Dorothy, the Tin Man, and The Scarecrow are making their way through the dark forest. All around them are darkness, uncertainty, and strange sounds. Where are the sounds coming from? What could be making them? Oh, how the imagination runs wild, fills in the gaps, and jumps to conclusions! Dorothy asks: “Do you suppose we’ll meet any wild animals?” The Tin Man responds: “Hm, we might.” And then The Scarecrow quickly chimes in: “Animals that eat… straw?” Cue the oft-quoted song and the skipping, and then poof the cowardly lion appears out of nowhere, almost as if he were magically conjured by the song and dance routine itself!
Here we are in the real world, March 10, 2020. Covid-19 (coronavirus) continues to spread and claim lives. The U.S. stock market and global economies are suffering large downturns and extreme volatility. Flights and conventions are cancelled, borders closed, and the term “social distancing” is spreading faster than the virus itself. The impact to economy and human lives is real, but how afraid should you really be? What should you do?
I do not have the answers for you, but I encourage you to explore with me, and together we can elevate ourselves above the fray to make the best decisions possible. Let’s first of all characterize the fear that is happening all around us. Boiled down to its essence, it is the fear of uncertainty, and uncertainty is the mind’s favorite! If you are in a dark alley, and someone approaches you with a knife, you know exactly how afraid you should be. But if you are Dorothy and company in a dark forest of uncertainty and unaccustomed sounds where there may be wild animals, how afraid should you be? Another good example from film that demonstrates the power of uncertainty is the original “Jaws.” There were all sorts of mechanical issues with the full scale mechanical fake sharks, so increasingly shots were created where the shark was not actually visible but only hinted at, for example, with that iconic fin and only showing the mayhem from above the water. This actually created a much scarier effect as the mind of the viewer filled in the gaps of what was not seen. Hitchcock understood this before Spielberg ever did, and philosophers, especially the stoics, understood it long before that.
With that bit of psychology in mind, notice how much uncertainty is inherent in the current Covid-19 situation. Notice how the numbers of confirmed, unconfirmed, and suspected cases are a jumbled, confusing mess that change daily. Notice how the imperfect testing itself contributes to the uncertainty. Notice how some world leaders tell you one thing but are contradicted by other authoritative sources of information. Who do you believe? Notice the huge market swings. Notice the way that your mind behaves in this situation. Do you find yourself looking for a definitive course of action from a source you have trusted in the past for a completely unrelated circumstance? Perhaps this source has no specific knowledge of global pandemics, but you feel yourself drowning and in need of a life preserver. Why are you trusting this particular authority in this particular case? Why does the mind seek certainty to such a degree that it sometimes blinds itself to the bigger picture?
Imagine you have the opportunity to have a conversation with your fear. What would you be curious about? Would you want to understand why it exists? Would you wonder where it came from and why yours is different from everyone else’s? Would you want to understand how it is useful and in what ways it limits you? Really imagine this. Journaling is even better!
Fear is like a constant car passenger on the road trip of life. It will always be there. Unless you have an anxious personality, most of the time fear is content to just chill and listen to the tunes you pick, but every once in a while, it becomes active and starts shouting driving instructions at you. What should you do?
The first thing to consider is how urgent these instructions really are. Fear knows only one urgency: immediate. But most of the time that level of urgency is not appropriate. Counter with questions like: What about this situation is causing me to want to act immediately? What would happen if instead I performed action at a later time in the future? Do I have the best information to act rationally? What is the cost of action? What is the cost of inaction? Are there alternative actions I have not considered that could accomplish the desired effect? What might those be? What sources or resources have I not yet explored that could help me make the best decision possible? –Writing this down is helpful.
You may have been hoping for answers, and I have thus far offered mostly more questions. But I do have some advice that I humbly offer. Consider the offering an opening of a door on a potentially new perspective. You are welcome to accept whatever resonates with you.
Acknowledge your fear, allow it, feel it. Do not dismiss it or try to shut it out, but do NOT let it drive the car! Be curious about it. Have a conversation with it. Ask it why it’s being so vocal right now. Where do you personally find calm in a storm? Do you have a mindful practice like meditation, journaling, yoga, or walking? Maybe you find peace in nature, a certain activity that absorbs your attention, going to the gym, or conversation with a close friend. Allow yourself some space to find a deeper perspective on what is urging action. Finding space starts with a single breath. Pausing and finding a single mindful breath is a wedge into awareness. Use it during uncertain times. I find that my own mindful practices are like going home. What is your “going home” practice? Today we find ourselves, much like Dorothy in Oz, in unfamiliar circumstances feeling quite uncertain about the future. Of course, our power to achieve normalcy is as accessible as Dorothy’s ruby slippers were to her. We have the power to return home whenever we want with a single breath and a metaphorical clicking of the heels. And truly, in uncertain times, there is no place like home.