By David Jones
So there’s a virus out and about right now. That’s not news, of course.
There’s always a virus causing suffering somewhere. Some strain of Zika, Ebola, Coronavirus, Influenza, West Nile, it just goes on and on. But let’s talk about the virus of fear.
It’s easy to express compassion to those who are sick with a virus like the flu. What about people suffering from viral fear or viral anger? Those spread so much faster, aren’t deterred by hand washing or face masks, and are transmissible over the entire planet via the internet.
When communal fear infects the mind it behaves like a physical virus. You generally catch it from another person either through direct or indirect contact. It mutates over time to maintain its transmissibility. Sometimes it reappears after you think you’ve beaten it. It can occur in nature or be designed and created by humans. And no matter what, a new one is just biding its time to hit the world stage.
Media outlets make money if you loan them your eyeballs, so they’re not going to scale back coverage despite increasing panic. Their pockets need you to keep clicking, so they’ll keep the stream of anxiety flowing. And the more virus news you see, the greater the cumulative dread you feel. Perhaps someone we care about is scared.
How can we help relieve their suffering?
Maybe ask them. Ask what their fears are—they might run deeper than merely getting sick. Sometimes letting someone just express their worry helps. It helps me to talk about my fears as part of my efforts to face and overcome them.
Empathize rather than judge. When folks express a fear we don’t have, it’s so easy to tell them that they have no reason to be scared, like telling a child there’s no reason to be afraid of something in their closet or under the bed. While it might be true that their fear is based on unfounded or exaggerated things, I’ve never heard anyone go “Oh! I don’t need to be afraid of that? Whew, load off my mind! Thanks bunches!”
No, the fear is still there alongside a new side order of resentment, guilt, or embarrassment. If we are to offer some relief from the viral fear, we need to make sure we aren’t contaminating them with our viral anger over certain politicians or media providers. Those dealing with infections of fear already have a compromised immunity to more negativity, so it’s a bad time to infect them with ours. We might think we’re helping when really we’re just venting our frustrations all over them.
It’s dangerous when one’s compromised immune system encounters a second viral invader while it fights the first one. It’s so busy creating one antibody that it doesn’t have much ammunition to spare in fighting another invader. So our anger, while understandable, might only make things worse for the ailing person.
Commiserate rather than lecture. It’s possible their fear is being aggravated by certain reports on mass or social media, but telling them they need to “stop watching that trash” may not be helpful. It’s a shame when catastrophe is weaponized; let’s make sure we aren’t weaponizing our compassion.
Try to identify with their fear. “I’ve seen a lot of things online and on TV that make me pretty scared too. I’m trying to limit how much I take in because if that’s all I watch I won’t want to leave the house. Do you think cutting back on how much time you take in the news might help?” And if the suffering person can’t unplug or disengage because they need to stay informed, perhaps they can scale back in small amounts and not just go cold turkey. Recovery often takes time (and small steps).
Listen with compassion rather than browbeat. Their fears may be exaggerated, but that’s no reason to insult them. Fear is often hard to express in rational terms, and ever since 9/11 it’s so easy for folks to find things to be alarmed by. Compassion recognizes the suffering of others and moves us to want to help relieve it and then do something about it if possible.
One of the best ways to do that is by serving others out of a loving desire for them to be okay.
As Hippocrates wrote in his work Of The Epidemics: “Practice two things in your dealings with disease: either help or do not harm the patient.” When we remember that we are all occasionally touched by viral suffering, perhaps we’ll be more equipped to offer relief when we’re able. And compassion has no co-pay, no pre-existing disclaimer, and no insurance requirements.
It’s just us holding out a recently-washed hand to another.
Editor: Dana Gornall
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