“It is a primitive fear, the fear of the unknown, the fear of forces man can neither channel nor comprehend. This fear is not new; in its classical form it is the fear of irrational death. But overnight it has become intensified, magnified. It has burst out of the subconscious into the conscious, filling the mind with primordial apprehensions....Where man can find no answer, he will find fear.”
COUSINS, NORMAN. 1945. Modern man is obsolete. New York: The Viking Press, Inc.
These words may be 75 years old, but they spoke across a century into my four walls.
We’re 10 days into our formal lockdown here in the UK, but I, like many, had begun ‘social distancing’ a week before that, as pubs and trains emptied out (a jarring portent in a city like London).
I have been so busy for so long: three years of juggling a course, a small business, clients and freelance work. My one day off a week was often spent on the sofa trying to regroup.
All that has changed in a few short weeks.
My relationship with myself, my environment, the people in my life, has shifted immeasurably in just a couple of weeks. One day I’m ok – the next angry, then exhausted, then desperately sad.
My packed schedule has reduced down to my flat – which is lovely but, you know, a flat – and the 1-mile radius around it. I’m lucky that most of this is a heath, giving me access to green space which I absorb hungrily in my allotted daily walk.
Overwhelm is my default right now. It violently pulls back the mask of my calm exterior, exposing the fear underneath. My surprising fury at the lady in the supermarket who reached across me to take some mushrooms, in flagrant disregard for any 2m rule. My friend’s sudden bursting into tears in front of her partner when struggling to open a can of beans.
Yesterday I was working at home for most of the day, and reached a point in the early evening where I thought I’d take my walk. The thought then occurred: perhaps if I walked out onto the heath, maybe then I’d understand? Maybe my perspective would change and everything would become comprehensible, instead of this rolling mass of uncontained confusion.
And then of course I took a moment and realised that, no, this sense of dismay isn’t because I’m grounded in the flat. It’s because so much in my life has changed so fast that I can’t begin to grasp it, and because I’m reading headlines and new stories that are mind-boggling. Because the calm of my flat feels so far and yet so scarily close to what I think is going on in my local hospital, a mile down the road.
How hard we have tried to maintain our old lives. Yes, I thought, an online yoga class, that will keep me sane. Online meetings. A whatsapp group where once there were dinners together. A pub quiz, but we’re all online and holding a drink! And yet always this nagging sense that we are hiding, running, desperately suppressing, avoiding, swerving this way and that to escape these feelings: anger, fear, despair.
We are all wrestling with uncertainty on a scale that is quite unimaginable. The most-read article on the Atlantic online is currently: ‘How the Pandemic Will End’. What an appealing title. Boy, please do tell me (It does not. Nobody knows.)
We’re swimming in a sea where we can’t see the bottom, or even the nearest land. Some politicians keep telling us that if we just keep swimming, it will be ok. But do we trust those people?
And how much of all my repressed fear and anxiety is emerging in my random angry outburst at a lady in the supermarket, or floods of tears at an unexpected moment?
I know what I was afraid of even before the pandemic and lockdown came. It was some version of this anger, sorrow, grief - meeting myself.
How much are we all grieving, painfully wading through the mud of lost businesses, hopes, lives? The vast existential anxiety that illness brings to us.
We are mortal, and we are scared.