I often think about this age of pandemic and what it has done to us, as individuals and as a society.
I talked to a friend today, who reminded me of our double wiring. On the one hand, we want to be in connection with another; on the other hand, we’re afraid of the other.
We’ve been afraid of others from the beginning; we see them as competitors for food, water, territory, and the opportunity to procreate. We’re most afraid of those who don’t look like us, who have different histories, come from different places, and don’t speak our language.
At the same time, we need to connect, to open the doors wide, let fresh air in, listen to people’s different takes on reality, new stories, new ideas. We need to be with other human beings; we are, more or less, social animals.
The pandemic brought on not just more isolation, but also more insulation. Zoom calls notwithstanding, if I am working at home rather than in the office or in the classroom with other people, it does different things to my brain. It may increase my sense of self-sufficiency: Wow, look at what I can do all by myself! Maybe I don’t need other people as much as I thought. I’m not disturbed as much, I don’t have to listen to stories about someone’s weekend, I’m much more productive.
But the pandemic has also increased that old fear of the other. At the height of covid, each encounter with another human being represented a serious health hazard. People looked at each other up and down: Is he wearing a mask? Does she look sick? Is he coughing? STAY SIX FEET APART! No, that’s not enough—TWELVE, EIGHTEEN!
I remember flying to South Dakota in February 2020 for our annual weekend with Lakota elders to prepare for the summer retreat at the Black Hills. News about the pandemic was filtering in slowly, but official government alarms were still low-key and even reassuring. On the small plane to Rapid City, a woman boarded and sat next to me. Immediately she took out a large package of wipes and wiped down the table, armrests, her seat, and even the window. She barely made eye contact with me, but when she did, she looked at me as if I was the enemy.
It reminds me a little of walking on the streets of Jerusalem when suicide bombings were a regular occurrence and staring at people’s torsos to see whether they might be wearing a suicide belt under their jackets. The fear was palpable, both in me and in others. Your entire system gets affected.
I feel the pandemic reinforced the old paranoia that is part of our evolution, the sense that others represented a threat to my wellbeing even as a deep yearning for connection remained unfulfilled. Our brains are malleable and change with our experience. I wonder whether the brain cells related to vigilance, danger, and threat have increased in number and strength, firing a lot quicker and stronger than the cells related to connection, trust, and empathy.
If that’s the case, how easily do we get afraid? How quickly do we feel victimized and threatened?
And if I work in the cracks of society, as Bernie wanted people to do, if my vow is to care for all beings and especially those who fall through the wide cracks of our social fabric, I am purposely placing myself in the realms of want, loss, and struggle. How do I prevent the brain cells related to fear and victimology from taking over my life? How do all of us, working under the strain of a pandemic and inflammatory media, stop blaming and labeling, stop seeing hate and enmity wherever we turn, and take care of our minds and heart?
The autumn leaves framing the blue arched trestle in front of the house are still gorgeous, but snow arrives tonight. A freezing winter has finally begun here in New England, but I must keep some windows open, if only a crack.
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