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The Contagion of Fear

Updated: Apr 3, 2020

“Did you read it?” “Read what?” I ask. “Everyone saw them. The helicopters that flew over town last night. You heard them, right? They were spreading some mist!” I pause with disbelief. “I didn’t hear them.”

Technology has given us all a platform to serve up our very best or our very worse. With social media, anyone, while wearing pajamas, or driving a car, can become a political commentator or analyzer of current events, or observers of the night time skies. At the very least, we can simply ‘like’ and repost without ever considering the consequences.

So another Facebook thread takes on a life of its own. A story is made to appear as if it is from a legitimate news source. It gets passed around as if it has the weight of actual truth when all it did was lean into our bias or play into our fears. We have become our own newsroom. There’s a headline that looks like something I’d agree with. We rush to read it and then repost it for all our friends to read. They, of course, are busy doing the same thing. Soon, all that is in front of me is echoing back to me. This is what is known as an ‘echo chamber.’ For many, that is what becomes truth. And if by chance, that echo chamber gets filled with fear and anger, the result will simply be passed around like a… a virus.

Stories of a viral mist raining down on us while asleep and that of a man dying from ingesting a fishbowl cleaner to self-medicate his Corona Virus infection, course their way through the veins of our modern social media much the same way a virus would. Actually, the last part, the part about the man who drank the fishbowl cleaner and died because he thought the hydroxychloroquine found in the cleaner was possibly effective against COVID-19, was treated as a legitimate news story by a major news network. Perhaps they saw it as an opportunity to discredit our political leaders who dared hope of the effectiveness of hydroxychloroquine. Some call it disinformation, and some call it lies; it has fewer syllables. And this is how the virus gets transmitted. Soon these stories move into the mainstream and are retold as if true.

My walk to the park yesterday was greeted with signs stapled to poles suggesting millions of us will die. ‘Stay home’ or die the sign screams. It oozed a vial of uncontained fear. An individual with a computer and printer and a ream of paper doing what I’m certain they believe is their civic duty- scaring the dog poop out of people. How dare you and Fido enjoy the park and the sun, and it’s powerful disinfectant properties.

I remember well a failed presidential candidate claiming his political opponents were using fear to effect a change. “They’re playin on our fears,” the man wailed. He later ignited the global warming crowd with a documentary intent on scaring the money out of people using powerful computer-generated images of hurricanes the size of the Atlantic Ocean. He learned well the power of fear to work a crowd into a frenzy. He also learned how well it pays.

Even our local governments appear eager to use the contagion of fear. Having been turned down by the governor to place a ‘shelter in place’ decree for our community, our local health district issued its own mandate. In the media release, they had the cynical gull of including a phone number citizens were encouraged to call if they observed another citizen not complying. As in the gulag days of Russia, it was your neighbor you grew to fear the most. The governor did eventually order a ‘stay home, stay healthy’ aka ‘shelter in place’ order but without a rat-out-your-neighbor phone number.

Viruses and fear have several things in common the most important is that they both need a host. Nearly any warm, vulnerable body will do. With one found, a virus will proceed with precision to replicate and spread as quickly as possible. The fever you have is telling you that a royal battle is engaged.

If allowed, fear too will make you unhealthy. It, too, can cause your blood pressure to climb and give you creepy nightmares. Some break out in hives. Fear also wants to replicate. As a first-cousin to misery, it will look for opportunities to spread in the same way misery does. It loves company.

Interestingly, the best-known antidotes to viruses and fear are similar as well. If infected, your body will have to work to ward off the infection. It, nearly alone, will have to resist the pathogens by producing a whole goblet of antibody bomblets to marshal for war. And in the vast majority of the cases, your body will win. Fighting a virus is best done with a healthy body. Competent healthcare can make you more comfortable, but there is no magic pill. This experience with COVID-19 should motivate those of us who are still able to make healthy choices to do so. Exercise more and watch our weight.

For the most vulnerable, we must protect them from the virus as best we can. Hopefully, valuable lessons are being learned by health agencies everywhere as to how best protect the most vulnerable.

To conquer fear, you’ll have to call in your rational self and resist the urge to be controlled by it. Fear, even tho completely natural as a defense mechanism, is nearly always irrational. Fear usually presents just two options: fight or flight. As with the virus, we must fight. It is our best hope.

For the same reason we attempt to avoid a virus, we should try to avoid those that peddle fear. We should be careful of our intake of social media and the fear it spreads. I’d call it ‘social media distancing.’ And today, we must carefully navigate the information from what were once deemed ‘reliable sources.’ I’d call that ‘media distancing.’

What are some other things we could do rather than succumb to fear? Glad you asked.

Fear loves idle time and it loves it when you think you have no control. It gives it time to think of worse case scenarios and to play games with ‘what-if.’ So if we stay busy, doing more positive things, then we feel like we’re in more control.

Instead of responding to every Facebook notification, why not listen to music on Pandora or any of the many other music sources. I happen to be a religious person and I love listening to inspirational songs. But a good love song can move the soul too.

A good novel can fill your imagination better than any social media post or newscast. Turning the light out after a great read will improve your sleep and that will improve your tomorrow.

If you are stuck at home and choosing between Netflix and an empty pad of lined paper with a pen sitting nearby, try picking up the pen or opening a word processor on your laptop. Start writing that letter to the sibling you had a falling out with. Even if you never send it, you’ll feel better for writing it. Or that memory of your youth you’d like to pass on to a future generation. Or think big; get a start on that novel you know you have in you.

Some say the failure is in our leadership and shame on them if they attempt fear to gain compliance. But the solution is within ourselves. It always has been and always will be. Be safe.

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