grounded and even calm in the face of uncertainty.
The latter choice enables me to show up in a way that is aligned with my identity, values and beliefs for those around me.
When I reflect on the source of my fear, I can trace it to the unknown. In the face of the unknown, my natural conditioning is to retreat and wait for more to be known. Then I can act from a place of knowledge with conviction. It is not always prudent though to wait for more to be known. It is difficult to make choices in the face of the unknown. It is even more difficult to make choices and change them once more becomes known. This is called humility.
To choose to live in the face of uncertainty without giving in to fear requires an awareness that there is a new normal that is not yet clear. I believe that a new world order is being born and that we are not going back to how life was. Like 9/11, there are fundamental changes to our institutions and to our culture that we will see in a post-pandemic era. Furthermore, we get to shape this new world order. It starts with letting go of what was to make space for what can be.
There is one fatal flaw in the human condition though. I believe that we can overcome it as we usher in a new world order. The flaw that I speak of is our inability to think beyond ourselves, as our default state. The individualistic programming our culture has ingrained so remarkably well into us over the past few centuries has led to major social and structural issues, including income inequality, climate change and a mental health crisis.
To think beyond the self means to expand the sense of self to include others. It starts naturally with our family and friends. This is realistic and reasonable for all of us to experience. Our sense of self needs to then extend to include the people on the front lines of a health pandemic, like doctors, nurses, first responders, and also those keeping our transportation, electricity, water and internet infrastructure running. Then, our sense of self needs to expand to include the broader communities we live in and ultimately the global village that we are all part of.
The global health pandemic we are witnessing has so far impacted people who we do not know in far away countries. It is now starting to impact people we know of, who are in public life like politicians, celebrities and athletes. Soon, it will impact people that we directly know in our close communities. This is how a pandemic goes from being an intellectual concept that we read about to an embodied reality that we feel in our heart.
This global pandemic is proof that we are all connected.
We all are on our own journey in life and will come to a place of action, a place of compassion and a place of an expanded view of self in our own way, in our own time. I do not know when this will happen for you. It is happening for me right now.
As Viktor Frankl shared in Man’s Search for Meaning, “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” I do not have control over the global pandemic or the public response to the global pandemic. I do have control over the actions that I take. And not taking action itself is a choice.
A final reflection on fear.
I have come to believe that behind all fear is love.
Love in the face of a global pandemic is effortless action. It comes from the heart, not the mind. In my heart, I feel the connection that we all share and a moral responsibility to take bold action. Not from a place of fear, but from a place of love.