Ok, so the fact of the matter is, people are scared — and rightly so. Because as we enter the era of plague; we realize that we are essentially unprepared. Communities throughout the world have been caught off-guard by the virus’ forceful potential for confusion and daily disorder. I mean, there is no doubt that the coronavirus is a huge burden placed on humanity. As I reflected inward about how the coronavirus is affecting me and the world, I thought about what wisdom (if any) could help guide us through this time. Even though, I’m not a medical professional, an epidemiologist or an expert on pandemics. I do believe I can (humbly) help people understand and get through the coronavirus epidemic with calm and actual spiritual growth.
Maybe the same kind of guidance Gandalf the Great, in JRR Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, gave Frodo: “I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo. “So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”
Here’s my take on getting through this time (and maybe deepening my insight and compassion):
1. Stop looking away
Yes, this must sound like unusual advice in a time of pandemic. But we must be skeptical of those who say “Everything is fine!” or “Everything is doomed!” First of all, how do they know and second, the more important lesson, remember it is a natural human emotion to be afraid of the unknown and the uncertain and then giving in to the urge, to look away and try to ignore the danger or run for the hills.
Stop doing that, you are not an ostrich who buries his head in the sand (Alludes to an ostrich, which is believed incorrectly to hide its head in a hole in the ground when it sees danger.) Stop burying your head in the sand. And on the other hand stop the fear mongering. (It’s the action of deliberately arousing public fear or alarm about a particular issue.) Rather stop, breathe and open your eyes.
What do you see? Fear. And if you keep looking at fear, what do you see?
Well after you stopped shaking, and you are still leaning into fear, you start to see through the illusion. You start to see what the philosopher Seneca meant by, “We are more often frightened than hurt; and we suffer more from imagination than from reality.” In other words, we give fear the power it has over us, we are feeding the beast.
That’s why Franklin D. Roosevelt declared, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” Because he knew, as we are discovering today if we don’t face our fear we will be consumed by it. And then we will panic and as Bertrand Russell said, “Fear is the main source of superstition, and one of the main sources of cruelty.”
So, to conquer fear is to acknowledge fear. Look it in the eye and breathe. Hold the fear. But don’t be held motionless — physically, emotionally or spiritually — by this fear (disease). Feel it but own it, refine it, don’t give into it. Use it.
We need to react boldly to situations such as the one that challenges us right now and with the clarity and calm of mind that tells us that fear should inspire us to be courageous. Our fear can inspire us to hold one another even closer and with deeper resolve.
This is the time to not look away or run away. Remember the words of Nelson Mandela, “I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.”
2. We are in the same boat
As tensions among communities may run high, we must learn again the lessons of interdependence: The coronavirus demonstrates the profound ignorance of the belief that we keep ourselves “safe” by building walls to separate us from our neighbors and by locking up immigrants at the border. In a world as interconnected as ours, we keep ourselves safe by respecting the truths revealed by science, by cooperating and working together within and among nations, by caring for the most vulnerable among us, and by creating a society that keeps as many of us as possible healthy and financially secure.
As Chief Seattle so rightly said, “Humankind has not woven the web of life. We are but one thread within it. Whatever we do to the web, we do to ourselves. All things are bound together. All things connect,” we now again are reminded by the coronavirus, that in a profound sense, that in a world so focused on “us vs. them,” there is only us. Therefore as Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. This is the interrelated structure of reality,” we need to see that we are not only one, we actually need each other.
The spiritual path is never a solo effort. In fact, the very notion of a self who is trying to free her/ him is a delusion. We are in it together and need to realize our interconnectedness. The only sane path forward is more compassion, more justice, and more humility about the degree to which we need each other.
3. Embrace a sabbatical.
One of Judaism’s great gifts to the world is the idea of the Sabbath, the sacred break from the labors of the week. But the Sabbath is more than lounging around with nothing to do. It’s about renewal and the need to nourish the soul through extra time of stillness and silence. One of the side effects of the coronavirus might be the ability for those who need to stay home to use that time away from the workplace or the outside world productively. Some folks need to show up at work, travel and go about business as usual. But to the extent that one can, it will be vital to care of yourself and those that you love. Through the gift of physical and spiritual rest, we may experience breakthroughs that will allow our society to manage this disease and our lives more effectively.
4. Be compassionate.
Human beings are fundamentally fragile. To compensate for uncertainty and imperfection in this moment, some people will act out with pure anger. But this anger hides vulnerability and fear. We do not know what others go through on a daily basis. The coronavirus may give us the ability to realize that humility in the face of great challenge can be a factor leading us toward communal healing. To be under quarantine, as whole countries are essentially imposing at this point, cannot be a pleasant feeling. It’s isolating. To be gentle also means to be sympathetic to those who find themselves cut off from society. This disease has upended routines all over the world. Can we really grasp how it will affect the daily lives of people who only want to support themselves and their families? This universal reality should bring us together rather than tearing us apart. Let us have the insight to be understanding and compassionate.
To end of, remember that yes the coronavirus is highly contagious, but so are the actions we can take inspired by love and inner calm. We are reminded yet again of the total interconnectedness of all life on this planet. While, of course, we must heed medical experts to undertake precautionary measures to avoid the spread of the virus, we can also do our best to spread calm and peace.
This is a difficult time for all. No one has been spared from the effects of the coronavirus. Not all of us will be infected by the virus, but we are already affected. There is no denying that the global attention to this ailment has radically shifted the world’s power landscape indefinitely. But, for a moment, looking past these macro-effects can offer an opportunity to consider how each of us, at an individual level, can be spiritually renewed in our collective efforts to halt this disease and get through this moment.
This all made me think of Desmond Tutu’s profound words, “One of the sayings in our country is Ubuntu – the essence of being human. Ubuntu speaks particularly about the fact that you can’t exist as a human being in isolation. It speaks about our interconnectedness. You can’t be human all by yourself, and when you have this quality – Ubuntu – you are known for your generosity. We think of ourselves far too frequently as just individuals, separated from one another, whereas you are connected and what you do affects the whole World. When you do well, it spreads out; it is for the whole of humanity.”
Keep safe, wash your hands and never stop loving.