Scaring People Is Easy

You know, it's easy to frighten people.

I suppose I should be thankful for this: if it weren't for people being frightened, we wouldn't be having this extended lockdown situation. And if we hadn't taken those measures, we would have seen a truly awful and heartbreaking outbreak with lasting consequences.

So yay for fear, I guess? Hooray?


I'm not feeling it anymore. It's been a strange ride, from start to "now", and I'm not feeling the same way about other people's concern as I did a month or two ago.

I was at the front lines of the armchair epidemiologist corps at the beginning of this mess, doing the yeoman work of checking the data each day and drawing the trend line: there it is. Oh boy, we are in trouble. I put together e-mails and sent them out with my assessment of the professional consensus: Cancel your outings and your dinner parties. The situation may well already be worse than you realize.

People were not always receptive. My strongest spiritual friends have a deep preference for reassurance: more will be revealed. False Evidence Appearing Real. Feelings aren't facts. But the consensus built up, the authorities made their announcements, the major meeting places all shut down, and soon enough all of us were in lockdown.

And now here we are. I can't even remember anything other than living at home alone. I booked a couple of nights in a hotel room a mile away just for a change in scenery. It's been a long time since I 've counted the weeks, but not long enough that I know when it will end. And my feelings have changed.

Things I Was And Wasn't Scared Of

A word about fear.

I'd be lying if I said I was never motivated by fear as we were leading into this crisis. I hope I was never motivated by personal fear, though. Maybe that was silly of me, but it never occurred to me to be afraid for myself. (I'm absolutely terrified of death. But that's a topic for another time.)

I was scared, however, for the people I knew. I was scared of the prospect of a horrible death toll, of people I knew falling ill.

It turns out that I am the exception. A lot of people are afraid for themselves! I do not people, as it turns out. People, get them, I don't. I see people who look to me as if they are right at about chess prodigy age, and they're terrified of getting this thing. So I guess it's out there.

Things I'm Starting To Get Scared Of

That's not to say I don't get scared.

One unpleasant fact that scares me is the truth that being isolated at home alone is not good for the soul. This is what motivated my essay "Staying Sane in the Pandemic," which was mostly full of things to do that I think help. (You can find this essay in stores everywhere for $0.99 in the pamphlet aisle. If you find it elsewhere for less than that, stock up on them for a rainy day.)

This scares me. More than anything else, I want to be a useful person among people. I don't want to be an emotional burden on everyone. On anyone. I don't want to be alone. I want all this on my terms.

That's not a great way to live your life, but it's what I do. It's my thing. Maybe one day I'll wake up and things will be different, but for now — here we are.

So I'm starting to get scared of the isolation. And I'm scared for other people, too. There are things that we can do, and I have faith that we will get through to the other side of this whole thing, but the reality is that it's not a good thing and it will leave a mark on all of us.

So if there's anything that we can safely do that will bring some of the spirit of life and conviviality back, by God we should do it!

Going Outside

Which brings me to the topic of going outside. Which, believe or not, was what motivated me to put pen to paper in the first place.

As a lay person, going outside seems like a great idea to me. You get some sun, which is always good for the mood, and the air circulates much better than any place indoors. If there's any foul miasma of viral load in the air you breathe out, it seems obvious to me that it will disperse to a safe level much more rapidly out on Ocean Beach than it would in the recirculated air of Safeway.

But I know a lot of people who are just as terrified of encountering other people at Alamo Square as they are waiting to pick up food inside their local burrito joint. I have a friend who won't even go walking outside — they run on a treadmill inside. All because of the 6 foot distance restriction!

Why do our recommendations for personal distancing inside exactly mirror the recommendations outside? There's no smoking section on the Golden Gate Bridge. You can't so much as light a cigarette on the bridge many days, but if you go up there today you'll see half the cyclists with masks on. Why are people so scared of disease transmission in this environment?

This has consequences. There are good and beneficial activities that people are avoiding because they want to be good citizens and follow these rules. But are the rules right? Is there any evidence that the risk of contagion goes up much at all because a jogger happened to skirt a little more closely to me than I was comfortable with?

Easy To Create, Hard To Destroy

Fear is unfortunately quite robust. Just because there's no evidence doesn't mean that it's not happening. The evidence might be out there lying in wait for all I know. In two months, you might see a contrite posthumous reflection from me about the folly of making pandemic outdoor activity decisions based on the faulty hand-wavey notion that if you don't burn incense at the park, you couldn't possibly catch someone's respiratory life-ender there. "I was doing the best I could with what I knew," my naïvely fatal words would say, "but I'm feeling rather lethargic here at the ER and this pulse oximeter says I'm already dead? Anyway, see you on the other side."

That's what I imagine will happen to all those protestors out there insisting that we open things up now that the curve is flattened. I don't want to be one of them, do I? And I really do think these people are idiots. (Sorry, protestors. I know your feelings are so hurt by that, but there's nothing I can do about my belief system. I'll see you in court.)

Fear of the Medicine, Fear of the Disease

There are good reasons that fears are difficult to smother. We spent a long time not wearing masks, believing it didn't help. And that wasn't true. Maybe the next fear we give up will also be a case of false optimism appearing real, and we'll end up paying for it.

I'm not sure where this essay leaves me. I started writing it because I sincerely believe that a lot of people out there need to lighten up and take some of that good soul medicine that comes from seeing someone, anyone you know live and in the flesh, even if you have to keep six feet away from each other at a public park. Where's the evidence, though? Where is it? For the disease, we could be so certain that what we did at first wasn't working, and that at least what they did in Wuhan was working. And we also know that any unwise loosening of our discipline could just prolong our collective pain that much longer.

I'm stymied. It was a lot easier to get people scared.

postscript: 5/10/2020

Posting this was belated by a week or so due to technical matters. But even a week later, this post looks much different. I'm sure that as the facts evolve it will look even more different down the line.

I think the only thing I want to say as of this addendum writing is that people's reactions to fear vary dramatically. I've seen some who are bolder than the warnings suggest is wise; I've seen others who add on enough caution to avoid toeing the edge of those warnings in the slightest. The experience is something to think about, I guess.