How long can we live alongside fear? In a little while, we’ll have been living with the pandemic for two years. Our brains will choose to keep some of the assets we’ve gained over the long term, rather than staying in uncertainty. It’s probably already happening, even though people aren’t really talking about it.
The other day I was in Rome, in the bright and beautiful Piazza del Popolo. My mother came to meet me, all masked up. She’s vaccinated, I’m vaccinated. The other people in the square were at least 10 metres away from us. “I don’t even notice it anymore”, she said, “it helps me to feel safer”. The mask helps her to feel safer, because she’s scared. She’s scared of falling ill, of dying. We don’t feel this way every time we cross the road, or feel scared of catching lots of other illnesses that could even be deadlier than Covid. Sooner or later, we all get ill and we all die. But we don’t live with this constant awareness, because to do so would make living too painful. The fear of death would become a fear of living.
We have a choice. If we want, we can stay frozen in time, feeling scared. Lots of people are feeling like that right now, thinking that sooner or later Covid will disappear and take our anxieties away with it. But that just won’t be the case. There are lots of different possible scenarios here, and none of them include Covid disappearing from the scene. It’s more likely that it becomes an epidemic, just like the common flu. The flu that kills a small percentage of those who catch it. Just like we’re already seeing, cases can remain high, but the percentage of seriously ill people and deaths is falling.
“Coronavirus isn’t something that we can avoid forever”, says Sarah Zhang on L’Atlantic, “We need to prepare ourselves for the idea that we might all be exposed to it, in one way or another. Coronavirus will stop being something newsworthy: for our immune system and for society”.
We’re still hearing about our immune system every day and we’re working hard on our own defences. But it seems like we’re waiting for society to “follow” without needing support. The people who still feel scared around us are showing us that it’s not the case yet. People that are scared live in a constant state of stress. It’s subtle, but constant, and can become chronic. They make more conservative choices and seek out other people less. If possible, they close themselves away. They are quicker to become defensive, less likely to help others and struggle with empathy.
Fear isolates us and leads us to think only of ourselves. Living in a state of danger brings our survival instinct to the foreground, and it’s not a generous instinct. Wearing masks outdoors, on a beautiful sunny day, is a right. But it means you’ll compromise your breathing, breathing in stale air that doesn’t comfort us. It means that hiding your face away from the world is normal, as if your face has nothing to say. As if your face didn’t need to be seen and recognized, while connection and feeling welcome are foundational elements in our wellbeing. They are key to our survival. They might seem less important now, but over the long term (and genetically, not just socially) they make our lives worth living.
When my mother told me that she kept her mask on because she was scared, my instinctive response was “we will all die somehow”. It’s a brutal phrase, I know. But I intended it as an invite to live. Over the past couple of years, we’ve chosen to forgo lots of important things to slow down the pandemic. We took working remotely for granted, thinking it was okay not to reach out to each other, not to travel, not to leave our homes. Some people have encouraged the idea that we’ve still been able to carry on with all the necessary things. But the truth it, we’ve done everything worse and we’ve lost a lot of energy along the way. Not just “less life”, but we think less and worse, we’re less creative, we feel less loved and we have less opportunities to love. We’ve made some big sacrifices. It’s important to know (or at least hope) that we can change those patterns when Coronavirus is still amongst us.
There’s another type of infection that’s sweeping across the world right now. It could even last longer than the peak of a pandemic. I’m talking about fear and new habits, the ones that keep us far away from others, that take something away from our everyday lives. We really need a vaccine for this type of illness, that’s infecting lots of people. A vaccine of trust and staying close to other people, a narrative that contextualizes this phase of human history in part of a bigger story. We need generous helpings of courage, openness, deep breaths in the open air that allow us to be ‘seen’ again and see other people. We need to be able to reach out to others and let ourselves be reached.
Maybe physical touch could help virus transmission, even if I’m vaccinated. But mom, you need my hugs to remind you that you’re loved.
This article was originally written by Riccarda Zezza and published on the Il Sole 24 Ore blog, Alley Oop. To read the original article (in Italian), please click here.