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  • Jan Flynn

Mastering The Trick of Balance In a Time of Crisis

3 Keys: stamina, perspective and time travel

Two months is a long time to sustain fear

If you’re not someone who is living in an active war zone, a refugee camp, or prison, this is the first time your life has been constricted so drastically by forces outside your experience. At first, most of us did what comes naturally in an emergency: we got busy. We stocked up on supplies, we checked anxiously on family and friends, and in every free moment, we devoured the news.

But very quickly, for most of us, there was little left to do. The sheer scope of the calamity was unprecedented, comprehensive, and in some ways paralyzing. There was just so much to suddenly adjust to; the world changed overnight.

But nearly eight weeks in, our key human trait of adaptability has begun to assert itself. We’ve become familiar with negotiating life in the time of coronavirus. It no longer shocks us when we have to wait in spaced lines to enter a grocery store or see empty shelves where the paper products should be. It doesn’t even occur to us to hug or shake hands when we run into an old acquaintance. We’re accustomed to replacing the most commonplace of human interactions, from business meetings to happy hour, with videoconferences.

As urgency subsides, so does vigilance

This open-ended, unrelenting emergency we’re living in is a severe challenge to our collective attention span — which in the age of endless connectivity, has been whittled down to nanoseconds. We’re conditioned to constant stimulus and immediate gratification, not the unrelenting stretches of uncertainty presented by the pandemic.

And unless we’re on the front lines, there is often little evidence of tangible peril in our immediate surroundings. People are wearing face masks, maybe, and the streets are empty, maybe, but it’s not like we’re stepping over bodies on our way to the mailbox.

And still, we can’t go to work or out for coffee, and we’ve had to cancel graduations and weddings and vacations and pretty much everything we spent so much time looking forward to. The weather’s warming up, and the beach is a big place — is it really going to kill us if we spend an afternoon there?

How long, we all want to know, are we supposed to keep this up?

This is where stamina comes in

As states begin a patchwork and sometimes arbitrary process of re-opening, the danger becomes that we will relax too much and too quickly. We have history to warn us here: the Spanish flu that first erupted in the spring of 1918 had an even more savage resurgence in the fall, necessitating a new round of quarantines that came too late to prevent millions of deaths.

In my small town, the signs of premature relaxation are evident. At a local cafe with outdoor service, people gather without bothering to don masks or pay much attention to social distance. After all, how’re you supposed to enjoy your latte with that thing on your face? And the six-foot rule is an annoyance on a small patio with limited chairs. The case count in the county is low anyway, so what’s the big deal?

I hate to be a wet blanket, but we’re not done with this yet, people. Not by a long shot. I am as weary of the strictures as anybody — what I wouldn’t give to go on a road trip or to the theater or to visit my adult kids — but if we lighten up too quickly, the past two months are going to look like a day at the beach (sorry) compared to what we could confront next winter.

The coming months will most likely be a long, rigorous process of weighing risk and rewards for practically everything we do outside of our own homes. We can’t pare life down to unlivable levels while trying to reduce the risk to zero, but nor can we throw caution to the winds by denying the danger. That demands a willingness from all of us to suck it up and get ready for the long haul. In a word, stamina.

Perspective helps

Maybe the weirdest aspect of the pandemic’s effect on our lives is its simultaneous power to separate us physically even as it reveals how inextricably we are all linked — logistically, socially, virally. The fact that this calamity is going on simultaneously and worldwide means that each of us is the potential origin of a butterfly effect, meaning that a small choice or action on our part can have vast effects.

Maybe I’m under so much pressure on the job that I ignore the sore throat I woke up with this morning. I’ll feel better when I get some coffee, I’m sure, and by the time I’m at work I’m too busy to notice that I’m feeling low-energy. I drag through a couple of days like this, and then I rally. There’s no reason to freak out and get tested, assuming I could even get one, and anyway I don’t have time to call the doctor. I’m fine.

But while at work I take delivery from the sandwich guy, and one of us isn’t wearing gloves. His next delivery is to someone who works at an assisted living center. A week later, four residents there are rushed to the hospital and placed on ventilators, and it’s not looking good, and the staff who worked with them are starting to show symptoms.

You get where I’m going with this. It’s not a guilt trip: it’s reality. The same principle works in reverse: we don’t get to know what we’ve prevented by taking precautions. It’s like taking our shoes off in the security line at the airport; it seems ridiculous, but we accept it as necessary.

This is where perspective comes in: the recognition that it’s not about us, or more accurately, not just us. It’s about all of us. The more willing we are to cooperate, the more likely we are to emerge from the pandemic sooner rather than later.

Which brings us to time travel

We have no idea what “sooner” and “later” mean in terms of coronavirus losing its grip on us. That uncertainty and the lack of a likely timeline are daunting challenges to our nature.

Many of us devote time to practices like meditation or mindfulness. The aim is to anchor our awareness in the present moment, or at least pay attention to it. It’s pretty safe to assume this is not something that dogs or cats or horses or even orangutans have to exert any effort to achieve; they pretty much live in the now. What may distinguish humans from other animals more than our opposable thumbs is what brain science refers to as the default mode network.

Very basically, as explained in Psychology Today the DMN is “a system of connected brain areas that show increased activity when a person is not focused on the outside world.” It’s the part of your brain that is most active when you’re not focused on a specific task — in other words, when you’re daydreaming or when your mind is free to indulge in its habitual game of one-thing-leads-to-another. It’s also your personal, built-in time machine.

Our brains were built to model the future and revisit the past, not only imagining scenarios but linking them to emotions: how often have you replayed a conversation in your head, re-experiencing its positive or negative reverberations, and rehearsing a future response with all of the satisfaction or anxiety it provokes?

It’s our ability to do this that allowed us to move out of trees onto the steppes and from there to cities and civilizations. Human activity is largely a process of extrapolating from experience and manipulating the environment to influence our future, from early agriculture to stockmarket-tweaking algorithms.

The problem is, it’s tough to turn off. And in the face of long-term uncertainty, our time machines can spin out of control. Given that we also have a factory-installed negativity bias meant to increase our chances of survival by keeping us alert to the potential downside of practically everything, we are fully capable of projecting, with scant evidence, a future grimmer than a Cormac McCarthy novel.

Right now, that’s not a big help. Yes, we need to be aware of danger, but we also need hope. Since there is so much we don’t know about what is ahead for us, we may as well guide our time travel devices to destinations that offer optimism. It turns out that hope is there to be found, without traipsing off into la-la land.

For instance, a May 2 opinion piece (“Could ‘Innate Immunology’ Save Us From the Coronavirus?” by Melinda Wenner Moyer)in the New York Timesexplores the possibility that some of the live vaccines we already have — ones that have been around for decades to combat diseases like polio — may offer protection against coronavirus, and may be able to buy us time while scientists develop a vaccine specific to the virus (which is the ultimate goal but could take years). As with all efforts to combat coronavirus, this approach is in its early days, but as Ms. Moyer writes,

Initial results from the trials that are underway may be available within a few months. If these researchers are right, these old vaccines could buy us time — and save thousands of lives — while we work to develop a new one.

If we can stay the course, remember what’s at stake, and focus on hope, we can help each other through this. Meanwhile, we need to find our balance — daily, hourly — between caution and courage, risk and reward, freedom and responsibility.

All the more reason to cling to hope.

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