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.

JWH

 

 

 

What Makes You Cry?

I don’t cry, not the boo-hoo kind of weeping, I’m more of a Mr. Spock when it comes to emotions.  But I do get misty-eyed from time to time, and as I’ve gotten older, those wet eyed moments come more often.  What makes us cry?  And obviously, we all cry for different reasons.  Yesterday my friend Mike sent me a video, “Bittersweet Melodies” by Feist, that choked me up.  If I wore mascara it would have run.  It had gotten to Mike too.  I forwarded the link to some of my friends and to the online book clubs I’m in.  So far I’ve heard from about fifteen women and a handful of men.  Men get choked up.  Women think its nice, clever, but no tears.  I’m waiting for more responses, but so far it’s quite gender specific.

Like I said, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to observe that everyone has different buttons to push to turn on the waterworks.  But of my  small sample, it seems the Feist video worked with men but not women.  So here’s an experiment, watch this video and let me know how you reacted.  Do you think it’s just clever, or does it choke you up?

[The original photographs used in the video can be found here and here.]

Before and after pictures of people getting older is a definite emotional button for me, but understanding why, is harder to explain.  The wistful Feist song does create an emotional mood, but it’s the photographs that poke me in the heart.  Why?  Well a couple of anecdotes might help.

When I was a little fella, I remember this time I had to get a shot.  I was in a full blown bawling meltdown and the doctor and my mom were trying to get me to cooperate and get punctured.  I remember the doctor patiently waiting for me to settle down. 

When I had calmed down a bit he said, “You don’t have to cry.”

I don’t think I said anything, but I was thinking, “Huh?”

He again said, “You don’t have to cry.”  He had gotten my attention.  Then he came closer and whispered, “You can choose not to cry.”

I thought about it for a moment, turned off the faucets in my eyeballs and let him give me the shot.  I was amazed I didn’t have to cry.  I remember consciously choosing not to cry the next time my mother switched me, and when my dad gave me the belt.  I then learned not crying enraged my parents who would switch and belt harder because of my lack of reaction.  Not crying had a kind of empowerment.  I went with it.

Babies cry, I believe, because they have no other outlets for communicating their needs.  I think as adults we cry when we have no other ways to express what we feel.  Most of the time we do, so we don’t cry.

The other anecdote from childhood that is useful for this topic is about separation.  To kinds of separate.  As a kid my family moved around a lot.  A whole lot.  I’d always make a best friend wherever we moved, but ultimately, that friendship would be torn apart, just something beyond my control.  Starting at an early age, looking back and thinking of lost friends always choked me up.  I think that’s why most people cling to the idea of heaven – they can’t bear that they will never see some people again.  That’s why death tears us up, we can’t communicate our feelings of loss and separation.

When I was very little, I woke up in the middle of the night and went out to the living room where my dad was watching all-night movies.  He let me stay up and I watched a film about two kids being separated when one family moved away, then they were reunited during WWII, in the Pacific.  I was too young to understand this, I just felt it.  That film burned into the core of mind, at the bottom of all my memories.  Years later I caught it again, when I was old enough to remember its name, High Barbaree, and the actors, Van Johnson and June Allyson.  Eventually I learned that it was based on a book by the same name, written by Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall, the writers of The Mutiny on the Bounty.  The story was about the last memories of a dying man, but of course, in the Hollywood version, he’s rescued from death.  His dying thoughts were about his childhood and teen years.  I think men feel separated from their young selves, in a way that women don’t.  I know there are no hard and fast gender generalities, but this one sort of works.

The key to my deepest emotional buttons are encrypted in that movie and book.  Events in that story resonate at the core of my being.  And that reveals probably my most powerful emotional button, the desire to return to childhood.  We can return home, to the physical location where we grew up, but we can’t return to the state of mind when we called it home.  I wonder if my lady friends didn’t respond to the Feist video because they don’t have that urge to return to childhood.  Women want to be young again in body, but guys want to be young again in mind.

I’ve read there are two kinds of people, those that would pay anything to relive their adolescence, and those who would pay anything to erase the memories of those same years.

“Bittersweet Melodies” is incredibly wistful to me.  When I really like a person I want to see photos of when they were kids.  I want to know what they did when they were kids, and where they lived.  Sometimes I think our true souls are the ones we had at age twelve.

JWH – 6/17/13