Emotional Reactions to Pandemic Times

by James Wallace Harris, Friday, March 27, 2020

Psychically, our nation, our world, has made an abrupt U-turn. The stock market was soaring, unemployment was at an all-time low, and everyone was running around the planet doing everything they dreamed. We thought we had a handle on the future. Then BAM! Now we’re all huddled in our homes fearing the grim reaper and hoarding ass-wipes. (Of course, this ignores all the other forms of endless suffering so many humans were already combatting.)

We all want to get back to those tomorrows we were planning just a few weeks ago. I imagine the emotional reactions to the pandemic vary greatly, especially by age. I am 68, going to turn 69 this year, and I was already feeling oddly emotional about getting close to my seventies. The growing aches and pains of aging, as well as the deterioration of my various organs and digestive system, was already leading me into gloomy thoughts about the future. Running out of time has become more and more inspirational, but when the plague hit, that emotion went into hyperdrive.

We are experiencing something very new and different. It’s not that humans haven’t been on the brink before, or that we don’t think about it often, but we’re getting to feel it for ourselves in a very intimate way. Last night I watched the first episode of The War of the Worlds on Epix, where billions of humans are wiped out by invading aliens. I’ve read books and seen shows about apocalyptic events countless times in my life, but watching this one last night felt more realistic than ever before. The worse this pandemic gets the harder it will be to vicariously enjoy fictional apocalypses in years to come. The Great Depression and WWII inspired a lot of fluffy fun films in the 1930s and 1940s.

We still don’t know what this plague will bring. It could be over in weeks, months, or years. We don’t know how many lives it will terminate, how it will change the economy, or how it will alter our future daily outlooks. Essentially, it’s fucking with our sense of the future. What I love, and I imagine most of my fellow humans do too, is normalcy. We want orderly lives that we can control and predict. Remember, “May you live in interesting times” is a curse. Sure, there is a percentage of the population that are thrill-seekers, but most of us are not.

I was already stressed out for political reasons. The plague has both trumped Trump and swept away the 2020 election. I realize if I had the psychic energy I would ignore both and get on with my plans. I can pursue all my old ambitions at home while sheltering in place. But the dark clouds of rapidly shifting futures disrupt my thoughts. I assume they do you too.

If I was Yoda I suppose I could separate thinking from my emotions, but I’m not. The fear of being put on a ventilator keeps me from mentally seeing straight. And the fear of Donald Trump being elected a second term still eats away at my sense of wellbeing. If I had Zen Master mind-control I’d phase out these psychic ripples caused Covid-19 and Trump and get on with business. Unlike Trump, I don’t think we should all plan to go out by Easter. On the other hand, until the virus grabs me, I don’t think I should sit around and wait for it either.

The reality is I’ve already got other age-related health problems. Worries about the pandemic just exacerbate them. My health is easily disturbed by disruptions in my diet, exercise, sleep, and thinking. That wasn’t true, or not apparently so when I was younger. All of this leads to the realization that controlling my emotional reactions to the daily news is vital to my health. At 68, staying positive is critical. Fearing the future is just as dangerous as actual viruses. What we want is to act on the now to bring about desired futures, rather than wait in the now for scary futures.

When I was young I used to tell people I never worried about getting old because I didn’t fear wrinkles and going bald. I thought being old was all on the outside. I never imagined the psychic components of aging. What getting old is teaching me is the breakdown of consciousness is scarier than the breakdown of the body. Of course, they go hand-in-hand, but ultimately we need to fight for mind over matter.

What the plague is teaching me is how positive emotions are tied to our planning. And experiencing a plague later in life combines two very similar storms of emotions. I used to think I was like Mr. Spock, all intellect and no emotion. That delusion was possible when I was young, healthy, and society was stable. But looking back, I realize society was seldom stable.

I have a hard time imagining how the young are reacting to the pandemic mentally and emotionally. Do their youth overpower their fears, or do their fears undermine their youth? I am too distant from them psychically to empathize. I assume it’s quite a trip being laid on them.

I live in the American South and all the reports tell us we’re next in line for major pandemic growth. Ignoring that is hard. The older I get the more I envy robots. Being a conscious mind on top of a soup of chemical and biological reactions is a razor’s edge of a tightrope to walk. The idea of just having discrete circuits and powerful fast emotion-free thinking is so damn appealing.

The reality is I’m not a robot, nor am I Yoda, and I’m definitely not a Zen Master, and all the wishing in the world won’t make it so. I also feel sorry for all the people who have faith in prayer or Donald Trump’s reality avoidance systems. Our emotions have a hard time when hard reality canes us viciously about the head and shoulders.





12 thoughts on “Emotional Reactions to Pandemic Times”

  1. Hey, James….
    Ah, my favorite topic: Human nature, intellect v emotions, thought v feelings, reason v passion, logic v intution.
    I.E., you wrote this:
    “I also feel sorry for all the people who have faith in prayer or Donald Trump’s reality avoidance systems.”
    Now simply turn it upside-down and inside-out and someone else would reach this conclusion:
    “I feel sorry for people who don’t have faith in God and this country should be damned glad that Donald Trump is the president during all this mess.”
    So who is actually right, “correct” in their conclusions?
    You mentioned Zen. Oh, I fell in love with Zen back in ’72 when I started training in the martial arts. And you mentioned Yoda.
    Yoda: “Do or do not. There is not try.”
    Zen: “To tack no action is an action.”
    They sound good intellectually but…just so much sophistry when, like now, “it” hits the fan because at the end of the day, the overwhelming preponderance of humans are indeed driven by their passions, their emotions, not what they “think”.
    I.E., sure it is so easy for those “Zen masters” to pontificate with such witty, profound sayings…when you live…in a temple…completely separate from the rest of the world. Go down there and mingle with the masses and then we can talk.
    Hell, forget coronavirus. Ever watch people drive? They’re all “in a hurry”. Why? Where are they going? Well, to work, back home, on vacation, to go shopping, and because I am feeling unusually conciliatory today, they are taking their kids to “this” and “that”. And they all “know”–intellectually–that yeah, sure, they “should” keep a safe distance and “should” obey the speed limits but…”I’m in a hurry! I have to go! Get outta my way!” The moral to the story, of course, is those thousands of people who die every year in what people love to call “accidents”. Oh, what a nice way to say that it wasn’t “intentional”. If they would speak the truth, those “accidents” would be called “preventable crashes”. So “truth”? Bah. Who needs truth when it is oh so much better to word it, to practice it, in such a way that makes people “feel” better about themselves. And those “accidents” are almost always the other guy’s fault. Ain’t that the most amazing thing in world?
    And you mentioned Mr. Spock. Again, the supremacy of logic over emotions.
    Welcome to America.
    You know the history as well as anyone I’ve ever known: From the Dark Age to the Renaissance to Science and Western Culture. Ah yes, Western Culture, all about the supremacy of the intellect over the passions.
    So we have leaders, “authority figures”–scientifice, medical, political, hell, we got “authority figures” crawling out of the woodwork–and each and every single one claims to be speaking the truth…well, the truth as they understand it today and, gee, sorry that that truth contradicts the “truth” I was speaking just yesterday.
    So I am the guy still asking one question:
    Tell me, in precise terms, exactly how life, here in 2020, is any different from life back in those Dark Ages? I.E., those people professed faith in a “God” that can neither be proven nor disproven to anyone’s satisfaction. That’s fine.
    Today, people have “faith” in…now just fill in the blanks. They have “faith” in their “government”…well, as long as it is THEIR guy running the show. They have “faith” in science, well, unless it isn’t preaching what THEY want to hear (best example here is “climate change”).
    So the only (!) difference between way back then and now is…”technological advances”. Hooray. We drive cars instead of pulling carts. (Well, in this regard, “they” were better off “back then” because at the very least “they” were not contributing to “global warming”. So on one hand, in these little discussions, people will sing the praises of the great contributions of science but now, thanks to those damnable details, have to start admitting that, well, “things didn’t go as planned”.)
    But I have been waiting for a someone, anyone, to tell me in what substantial, meaningful way that “human nature” has changed.
    And they can’t because it hasn’t. All still reduces to “man’s inhumanity to man”. I.E., humans continue to rape, pillage, and plunder, continue to have wars, continue all that crime and violence that remains the stuff of recorded human history.
    Only now it is pure Zen: Keep a “safe distance” of 6-feet…because I don’t want to die…from a disease. But if you want to pull a gun and shoot me dead to steal my money? Then please, by all means. Go right ahead because…that is the perfectly acceptable natural order of things.
    So along comes a new virus that could wipe out, could kill, millions and milliongs of people. And people are panicked. And some of those people who are doing all the panicking are the same ones who have been complaining about the earth…being overpopulated. And they get what they want and…now they aren’t happy because…people should not die…from a virus…but being shot and killed in a drive-by shooting, bad as it is, remains perfectly acceptable. So I guess what we really need are simply more murders and more wars to kill more people to cut down on the overpopulation…but please, no viruses?
    So humans have to decide if they want a life of being “happy” or do they want a life of “meaning and purpose” because the two are diametrically opposed. To be “happy” is to live just in the moment, no thought given to the past and no worry about the future. A life of “meaning and purpose,” however, is to stay trapped in the past, trying to explain the present, and always obessing about the future.
    And right now, ain’t nobody “happy”…but most are indeed “afraid”.
    So that emotional side of human nature has once again over-ridden that logical, reasonable side, hasn’t it? I.E., sorry Spock but that damned emotional Captain Kirk is, after all, the Captain and what he says goes.
    For me, “Western Culture” has joined the status of the days when the “Church,” when “religion” was the “normal” way of life. I.E., “Western Culture,” with its worship and faith in reason, logic, and intellect, as well as any and all “authority figures” that are not “God,” should now be called The Dark Ages 2.0 because the human animal is running on nothing more than raw passion, feelings, and emotion.
    But that is the human animal at his finest, isn’t it? He wants what he wants and he wants it now!
    And that is to jump into the rabbit hole of the “politics” involved and now I turn and run away….
    James, as always stay safe and be well and as “almost always,” sorry ’bout the rant. Fingers type what my brain orders ’em to do but that is the same brain torn between writing what I think as opposed to what I feel.

    1. I don’t think people have changed much, if at all, in Homo sapiens 200,000 years of being around. What gives the illusion of change is culture/society because it constantly changes. Just because our culture has allowed us to develop a high tech society doesn’t mean the people using the technology are different. So we’re in agreement here.

      Regarding Trump, I know if I get my wish tens of millions of Americans will be unhappy. And if they get their wish, tens of millions of liberals will be unhappy. It’s a shame we can’t find a compromise that makes both groups content. I’d even be a bit happier if we had a rational Republican.

      I don’t think the emotion/intellect war will ever be settled. Not only do humans as a whole seem to change, but neither do people as individuals. There are exceptions. But for the most part, whatever mixture of emotion/intellect you have to begin with seems to stay that way for your entire life.

  2. Until we have a shot that will immunize us against the coronavirus, things will be dicey. The pandemic will recede, people will start mingling again, and then a Second Wave of the virus will hit us. It may be a year before things get back to Normal, but in the meantime a lot of people are going to get sick…and some will die. Stay safe!

  3. The impact of Covid-19 cannot be underestimated; it’s affecting the entire world. Right now the immediate issue is saving lives. It won’t be over by Easter – that will merely be the beginning. Things won’t settle until there is a vaccine and it’s been distributed to a sufficient percentage of the world population. But after the human cost of the virus will come the economic apocalypse. We’re shutting down a world that has spent the last two generations pivoting on extreme globalisation and forms of wealth that often exist not as fungible outcomes of production, but purely as a shared idea (the ‘market’ values of stocks, etc). The drop in GDP, worldwide, will be catastrophic. It will almost certainly expose the weak points of the extreme ideological edge to which the capitalist system drifted from the late Cold War. Is this likely to be a pivot point? I expect so. Perhaps it won’t be obvious for a while. It might take a generation – during which the world will bump along at the bottom of a very dark path. Who knows? I fear this edifice was waiting to burst: the GFC, 11 years ago, was a clear signal. The virus is merely the trigger.

    1. I use this model to help regulate my fears about things out there in the world

      Levels of fear and Trauma …..level zero : there is a risk out there in the world its global but it is not in your neighborhood….. level one: they’re is risk in your neighborhood, someone has a disease and you’ve heard of it Word of Mouth…… level two: some close friend or Neighbour has the disease and you have to help support them at a distance, delivery food Etc…. level three: someone in your household is sick, you or your spouse ,,maintaining the health you do what you have to with medicine and food ….level four: someone sick enough to go to the hospital…. level five : procedures and protocol are not working on the disease, death is a possibility…. level 6: death is inevitable……Most people freak out on level zero….which is way to early

      1. That’s an excellent approach. Right now the pandemic is a level zero for me because no one in my neighborhood that I know has it. I think what’s happening is we consider people on TV to be in our neighborhood or even in our house. If I count TV people I’m at level four, or even five.

  4. I ran across your sites and name while researching for a science fiction book I read in the 1950s, while in high school. Can’t recall its name or the author, which is why I’m hoping you may point me to it. The plot involves a time when there is no human contact. All communication is done by a wall-size screen in an individual’s house, this in an real-life era when color TV was a rarity and a 21-inch screen was large. While people could go outdoors, it was considered bad form to actually see or talk with another individual. AS I recall, the hero ran across another individual and realized he was in physical contact with someone else. That’s the extent of my recall about the plot. Based on what is happening in the world now, it seems the book is predictive, as much of science fiction is. If anyone can help me with the name of that book, I’d be appreciative.

    1. That sounds like The Naked Sun by Isaac Asimov. Everyone on the planet has agoraphobia and only communicate with wall-sized view screens. Even married couples don’t like to get to close to each other. The plot involves a murder, but the people on the planet can’t believe anyone would go close enough to someone else to murder them. So a detective from Earth and his robot partner come to investigate.

    1. Since I have a touch of agoraphobia, so when I read The Naked Sun I wished I lived on the planet Solaria. I’m actually enjoying Zooming with people during the plague.

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