I want to suggest something to anyone feeling anxious or sad or angry about the COVID 19 pandemic: Let it hurt.
“I want people to know that this is bad,” says Dr. Colleen Smith, an emergency room doctor at Elmhurst Hospital in New York City, in a video she made for The New York Times.
“People are dying,” Smith says, nearly in tears. “We don’t have the tools that we need in the emergency department and in the hospital to take care of them and it’s really hard.”
Smith’s video is essential to watch, whether you already feel shitty about the pandemic or especially if you’ve been trying to avoid pandemic news and imagery. The late Carl Sagan once said, “knowledge is preferable to ignorance. Better by far to embrace the hard truth than a reassuring fable.” And Smith’s video is full of hard truths.
Smith entertains no fantasy of the problem of this virus going away. After watching the video, we now have no ability to say that COVID 19 isn’t affecting anyone we know, as the video gives us a window into Smith’s life—we now know at least one person on the frontlines in the battle against this virus, a kind, thoughtful doctor who simply wants to be given a chance at treating her patients.
We no longer have the ability to say that the virus isn’t serious—here’s an emergency room doctor in America’s biggest, richest city telling us that they have to beg for ventilators, a key piece of equipment in the battle for life against COVID 19. And we’re given no ability to run from the imagery, as we see doctors and nurses looking stressed and rushed as a voiceover from Smith is telling you that, yes, they are stressed and rushed and short on equipment and worried what will happen to their patients if this pandemic gets worse.
The main lesson from Smith’s video: We are not prepared for the COVID 19 pandemic. That’s something for us as Americans and citizens of the world to understand intellectually, but it’s something we must also viscerally feel. Emotionally, we all must feel the painful fact that we were not prepared for what may be the worst event in our country’s history.
Our country’s leaders seem to not understand the gravity of this issue emotionally or intellectually. Smith sees the result of their lack of comprehension. “If this goes on for a month or two or three or five like it did in China and we’re already this strained, we don’t have what we need,” she said, noting that this video was taken in the beginning phases of the pandemic.
Take an emotional snapshot of how you feel right now. Are you angry? I am. I fucking hate that our government and president seemed to think that this virus was nothing to be worried about even as intelligence briefings informed them in January that we must prepare for the worst. A CDC drill from 2019 showed that our response to a pandemic would be poor—“widespread confusion” among federal agencies was the word from this drill—and our government didn’t seem to do a thing to change this lack of preparation. This is the same government that disbanded its pandemic team two years ago, moving some team members elsewhere and keeping some aspects of pandemic response, but all the same losing the pandemic team. I believe that they should answer for why they made these moves instead of dismissing questions as they’ve done. President Donald Trump—a man who once wrote that in leadership, “Whatever happens, you’re responsible. If it doesn’t happen, you’re responsible”—answered a question about why he disbanded the pandemic response team by saying that someone else must have let them go, it wasn’t his decision and must have been someone else’s decision in the administration. Trump, as always, passes the buck more than a Sunday congregation. If I believed that he could actually feel shame, I’d say that he should be ashamed.
Are you sad? I am. I spend a fair amount of my time thinking about how many people have already died and how many will die in the coming weeks. How many people who had a life fully planned out—even if that life was simply the last few remaining years—will die because our country was unprepared for this pandemic? What if we had better communication to U.S. citizens, communication like Taiwan had to their citizens early in the life of the virus? What if we acted sooner, locking down earlier? What if someone I love dies? What if I die?
And those questions lead into anxiety. Are you anxious? I am. I don’t know a person right now who isn’t anxious at the moment—I’ve meditated daily for 1,234 straight days and the anxiety, as Smith says in her video, is overwhelming. My hands shook after I watched her video. My stomach does summersaults when I open Facebook and see that the death toll in the U.S. has risen again. When I notice myself tumbling toward a panic or anxiety attack, I have to slow down and feel the sensations in my stomach and chest and neck. I focus on those sensations to get away from all of the terrible storytelling they’re helping to create in my head—that’s where those anxious stories come from. You feel the tingle of real danger somewhere in your body and convince yourself that yes, I am in real danger. Then, your brain snatches up that signal and creates some of the most dreadful worst-case scenarios it can imagine. By feeling your body—the stress, the tightness, the nervous energy, the jostling legs, the shakiness, the tingling—while also noticing that you’re likely safe at the moment, you become aware that your thoughts are being driven by your impulses.
Try it now: Watch where your next thought comes from and feel how that thought makes you feel. If it’s a content thought, do you feel content? If it’s an anxious thought, do you feel yourself tighten? Run through this multiple times in a row and you’re meditating. Even if you’re sick or are in danger, you can find a sense of calm by feeling the sensations as they are, denuded of anxious story. You aren’t lying to yourself, you’re simply feeling the life rush through your body. You’re alive now. Always remember that you’re alive so long as you can remember that you’re alive.
None of these are pleasant feelings. Some hurt, some burn, some feel like a 50-pound blanket being tossed over your head. But they are righteous feelings, earned through hard times. I don’t believe that you should seek to avoid these feelings all day, as tempting as that may be. To escape through booze, drugs, food, video games, endless entertainment is fine some of the time—everyone needs a break. But to give no room for the anger, the sadness, the anxiety to show themselves is to give these feelings power. When ignored, these emotions fuel themselves, which fuels the dire thoughts that follow them around, running awful scenarios in your subconscious without you ever realizing.
Sometimes, you must shake hands with who you really are and what you really feel, even if just for 10 or 20 minutes a day. That means feeling the sickness of these feelings, the sweaty palms, the nausea, the gigantic stone in your belly.
I’m not arguing for meditation here, but fuel for righteousness. I believe that we should all now be angry, anxious, and sad to varying degrees. To be distracted from these feelings is to ignore that you’re living in one of history’s most important moments, a moment those in leadership positions made worse. We’ve been let down by our country, which means that we’ve let ourselves down. To deny this is true would be an incredible feat of mental and emotional gymnastics.
These feelings, when examined, should lead us to ask important questions of ourselves: Who are we putting in control of our tax money? Our lives? How do they expect us to trust them again? What can we do to prevent another pandemic from closing down the world for weeks and killing our loved ones? What can I do to keep myself and people I love safe now?
Watch Smith’s video. Read reliable sources. Stay away from the public until the experts give us a solution. And never ignore what you feel amid this mess.
PS… It’s OK to feel positive emotions, too. In fact, positive emotions are now essential to feel. I’m not arguing for misery in this post, but rather being honest with yourself. My goal this pandemic has been to feel as many of my feelings as possible, to precisely feel discomfort, to realize that I can feel as many awful feelings as possible and still be OK. But I’ve also laughed amid this pandemic more than most anyone I know—I’ve probably laughed more now than I do amid normal times. I seek out humor, but I also believe that feeling the awful emotions lifts a weight. I believe that if you can acknowledge that yes, I am sad, I am angry, I am anxious, then you’ll be more easily able to feel joy, contentment, excitement, and pleasure. You shouldn’t ignore positive emotions either.
My suggestion: Whenever you’re done allowing yourself to feel negative emotions, follow it by listing in your head or on paper 10 things that you’re grateful for in life.
Here’s my example list after writing this post. I’m grateful for:
- I have good friends and family whom I can talk to over video chat and feel connected to people.
- I have shelter and heat, which has kept me dry and healthy.
- I don’t have COVID 19!
- I can afford to buy food from businesses I love, which hopefully helps them through a tough spot.
- I’m pretty fucking fun to hang out with when I’m alone. I’m good company for myself. My extraverted side keeps my introverted side company.
- Windows have never looked better. What a great invention those were by the Romans.
- I have so many goddamn books that I can never be bored. Books rule. And a bonus: I’m a writer. There’s never been a better time to be a writer than right now. That’s probably true for me every day. Every day is a story and you’re the writer. That’s so damn freeing to realize.
- Online classes are amazing and save my sanity amid this bullshit. I’ve taken classes on negotiation, poker, writing, and mindfulness. I’ll keep taking more, so long as this gift of unhurried time remains open.
- Cannabis feels good to take a break from how hard reality is sometimes. It also allows me to feel everything a bit more vividly and quickly, if I want to use it that way. It’s a great tool that’s finally legal after years of scare tactics from the government.
- I love Chicago. Even though I can’t enjoy it fully right now, I’m glad that I live here. I’ve said hello to so many people on walks and most everyone has been obviously anxious, but also obviously a sweet human. This is my favorite city and I’m happy to be here, even in hard times.
After feeling so much hard shit, it’s good to be reminded that you have a lot of good things in life. We all do. Life fucking rips.