As the Covid-19 virus spikes again and some are hitting the pause button on re-opening, I’ve been wondering how the introverts are doing. I find I’m a subset of their type: an empath who needs a great deal of solitude to calm down from feeling too deeply what goes on in my relationships, my locality, and our world.
When the pandemic began there were proud memes from the introverts who’d hit the jackpot with “shelter in place”–free to be, and not have to mess with all of thee! Others, as in the essay entitled Isolated by the Coronavirus? Welcome to My World detail an everyday existence with poverty and disability “in the clutches of the mental health industry” with a grim approval that others were about to understand how it feels.
As for me, what initial glee when my spring break ended the school year and hence, my job—oh, the things I’d get done and discover! Besides, I have Meniere’s disease, an inner-ear disorder that affects balance and hearing. Crowd noise is jarring, and LOUD noise is painful. Once your average festival-goer, parade-watcher, and sign-carrying demonstrator, over the years I’ve backed away from large venues. I don’t miss them.
But what surprised me is how soon I started to miss people. I don’t mean just my peeps. I mean everybody.
The first sign was a song.
As the pandemic spread and the horrors were reported in large cities, nursing homes and meat-packing plants which I don’t have direct contact with . . . I felt an overwhelming urge to listen to David Bowie sing, “Five Years.”
The song depicts the public hearing the news that “Earth was really dying” and only five years of life remains. Verses cover reactions in the street as everyone learns this, as well as the thoughts and emotions ravaging the singer. In an oddly prescient twist, the singer, confronted with certain death, calls out for his mother as a real man famously did in our times, George Floyd.
In 1972 this was sci-fi glam perhaps, but with a rare sadness that in 2020 I can relate to. Especially these lines that kept playing in my head, where the singer looks around at humanity and feels an inner shift:
And all the fat-skinny people, and all the tall-short people
And all the nobody people, and all the somebody people
I never thought I’d need so many people
I fully accept that not everyone views the pandemic as a tragedy. I’ve spent enough time on Facebook and personally with those whose worries are for their liberties and the economy. If you are one of them, you won’t want to continue reading this. If the next crisis, the one that jolted the globe about police brutality, hasn’t shaken you either, please do read elsewhere. I’m at a loss as to what can soften such persons’ minds and hearts. What new insight can I add about racial injustice that hasn’t already been spilled out with such passion and force that demonstrations yet rage around the world?
So the following is but one story. About how global events, heart-fully considered, jettisoned me past anxiety, tears, but mostly, Fear. Capital F. If anything is new here, it is a singular twist on a confrontation with Fear. I’m going deep.
I live in a mid-size university town, and have for thirty-five years. I came here to go to graduate school and stayed. I have a love-hate relationship with the place, which is in so many ways like a small town. In a conservative area of the country, my town is the progressive oasis. That has a way of both freeing and warping people, which I won’t go into here. But I have been wondering for a year now if perhaps it’s time to move on.
Listening to Bowie’s classic imagining of end-times, I drove downtown, which is normally vibrant all day and into the night. Of course it wasn’t then, and of course that was weird. So weird that I couldn’t go back again until things started to open up. Weird not as in it offended my need for sameness. Weird as in, oh I bet this is hurting so many folks in so many ways, and somehow that hurt me.
I never thought I’d need so many people.
For some reason I kept thinking of how years ago, when I heard updates about my father’s last days, I felt terrible for his struggle with pain and dementia. Sound normal? Not when you’d spent decades identifying the man as the Main Problem in Your Life, spent decades of dollars on therapy centered on What He Did, and kept picking men who let you down in similar ways. I always figured I’d savor his demise and dance on his grave. Didn’t happen! Still hasn’t.
Driving through my town after so many months muttering “I’m done here!” and fantasizing about moving to the mountains, I was surprised by tears of sorrow for the empty streets, and how much I knew it rattled my fellow citizens. It wasn’t that I missed the bars and restaurants I rarely frequented anymore. They were a face on a body though, a body of folks. I thought about the people who scoffed at the numbers of sick and dying as Bowie sang:
I think I saw you in an ice-cream parlor
Drinking milk shakes cold and long
Smiling and waving and looking so fine
Don’t think you knew you were in this song
So what about the conspiracy theorists?! I needed them too, the lovable kooks!
Because when roots go down into a place, it becomes family. And for however long you take them for granted or complain about what they do, if you lose a piece of family, you hurt.
I can’t pretend to explain how energy connects us, though medical doctor Larry Dossey and science-reporter Lynn McTaggart have done extraordinary work showing the non-locality of our thoughts and prayers, their ability to impact the health and well-being of others. The garden-variety empath in me felt the fear and confusion in the ether of those downtown blocks. The engaged-Buddhist in me didn’t look away, and the misanthrope I thought I’d become didn’t hop to indignation about how it served everybody right. I just felt very, strangely bad for others. For us.
If you’ve been told all your life you’re “too sensitive,” I feel for you in these times. “Empathy” gets sticky when a favored human trait morphs into the more questionable embodiment of an “empath”, a person overwhelmed or at least tuned in mightily to emotional currents in human beings, or animals, or landscapes.
Author Judith Orloff has a survival guide for empaths that explains a great deal. On most of the “self-assessments” I checked off everything—yup, that’s me, mmmhmm, me too. When you find yourself pinned down by a UCLA psychiatrist who is an empath herself and specializes her practice for empaths, it’s hard to wiggle out. Curious if you are one too? Take the test here.
I started to wonder how indeed are the world’s empaths coping with Covid and police brutality? I was crying constantly, daily, at the TV news, until I had to limit myself. Where is the line between chronic worry and opening to the sufferings of the world?
Then came the reality of loneliness. I missed work. My daughter was locked down in a group home for disabled adults, my other daughter too busy with school online and intent on social distance. My dog passed a year ago and I’ve not obtained another pet. I hesitated to bother my friends too much with video chat for most of them at least had other people in the home. Two years isn’t long enough to grieve the death of a spouse fully, so all that rose up again. And the cold weather and rain wore on and on.
I’d hungered to be a hermit with carefree hours for so long! It was ecstasy for about a week. As re-entry began, many didn’t trust the virus was a goner. My state has been sensible and slow about re-opening, but the fear is still there. With not much else to do, I decided to talk to Fear.
I started with a concept I’d used in the past: inviting Fear to sit down and tell me what it wanted. In this technique, you trust that Fear has a reasonable angle, an urge to protect you. You find the gold vein that makes sense, and negotiate with Fear to lose the irrational, paralyzing part of its modus operandi.
That. Did. Not. Work.
Not this time. Something more sweeping yet darker was pressing on me. In meditation I took a deep breath and dove down. Here’s what came to the surface. I speak only for myself, but suspect the universality of the following claim:
At root, all Fear of other people is the fear of being killed. (Fear of death itself is a separate matter.) I speak of the fear of having your life ended by another’s hand, or by suicide, which feels like being killed because survivors report a helplessness to stop themselves.
TV, movies, and video games don’t help, I realize this. The pictures that get embedded in our heads are of atrocity. We all buy in or feel the strain to consciously avoid looking.
But what about communities whose daily lives are shaped by this fear of being killed? As a white woman in a modest but safe neighborhood, I have no experience. I can only wonder how a black man can go out and about without fear, how a black woman can craft a life in a sea of circling sharks. They must be warriors toting courage everywhere.
After police shoved a 75-year-old demonstrator to the pavement to bleed unconscious, still in the hospital for his injuries, I’ve incorporated one of our times’ new injunctions: no free pass for uppity elders. That layers an extra level of fear onto this old activist’s heart.
If you live alone you can sink into fear so much you clutch at the thought of leaving the house. Someone might give me the coronavirus, and my immune system is not that great! What if police start shooting, right in front of me!
I could feel this phobia coming on, like a noose tightening. I was watching myself (meditation helps cultivate the observer) over time and that’s when I took the leap and landed at the bottom of it all.
It’s not only that my first memories of my father were of his murderous rage when spanking or slapping his children. It isn’t just that being a woman in patriarchy means constant strategy to avoid violence which can be fatal. Add on the replays of war, racial tension, refugee camps, and all the ways we’re destroying species, green space, and the ocean. That’s quite a load–who wouldn’t want to scream their head off when it can’t be blocked from mind?
But I also knew the bliss of growing up in suburban neighborhoods where we kids played outside from daylight to dusk and parents often sent us out to it, safety no issue. I grew up with ample time spent on a family farm with a super-special cousin my age, plus aunts and uncles and older adults, and a second church I knew as well as my hometown’s. I survived the Sixties with an unsullied memory of what it was like to cleave to a tribe that actually believed we could transform the world.
Fear had harbingers of Hope along for the ride.
Because quantum leaps aren’t rational, I can’t pinpoint the steps out of my bad moments in quarantine. But somehow instead of being totally freaked by contemplating the Fear of all Fears, I felt the most immense peace breaking free inside of me. Because I saw that we all are Fear-full of the same thing: being extinguished by mean people. Yet in reality there aren’t “killers” at every turn who are the Others waiting to slice us down to size, either verbally/emotionally (“soul murder”) or physically in hatred. Most of us are merely slogging along, raw as hell, but doing our best. Seeing that, the conclusion was this: below the crossfire, we all want the same thing.
What if every time we experience a negative reaction from someone else, it triggers an unconscious Fear of being killed? On some level, hasn’t “society” been sliding toward viewing every other person as a potential threat? This sounds a tad paranoid but it isn’t conscious. I would have scoffed if prior to my meditation you’d told me I was that unevolved. But I wonder: how many are goaded to daily anxiety by original traumas of course, but also by an ongoing awareness that one’s nation if not others are “out of control?”
I know what comes next will sound trite, but it blew my mind. I had to go out for errands after this particular meditation and needed a walk. Suddenly I saw everyone, in every car, on every sidewalk, differently. I was no longer wary, comparing, feeling superiority or envy, or even nursing a belief that if I could leave this town I’d be happy. I kept whispering to myself: “we all want the same thing!” And what might that be?
Love that is genuine and peace in neighborly communities. Our first choice isn’t to be competitors or soul-murderers jockeying for positions of safety or advantage. Of course some get addicted to the adrenaline rush of adversity. But scratch that behavior and you find the soft, let-down hurt beneath. Holy moley, I’d given lip service to the theory before, but never been so invaded by its truth and so astounded by its impact.
The ton of anxiety-weight this lifted is gratefully noted. I still cry at the news, though. I still haven’t figured out what to do to aid racial justice. I continue to wear a mask and keep distance. But I finally get one thing: all those people out there are so, so, very tired of strife. Just like me.
This whole episode wasn’t a revelation about belonging; it was an understanding down to my bone-marrow that I never was separate in the first place, that I was the one who pushed away others from fear. There are legitimate things to watch out for; there are legitimate things to fear. But there is no one to fear, not even Donald Trump—a sad little boy gone berserk inside the oval office. Most definitely: keep tabs, resist, vote, and persist. What goes around comes around, and that’s not a vengeful wish. That’s simply a strongly held belief that Good does triumph.
More good things return. Here comes my town, inching toward signs of vibrancy, little by little though it still seems too easy to park on a Saturday night. Here comes my sanity, crafted from quarantine’s gift of self-reflection which is there for the taking. Eventually, it’s possible to come back to who you were all along. A human being and not a human fearing, refurbished with a knack for hope.