Many years ago, I came across Frank Herbert’s amazing ‘Dune’ series. I’ve read it a number of times since then, and I’m looking forward to the new movie which, if the trailer is anything to go by, will finally do the books justice. It’s a great adventure, with an environmental message that has resonated more as the years have gone by. One of the quotes that stayed with me is ‘Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little death’.
We have all been living with different levels of fear for seven months. “Are you scared?” asked the radio host to a woman calling in to the show last week. GPs and radio shows are being swamped with people who are scared. We’ve been brave, but being brave does not take away the fear. It is still walking alongside us.
Fear has many different effects. Fight, or flight. Run, or hide. Stay home, stay safe. Eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we die. They are all understandable. It’s been months. Sometimes it feels like years. Not one of us has been spared, and some of us have had more than their share of fear to contend with.
Staying safe within my family is pretty straightforward. We don’t have to take risks to go to work. There are no school age children in the house. It is easy for me to keep my contacts low. However, I still feel an overriding sense of dread. In fact, there are layers of dread. In the short term, there is dread of the second wave, of another lockdown. In the medium term, there is dread of the US elections and Brexit. Long term is the dread of climate change and the immigration crisis. The dread is, of course, fuelled by my addiction to news.
I know that I should give myself some respite from the news, that I should give it break. After all, nothing will change in my much life if I don’t know exactly how many people are in ICU today, or what the figures in Spain are like, or what new level of surrealism the US has descended to. Dread and fear means being hyper-vigilant. The need to know what is going on- even if there is nothing you can do about it – is exhausting. I envy those people who tell me that they never watch the news. Personally, I can’t do it.
Unfortunately, we have more than just fear to contend with. Sadness is also colouring our days. We are all dealing with loss. Of jobs and income. Of gigs, and travel. Of friends and family. And for some of us, of those who have died. “I miss elephants,” says Michael Sheen in the series ‘Staged’. That brought a tear to my eye. I miss elephants too; though coming across one in West Cork would be a rare sight indeed. It’s the idea of elephants. The possibility of seeing an elephant. Elephants as a metaphor for loss.
Compounding the fear and sadness is perhaps the most difficult emotion: Anger. It is a combustible mix. Overall Ireland has done a good job of balancing these conflicting emotions. In the first lockdown we faced our fears and we worked together to fight it, despite the hassle of police checks and geographical restrictions. Each restriction lifted felt like progress. Then before we got to the end of the journey, it looks like we are starting over again. This has made people angry.
The mix of fear, sadness and anger has made some people grab at any straw that can comfort them. In normal times (remember those?) I find conspiracy theories amusing. However, these days don’t find them funny at all. In fact, I find them dangerous. Just look at the US…
Conspiracy language has slowly dripped into our conversations, like a slow poison. References to ‘they’ and ‘them’ are red flags. Keep a watch out if you find yourself using vague terms that divide the world into Us and Them. It can be easy to slip into it. Using this type of language in difficult times helps dampen the fear, and sadness. It gives our anger an outlet to vent. But beware. The short- term relief can easily morph into even higher levels of anxiety if you start seeing things only in black and white, mask wearers, and not mask wearers, young and old, rich and poor, science and intuition.
The next few months will be challenging. The pandemic has lost its novelty. The only way we will get through it is to stay safe, and stay sane, by being kind to each other, by facing the conflicting emotions without losing the run of ourselves, and by asking for help when things get overwhelming, knowing that friends and neighbours are there for us.
When I checked on the Dune quote for this column, Google gave me the bits I hadn’t remembered:
‘I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.”
Stay Safe. Stay sane. We’ll get through this together.