We all react differently to fear. The best reaction is to remain clearheaded, rational, and ready for the object of your fears to wreak its influence. Most of us can reach down into that well and pull some of that courage up if we really need it in a moment of sudden crisis, but keeping it going is a different matter.
I think a lot about what it means to be courageous, and the different forms of courage that exist: physical, psychological, moral, etc. I would love to tell you that I’m clearheaded and rational through all this, keeping calm and carrying on, but I’m often not. I can push down stress and fear, but it usually ends up resurfacing, generally in the form of anger or fatalism.
Neither reaction is uncommon, but the anger can be sudden and even a little scary to me. I read about a 68 year-old couple who took Trump at his word regarding chloroquine as a treatment for COVID-19 and, not knowing that this was hydrochloroquine (for malaria), ate chloroquine phosphate tablets used to clean fish tanks. The husband died. The wife remains in critical condition at a hospital, admitting that she shouldn’t have trusted a president who lies as easily as he breathes.
“Fuck those stupid pieces of shit,” I fumed to a friend. “They should toss his body and her dumb bitch-ass out with the garbage. People who aren’t idiots will need those hospital beds.”
That’s vicious. This was, after all, a scared couple looking to a leader (no matter how deeply unqualified) for a safe way out of all this. People do illogical and dumb things when they’re afraid. Given that we’re all afraid right now (whether we want to admit it or not), and most of us are coping with it in some way that is more emotional than logical (whether we want to admit it or not), I should have some empathy, but I don’t want to and I don’t particularly feel like apologizing for it.
Because that poor, stupid couple became a microcosm for everything that infuriates me about this entire situation–all the ignorance, greed, excuse-making, whataboutism, self-righteousness, and willful blindness of a society that can’t even agree that vaccines are a good thing, evolution is a fact, and recognition of common humanity is more important than scoring political points. I don’t care if that’s a bad look. On a radically, brutally, honest level, that’s why I’m telling you. Revenge may be a dish best served cold, but anger is most savory as a communal feast. Dig the fuck in, kids.
But the fatalism runs deeper, and is equally primal. This past Wednesday, I felt very shaky. I could barely sit up straight, and I felt like I couldn’t pull enough air into my lungs. I felt a slight chill and hints of nausea on top of that. I put on a sweatshirt and lay down on my bed, feeling the room spin. This is it, I thought. This is where it begins.
I’m 37, healthy, and in good shape, so I figured I’d probably survive, but I also began to consider the possibility that this was going to be a fatal case of coronavirus, and in a week I would be dead. I considered all the things I hadn’t done, all the places I’d never been, presuming that I had all the time in the world. I began thinking about the fundamental intertwining of death and life, something American culture has never been comfortable with, my arrogant faith that I would live long enough to do something important. I realized I had no control over the situation, and had tried my best. Could I fight through it? I didn’t know, and all I could do was try to persist.
My memento mori inner monologue had just gotten to the point where I thought it would be neat if somebody in skull facepaint lit ofrenda candles for me next Dia de los Muertos when was interrupted by two realizations: 1) I was transitioning off the keto diet, and 2) anxiety can make you shaky and give you trouble breathing. No fever and no coughing. By God, it looked like I was going to pull through.
I still hope whenever I DO die that somebody will light ofrenda candles for me on Dia de los Muertos. I’m a creature of my interests, after all, even when facing my own mortality.
And perhaps I’m a bit too dramatic for my own good.
People I’ve talked to who have been to prison say that you have a lot of time to really think about yourself, your life, and the choices you made that got you to the present point. Social distancing is hardly prison (I’m guessing even Club Fed won’t let you have Netflix and a Steam account) but I have–we all have–plenty of time to think and reflect.
I’ve got as many flaws as anybody else and probably more, but I think I’m pretty good at extracting positive lessons from bad situations, and for all my anger and fatalism and the fear underneath it, being here, now, in this uncertain time makes me realize that perhaps I prioritize the wrong things.
Like how my reputation as a writer (“the voice of his generation!”) is worthless shit compared to creating stories that people care about. Being a darling of the critics and academics is a brief thing influenced as much by fashion and politics as innate quality. People who write about humanoid rats and gunslinging necromancers don’t generally become voices of their generation anyway.
Or how if I were to catch coronavirus and become one of the mushrooming number of deaths resulting from it around the globe, in my final moments I would regret never having another boxing match and never seeing Tikal or Angkor Wat far more than not being debt-free. When I can finally get out of here (and we must each of us presume when rather than if), I should make it a point to go places I’ve always wanted to see and do things I’ve always wanted to do.
There’s a poem by the Aztec king Fasting Coyote that beautifully and rather hauntingly sums up the sort of thoughts I think many of us are having right now. I can’t remember the exact translation, but it goes something like this:
Even jade will crush. Even gold will melt. Even quetzal plumes will tear. Not forever are we on this earth; for only an instant do we endure.
Use it well.