My Word: Conquering fear in the time of corona

Caremongering, in; scaremongering, out.

Health Ministry inspectors speak with a woman who is in self quarantine as a precaution against coronavirus spread in Hadera, Israel March 16, 2020 (photo credit: REUTERS/RONEN ZEVULUN)
Health Ministry inspectors speak with a woman who is in self quarantine as a precaution against coronavirus spread in Hadera, Israel March 16, 2020
Coronavirus has put the “panic” in “pandemic.” In less than three months, the disease that most of us had never heard of – or imagined – has wreaked global havoc. There we were minding our own business and, boom, suddenly we’ve been tripped up.
Perhaps the hardest part of the Covid-19 outbreak is how it makes us feel vulnerable and insecure – and not just healthwise.
The financial repercussions of the disease and the measures taken to prevent its spread are already turning from a ripple to a tidal wave. There is hardly a household in the world that hasn’t been affected already by the economic measures. It’s no longer a question of whether we are heading for a recession as how bad and how long the recession will be.
It is clear that the economy – and our entire way of life – need to be reset. The universal GPS is recalculating. Gradually, we are learning ways to cope. This is the global village at its best and worst.
Thanks to video footage, after the scenes of the inexplicable run on toilet paper worldwide, we were exposed to the sight of monkeys in Thailand resorting to a form of gang wars over a solitary banana after years of being well fed by the crowds of tourists who just disappeared one corona-struck day. The struggle for toilet paper was pathetic in the pitiful sense of the word; the fight for survival of the starv ing monkeys was pathetic as in truly sad.
ho knows when tourists will return, anywhere, in significant numbers? Still, if we can’t physically travel, we can virtually go places and feel good. Many museums are offering online tours, including the Tower of David, which is launching “a transcendent stereoscopic 360 degrees Virtual Reality Documentary” of Jerusalem’s Old City. “This is a story about Jerusalem. About adaptation. About creativity.
And about ‘the age of VR’ in the time of crisis and social distancing,” says publicist Caroline Shapiro.
The Met is offering free streams to opera fans (although they seem to be so popular that they are hardly accessible due to the heavy demand.) Those unable to see the Met’s opera singers might have to settle for the talented amateurs in Italy. The sight of Italians singing on balconies has gone viral – in the positive sense of the word. And it’s almost as catchy as corona.
Just a few blocks down the road to my very humble apartment building, neighbors stepped out onto their newly built balconies to offer a cheering rendition of “Bashana Haba’ah” – the classic song by Ehud Manor promising that this time “next year you’ll see how good it will be.”
Others have used social media to organize a nationwide round of applause for doctors, nurses and the other medical staff risking their lives. Clapping hands from our windows and balconies is the least we can do.
In “the good old days” – last week – before the ban on gatherings was imposed and 10 people could still meet up, brides and grooms were cheered from balconies as their nuptials took place in streets and courtyards. The joyous sight of well-wishers dancing precariously on the porches and rooftops at Jerusalem’s Merkaz Harav Yeshiva was also seen around the world.
Among the new words I have learned in this not-so brave new world are “Zoom” with a capital “Z” – a video-conferencing system which is allowing businesses, universities and schools to keep going from a safe distance. But my favorite new word by far is “caremongering.” It was coined by Canadians as a label for altruistic groups set up on Facebook and other social media platforms to help people during the corona-era.
The first group was established by Mita Hans with the help of Valentina Harper and others. In an interview with the BBC, Harper explained the meaning behind the name. “Scaremongering is a big problem. We wanted to switch that around and get people to connect on a positive level, to connect with each other.
“It’s spread the opposite of panic in people, brought out community and camara- derie, and allowed us to tackle the needs of those who are at-risk all the time – now more than ever.”
A Jerusalemite friend, who was coincidentally brought up in Canada, is helping reduce panic in her own way. Margo Helman, a clinical social worker and therapist, is giving free webinars as well as reasonably priced online workshops and therapy by video session, which she says are particularly helpful to those who suddenly find themselves having to stay home.
Her tips for lessening anxiety include realizing how anxiety takes charge of our emotions; simple approaches to feeling better quickly; and what to do in those situations where anxiety is most persistent.
“When we learn to cope well with anxiety it improves every aspect of our lives,” she says. “One of the most important things is to recognize that anxiety is a liar.
"Anxiety tells us that if we don’t pay attention to it everything will fall apart. This is just not true. In fact we have the most anxiety about things that we really can’t do much about, at least not right now. Instead of letting anxiety take all your attention, look up. Notice something around you that you enjoy looking at. Remind yourself that anxiety is not the only thing in your world right now.”
Helman’s advice reminded me of a book I reviewed several years ago by Harold S. Kushner. Kushner, a Conservative rabbi, is perhaps best known as the author of When Bad Things Happen to Good People, written after he lost his son.
His 12th book is titled Conquering Fear: Living Boldly in an Uncertain World. Instead of being called “Conquering Fear,” it could have been called “Living with Fear.” The book is not so much about ascending fear as learning how to live despite of it. Although the first chapter is headed “The Eleventh Commandment: Don’t be Afraid,” Kushner recognizes that everyone is scared of something – and often with good reason. Fear, after all, is an essential part of the fight or flight safety mechanism.
He doesn’t provide trite answers for these trying times, but offers more of a “whatever works for you” philosophy, be it prayer, learning about what scares us, or finding a support system.
While the ban on gatherings has reduced the traditional ways of meeting for prayers and finding support systems, social media can help – and so can a good, old-fashioned phone call. Or a shout out – out of the window.
Above all, Kushner advocates that we take control of our own lives. It’s not easy, but doable.
In a chapter on natural disasters, relevant to the current pandemic, Kushner differentiates between God and Nature: “God is moral; Nature is not. Nature is blind, uncaring, incapable of distinguishing between good people and bad ones.” One way of tackling fears, he suggests, is taking action in your own personal environment.
Caremongering, in; scaremongering, out.
The main principle I took away from the book, is the philosophy of psychiatrist Victor Frankl, developed during his years in Auschwitz: You cannot control what happens to you, but you can always control how you respond to it.
We don’t know when this will end, but it will. In the meantime, it’s better to feel humbled rather than helpless. As Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav, so quotably said in these words that often ring out in song: “The whole world is a narrow bridge – and the main thing is not to be afraid at all.”
Let’s make conquering fear in the time of corona our crowning achievement.