Fear (and Hate) in a time of Covid

Tempers are fraying. Patience is wearing thin. Weeks of the world being on lock-down, while the world changes around us, has produced a phenomenon of collective depression, anxiety, and…you guessed it, fear.

So what exactly is happening?

Besides the fact that our nation’s leaders have failed us miserably, putting their egos and their reelection strategies before the well-being of the public, there is the fact that this world-wide time-out has provided people more time than they are used to with their own company.

As humans, we are accustomed to seeking comfort over pain. We actively pursue distractions from the things that hurt. We go to work, consume ourselves with careers and sports and fitness routines. We socialize, we drink, we eat, we watch t.v.. We have sex. We are masters at escapism, at numbing the pain within by consuming our spare time with outside distractions.

But when we are confined indoors with, the distractions are limited. There is still television. Not every stock is falling, after all. Netflix has never had it so good. But the options for distraction, particularly for extroverts–those who energize themselves in the company of others–are significantly reduced. We are confined to limited spaces and a limited number of resources to fill the empty holes within that are now staring us down.

At the same time, the world is changing. The world we knew is gone, and a new one is forming around us. Uncertainty always brings fear. Fear of the unknown is real. And there’s so much we don’t know…however much we like to pretend we have it all figured out.

When things happen that are outside of our control, we naturally feel afraid of what we cannot comprehend. The future, after all, is nebulous idea until it forms and becomes reality. Even with the best of intentions and the most meticulously detailed plans, the future rarely materializes as we would have liked. The real problem here is this need we have to believe we are in control of our lives. We aren’t, and the sooner we can accept that and lean into an attitude of receptive awareness, the more likely things are to turn out well for us. Expectation is a nasty taskmaster. She convinces us that our hopes and desires for ourselves are the only things that can make us happy, that what we need most in life is for things to go according to plan. Our plan. If we can open ourselves up to living beyond attachment to outcomes, what we do is step into the realm of possibility. Instead of staking our happiness on a narrowly defined parameter of acceptable results, we can trust that the universe knows what is best for us. If we are truly open to accepting that life might not be about how much money we earn or what kind of car we drive, and instead embracing each experience as an opportunity to learn and to grow, then we find that life is a series of unexpected joys.

Buddhist teacher Michael Stone has this beautiful video on the yogic principle of non-attachment that I return to often.

Life hurts. It’s a fact. We all have suffered from injury in our lifetimes, often at the hands of others. Statistically speaking 70% of adults have experienced some form of trauma in their lives. 2/3 of women will suffer a sexually related traumatic event before they reach adulthood. Our parents, who are supposed to love us unconditionally, are rarely equipped to do so. At some point in our lives, their disapproval (or that of some other caregiver) registered within our developing minds as rejection and a piece of us got locked away in some inner room. Bullying can have a similar effect. The rest of our lives will be spent trying to operate through life with a piece of ourselves, or perhaps a large portion of ourselves, locked way somewhere in the backs of our psyches. Trying to function fully and competently without our full selves is like trying to run a marathon without legs. It can be done, yes, but we would never resort to prosthetics if we actually have legs to use–and, metaphorically speaking, we still do, we’ve only hidden them so the world cant see them. That locked away piece doesn’t ever actually go away. Where would it go? Instead it screams to be reunited with the rest of the self, to recover the true self. And this is the source of inner pain and anguish. Identifying original pain is the major work of most our lives, whether we realize it or not. Because, until we do, we are not fully functional adults and the pain and the anguish and the anger will sit with in us until we have healed the division.

Struggling with an emotion is not the way to deal with it, however. Instead, we must learn to get very quiet, very still, and welcome those emotions home, where we can learn what their messages are and what they are saying to us. Because, like it or not, all emotions have a purpose. They tell us something about what is going on within ourselves. Fear tells us we are in danger, either imminently or psychologically. It may be mistaken. The fear may not be real, but that is the message. Anger informs us that a boundary has been crossed, that our needs have been violated in some way.

What about when fear manifests as anger?

If you are like me, bouts of extreme anger have popped up for me during the shelter-at-home orders. I’ve been so busy over the last year. Having started a community outreach mobile yoga studio, I’ve been busier, and more outgoing (I’m not an extrovert) than I’ve ever been in my life. And it has not come without it’s costs. My energies have been sapped by a neglect of self-care and by friends and acquaintances that continually bulldoze across my boundaries.

I’ve needed rest.

I’ve needed time to reconsider my own needs.

Apart from my own personal experiences, however, I think there is a lot to be angry about.

I believe we are all susceptible to the collective conscious. It’s why two different people, living in vastly different parts of the world, will come up with a similar idea (consider the invention of the television), why music and art and fashion will display similar trends, why certain foods or colors suddenly become more popular than others. What one person puts out there in the way of thoughts and energies can be read by others who are sensitive and perceptive. But when a multitude of people are putting out a feeling or an energy, such as frustration for the inequalities that this virus has laid bare–it becomes palpable by the masses.

The anger is real.

But the anger, for many of us, is just another manifestation of fear.

Some are afraid of going back to a normal that still allows for the injustices that we have suffered with for far too long. Some are afraid of leaders who do more harm than good in their egoistic rhetoric and self-serving agendas. But, too often, another kind of fear raises it’s head.

The fear of the ego.

Ego is a dangerous thing. Ego is the need to protect oneself from the shame of being wrong or being weak or being less than. Worse than that, it’s the fear of being perceived as such. Because like it or not, we all are, at one point or another in our lives, one or all of those things. That’s called being human. It’s called being alive. It’s called being vulnerable, and one cannot be invulnerable to pain and open to joy. It doesn’t work like that.

When difficult times lay bare the facts that we are not as wise as we thought, we are not as prepared as we thought, we are not as financially stable as we thought, we are not as healthy as we thought, we are not as emotionally stable as we thought, we are not as safe as we thought, we are not as RIGHT as we thought…the ego will inflate itself, unable to sit with fear and accept our frailties and foibles, it will rear its ugly head and shake its fists and breathe anger and hatred…because that feels more powerful than fear. It certainly looks more powerful than fear.

But anger (another complicated emotion) is usually based in fear.

Anger is fear being pushy, throwing its weight around, grasping for power it doesn’t have or that it’s afraid to share because it mistakenly thinks that what it allows for another it looses for itself.

So whatever you are feeling during this time, whether it’s fear or anger, or pain, or actual righteous indignation, just get honest with the idea of what you can and what you cannot control. Get honest with the notion that our country has done bad things in the past and it has perpetuated those wrongs for generations. Trauma begets trauma and hurt people hurt people. Healing is group effort, it’s not something people can be shoved off into a corner to take care of on their own because their pain somehow reflects your culpability. But the fact that hurt has been caused does not necessarily mean that there are guilty parties that need to be hunted down and brought to justice. So many of these injuries happened so long ago that the quest for justice can only be found in changing the status-quo, not in meting out punishment. Power is not a limited resource, it can be shared without being lost.

So, in actuality, there is little risk in owning our story if we are not defined by something outside of ourselves. Which we can’t be. A moment’s pause to self-reflect can only benefit both parties if we have the courage to do it honestly. Think about it…

If you’ve caused hurt in your life, what is it costing you to own it?

If you haven’t caused hurt, at least knowingly or directly, what does it cost you to be empathetic and compassionate with someone who has been injured? Or even to open yourself up to the idea that by perhaps acting in a different way, you could help someone to heal?

The answer is nothing.

The lie is always harder to maintain than the truth. We are all culpable of something. We are all guilty in our way, and often without our knowing. The opposite of pain is not blame but compassion. Power is in taking ownership of our stories, in taking responsibility for the course of our own lives.

This world doesn’t need saviors, it needs healing. It needs love. It needs a voice for the voiceless. It needs compassion for the suffering and downtrodden–for the disempowered.

But it also needs action.

Fear isn’t always unhealthy. Take for instance the fear that comes from being in actual danger. When our autonomic nervous system is activated and we become hyper alert for the sake of survival, we enable courage and unleash the resourcefulness required to find ways to survive that we might not have thought of before.

We are not in that danger now, most of us. That doesn’t mean we don’t feel the threat of it lurking. For those of us who have survived trauma, it’s what we are on the watch for every day of our lives. Consider for a moment what a frightening situation feels like when we are in the midst of it, and how different it feels to anticipate it ahead of time or to look back on it in retrospect. It’s a different kind of fear entirely. In the moment of real and present danger, we are not cowering for our lives, we are not avoiding what we feel, but we are embracing every sensation and every sensory signal in order to absorb all the information we can so that we can assemble the resources required for our survival. In most cases, a frightening situation turns out to resolve itself without serious injury. We take what we learned from the incident and prepare for a better future. That’s what we can do now. That’s what many of us are doing now.

Having said that, I don’t want to disregard real trauma and the harm being caused by others, whether it’s ego-driven law enforcement or incensed protestors–or any number of actual dangers the world truly poses, whoever we may be and whatever circumstances we may find ourselves in. Trauma is real, and it is precisely what I believe is at the heart of our racial issues. Generations of compound, complex, multi-generational, systemic trauma, committed upon a population of people within a society that has utterly failed to provide for its resolution and healing. Trauma in the United States is endemic and largely ignored. And trauma can be inherited. The pain suffered by your ancestors can and does exist in you, and will until it is resolved. Bizarre as it may seem, it’s a true and legitimate phenomenon.

The masses ask for silence, when silence provides nothing but further trauma. It was Freud who found that giving voice to one’s stories releases much of the embodied anxiety (hysteria) that is consequential of trauma. The world has never done well with the responsibility of carrying each other’s burdens. It never needed to rise to that responsibility more so than now.

I would invite you to take a moment and listen to this video, where complex trauma and its socio-economic effects are explained by Dr. Nadine Burke Harris. Compound, complex trauma creates all kinds of problems, mental as well as physical, legal, social, educational, financial, and criminal. It is the number one cause of nearly every ill our nation (and the world) faces today. Unresolved trauma has resulted in a public health crisis in America.

In the United States, we don’t know how to treat trauma. Our mental health care system has failed us in this respect. And so we have communities of unhealed, unwhole people trying to cope the best they can, their minds consumed by the horrors they’ve experienced and trying to forget them. Often, rather than living in fear, they turn to anger and violence, they struggle to live in and with bodies that have betrayed them. They turn to drugs and alcohol, or other addictions that take them out of the painful now.

It’s ok to feel afraid during these bizarre times. It’s ok to feel angry. It’s ok to feel anxious and depressed and uncertain. It’s ok to sit and just be with whatever it is you are feeling. We can take this time to slow down, figure out how to love ourselves more, to give ourselves more of what we need, to figure out how to be more real and honest and authentic, knowing we deserve to have our needs met and to set the boundaries necessary that will ensure we do not give away more than we can afford to expend on others who don’t love us like they should, while at the same time finding opportunities to be vulnerable enough to accept the love we do deserve. All this…so that we have the capacity to hold space for the pain of others. I think isolation has taught us, at the very least, that we need eachother.

This time we live in, as scary as it is, offers us the opportunity to change our lives and the world around us. It is frightening, but let’s embrace the fear of uncertainty, trusting that the universe knows what it is doing, and let’s have the courage to work towards a world we all want to live in together.

Fear can lead to love. And love is the answer.

Always!