With COVID-19 having derailed global civilization, you have to wonder, who’s in charge here? Our leaders call upon us to band together against a common threat. But if this is a war, then it’s just another battle in humanity’s 10,000-year old war against nature. And when you fight nature, nature always wins. What would be a better approach?
Follow the Rules
The word corona means crown. A crown is essentially a spiky hat. It is usually worn by a human, usually just one.
Coronavirus wears a crown, so to speak. It is said to look like a spiky ball. Each of these “spikes” is actually a point of connection. It’s how the virus gets into the cell.
If all 8 billion humans could spread out evenly across the globe, join hands, and hold up their arms, what would that look like?
Of course, that’s not possible. Plus, we’re not supposed to be touching anyway. But there’s only one way for humans to be in charge, and that is to be connected: not just to each other, but to everything, including viruses.
The Meaning of Life
To be connected is to work together, to cooperate, in partnership. The idea of a “ruler” has never worked, including majority rule. For 10,000 years, we’ve been operating under a grave misunderstanding. About 150 years ago, that misunderstanding came to be known as “survival of the fittest.”
Survival of the fittest is not about who can win “all the marbles” to the exclusion of everyone else. To be fit is to fit in, not just into nature, but in the case of humans, into society. And because we’re a social species, it’s also about how well we can fit together as a whole. Everything is about fitting, like a giant puzzle. No piece can go off on its own and “win.”
An Italian proverb says “when the game is over, the king and the pawn go back into the same box.” We are all in the same box, including microorganisms. Viruses are the smallest of all microbes. They have been successful because they have evolved to fit in.
The entire challenge of existence, the very meaning of life, is to fit together: to find unity in diversity. This is what life is all about.
All For One or None For All
Coronavirus is an opportunistic infection. The healthier you are, the less likely you are to suffer from it. Like they say, rain doesn’t cause a leaky roof. What makes a person healthy?
The word healthy, like the word holy, means “whole.” To be whole, we need unity on every level, from our bodies to our countries to our planet. There can be no “us and them.”
A healthy person, for example, needs a healthy community. We don’t exist in isolation. Infectious disease makes this perfectly clear. If one person tests positive for the virus, we are all infected, not just some of us. To say “she is infected but I’m not” is like saying “my liver has cancer but my stomach is doing fine.” Your problem is my problem. A chain is only as strong as what?
If a nation isn’t in a state of unity, as in “United States,” it can’t be healthy. The same goes for “United Nations.” When we are divided, partial, as in partisan, we can’t be healthy.
The real pandemic is a lack of love. Love cures all ills. As we weather this storm, if we are to overcome even bigger challenges, such as mass migration and conflict brought on by climate change, we have to realize that ultimately, all sickness is lovesickness. Divided, we fall; united, we survive.
Are You Lonesome Tonight?
The love I’m talking about isn’t romantic. It isn’t blind. It knows that this isn’t the time for hugs, not drugs. Still, love is the only foundation for right action. Even as we stay mostly in our houses (if we have them), “social distancing” must be physical but not emotional. A crisis can and should bring us together, not pull us apart.
Much of the world is already suffering from an epidemic of loneliness, a major contributor to the overdose epidemic as well as the rise in lethal alcoholism and suicide. These are just three symptoms of a deeper malaise, a crisis of despair.
Despair is a loss of hope, which comes mainly from a loss of love. Human beings are social animals: in many ways, the most social. For such a social animal, to experience separation, aloneness — not solitude, but imposed isolation — is one of the worst feelings in the world.
By that measure, the pandemic is a traumatic event. We’ve been thrown, almost overnight, into solitary confinement. If it increases the number of deaths from despair, our reaction to the virus could end up causing more casualties than the virus itself. In this time of intense, prolonged isolation, we need love to bridge the gaps between us.
Again, health is wholeness. Socially, that means togetherness. Not standing side-by-side, but standing united. We are lovesick for unity. For immunity, we need community.
Panic: Our Endemic Pandemic
It’s said that the opposite of love is fear. Right now, fear is what many of us are feeling, whether about our health or about the economy. Extreme fear is panic. Is panic ever helpful?
The pandemic has led to hoarding and other forms of panic not because COVID-19 is so scary but because we were raised to be scared. In civilization, fear is our chronic state.
Imagine that the year is 879. You’re on a battlefield in hand-to-hand combat. What are you focused on?
When it comes to facing the possibility of infection, we are still in the dark ages. Our mindset hasn’t changed. In fact, it hasn’t changed since civilization began. We face the prospect of illness with fear.
Fear is survival mode. It narrows our concern from we to me. It puts us into fight-or-flight. In fight-or-flight, we focus on the perceived threat. In the past, the threat was demons; now it’s germs. But the attitude is the same. You have to protect yourself from something out there trying to get you.
A Different Way
Nature-based peoples didn’t see the world as a battlefield or a “jungle.” In 1933, Lakota Chief Luther Standing Bear wrote that “only to the white man was nature a ‘wilderness’ and only to him was the land ‘infested’ with ‘wild’ animals and ‘savage’ people. To us it was tame. Earth was bountiful and we were surrounded with blessings of the Great Mystery.”
You may wonder, “isn’t it true that we have to protect ourselves from disease?” Yes and no. After Columbus, Native Americans did die by the millions from novel viruses including smallpox and measles. For them, disease was mostly dictated by exposure. Today, however, we underestimate the role of susceptibility. We forget that most of us have a “leaky roof.”
Since the pandemic began, how many times have you been told to stay at home and wash your hands? On the other hand, how often have you been encouraged to support your immune system? What about the importance of good nutrition, sleep, exercise, friends and family? Few things suppress immunity more than stress, and what’s more stressful than thinking everyone’s out to get you?
Pass the Soap
Taking responsibility for your health means not just blaming it on some outsider. After all, as we’ve so often heard, a virus knows no borders. You can’t just build a wall to keep it out. You can’t stay healthy without keeping everyone healthy.
At the start of the pandemic, there were over 25 million uninsured Americans. The number may soon be 40 million. At the start of the pandemic, there was no free virus testing for the uninsured. For them, the cost of treatment is still a big obstacle.
Having insurance won’t keep you from catching the virus from someone who doesn’t have insurance. When you think about universal health care, think about that. When we’re in panic mode, however, we’re only thinking of ourselves and our loved ones. And when everyone’s only looking out for themselves, everybody loses.
Not to Worry
In civilization, individualism and fear go hand in hand. Today, the emergency is Coronavirus. That was piled on top of climate change. Before that, the news was all about the opioid crisis. It seems there’s always something to be afraid of, and it disproportionately dominates the news. The issues are real, but fear is not the best way to approach them.
Consider the potentially-alarming declaration, “we’re all gonna die.” You can’t argue with that. Granted, when someone puts an exclamation mark on the end, they mean we are about to die, en masse, momentarily. Let’s imagine that we are all going to die prematurely. Can we die pretty maturely? Can we say to ourselves, “all we’re going to do is die?”
That may seem inconceivable, but it’s quite possible that with death looming in the near future for at least some of us and the end of the world as we know it for all, the only way to avoid either is to worry less about it. Fear isn’t helping; panic is worse. How can we possibly not worry about disease, devastation, and death? I know one person who can answer that question.
Easy Go, Easy Come
My friend Maureen McCarthy has a rare disease that was supposed to have killed her twenty years ago. Even now, she could die any minute. She doesn’t worry about it. In fact, she says she’s still alive because she doesn’t worry about it.
Not worrying about something doesn’t mean not doing anything about it. In fact, you can do more when you’re not worried. Climate change denial, for example, may be driven by hopelessness just as opioid overdose can be driven by despair. Fear causes fight-or-flight; overpowering fear causes freeze-or-faint.
The taoist text, The Chuang-Tzu, says “play for tiles and you’re skillful; play for belt-buckles, and you lose confidence; play for gold, and you’re flustered. Your skill is the same as ever, but if you are attaching importance to something, you are giving weight to what is outside you, and whoever gives weight to what is outside him is inwardly clumsy.” Fear of disease is giving weight to what is outside you. So how can we worry less? How can we not panic?
To begin to answer that question, here’s a mnemonic exercise. It’s just a play on words, and like Voltaire says, “a witty phrase proves nothing.” Still, the message is instructive.
What You See Is What You Get
The phrase “fight or flight” describes two responses to stress. Notice that these differ by just one letter; “flight” adds an l. Let’s say that this l stands for leaving. When it comes to a pandemic, escape is not an option.
Now let’s say that the two h’s in fight and flight, respectively stand for “hit” and “hide.” Those aren’t options either. Of course, people are working on a vaccine, and you could say that this counts as fighting the virus. And for now, sequestering ourselves is imperative. But fight-or-flight is more of an attitude than an approach. It’s not what you do but how you feel and think about it. To highlight that, if we replace the first h with m-e-n, as in mental, then “fight” becomes “figment.” Again, this is just wordplay, but the point is that, with mindfulness, we can see that our fear is imaginary. How can that be?
Like I said, the situation is real, but is the fear really warranted? No, not when fear is just worry. As Oscar Wilde puts it, life is too important to be taken seriously. In the very least, taking it too seriously puts it at risk. That’s when we imagine that fight and flight are our only two options. And if that’s true, we really are screwed.
Don’t Rock the Boat
How can we change our view of the world from battlefield to beautiful? How can we see life, even in the midst of turmoil, as a blessing? A clue might come a story I came across just last month.
It was 1986 when I went with a group of doctors and nurses to Haiti on a medical mission trip. Tensions were high with the turmoil related to their dictator Papa Doc’s regime. We were surrounded by guards with automatic rifles protecting our group the first few nights in Port-au-Prince. The third day we embarked on a small wooden boat carrying about 100 passengers, including some pigs and goats. We were going to the remote island of La Gonave for two weeks to set up a medical clinic in a large pig pen.
About an hour out on the water another similar boat carrying the same amount of passengers ran into us. The other boat began sinking and the passengers (all Haitians), began jumping into our already full-to-capacity boat, which then began taking on water, making it sink.
Everyone began screaming in panic. I decided my time was up, so I grabbed some of the children in my arms and held them.
I heard someone singing and turned toward the voice. One of the missionary doctors stood up at the bow and calmly began singing Amazing Grace. Soon everyone stopped screaming and panicking and became silent and relaxed. The boat stopped sinking.
This memory will never leave me. An example of what just one person can do. Just one person with a calm, mindful presence, singing Amazing Grace.
Michelle Hobby, “The Sinking Boat”
What stopped the boat from sinking? Maybe it had started to take on water because people were chaotically jumping into it, causing it to rock, rather than calmly stepping onto it. Stevie Wonder sums up the lesson: “with a happy song to sing, it never seems as bad.” Is looking on the bright side just fooling yourself, or is life’s glass always half full?
I like that the author’s name is “Hobby.” What if we approached life not as a battle but as an enjoyable pastime? No pressure! Of course, that’s easy for an armchair philosopher like me to say. My life isn’t at stake. Or is it?
I’ve lived most of my life in fear. I’ve been working on nonattachment for over twenty years. It won’t happen tomorrow, but it’s a worthy goal. It could keep our boat from sinking. It could make life more beautiful.
In From What Is to What If: Unleashing the Power of Imagination to Create the Future We Want, Rob Hopkins shows how achieving a brighter tomorrow is far easier when we focus less on what we don’t want and more on what we do want. Can we see the pandemic not as a mere interruption but as an opportunity to redesign society, to really turn things around?
Love Will Keep Us Together
I choose to live in a world motivated not by fear but by love. Sometimes it seems impossible. It helps to know that we are always motivated by love: by self-love. When I am afraid, my sense of self narrows. When I’m not afraid, I naturally love my neighbor as myself. And that works both ways. As Tara Brach teaches, “when I trust I’m the ocean, I am not afraid of the waves.”
There’s no reason to think that this will be our last pandemic. If we are going to make it through these and other major challenges, we are going to have to take our rightful place on the planet. We will have to share the throne.
A pandemic is part of the process of evolution. It is not a war against a common enemy. If anything, that attitude is our disease. What we need more than anything is trust: in each other and in life itself. Sustainability requires trustainability. It doesn’t matter who gets elected, for example, if gridlock keeps preventing us from accomplishing anything. We’re not going to get anywhere if we can’t get along.
Does life feel like a constant battle? Are you afraid of threats to your health or finances? Stock up on love. The only way through this is together, and nothing is stronger than an open heart.