In the war between fear and complacency over the pandemic, Anna Rawhiti-Connell tries to find a middle ground
I started this year by telling a lie. Over and over again.
‘Any New Year’s resolutions?’ a lot of people asked. ‘No, none. Nada. Nothing.’ I replied.
I usually lie about New Year’s resolutions because I genuinely have none. I lied about them this year because the one I do have feels enormous, intangible and almost quasi-spiritual, and I’m afraid people will laugh. In this, the second year of a pandemic, I have resolved to feel calm.
By the end of last year I had self-diagnosed myself with anxiety, depression, anxiety and depression, premenstrual dysmorphic disorder (PMDD), a calcium deficiency that was exacerbating PMS (hence the PMDD self-diagnosis) and a sympathetic nervous system disorder. While depression is a familiar beast and it possibly did rear its head for a bit, the rest were sought out as explanations for why I was so irritated by my husband’s breathing. These fruitful Google searches were done at 4am after compulsively flipping between Twitter, the New York Times and the Guardian. I could also tell you how many cases of Covid-19 there were in Gila County, Arizona and cite several academic papers about the Covid response in South East Asia.
I can write glibly about it now but at the time I was miserable. I could not calm my mind. I woke up every morning with a sense of dread that felt so weighty on my chest, I couldn’t stop thinking about Giles Corey in The Crucible who was pressed to death.
I didn’t grant New Year’s Day any kind of redemptive power this year. The pandemic wasn’t going away and my long list of worries wasn’t going to magically shrink. But, perhaps having sunk pretty low, I woke up on New Year’s Day feeling a little bit better. With no resolutions made, I found a sudden resolve. At the very least, this year had to be different.
One of the big things I realised was that I needed to get a grip on how I, as an individual, was responding to the pandemic. Like you, I was driven to act collectively. Like jelly on a plate, we all lurched as a team, wobbling in the same direction. Acting in the best interests of the collective and depending on the collective experiences of watching the 1pm briefings to feel less alone and less afraid. The appeal to the team of five million was very effective. The efficacy of our socially cohesive approach has been noted. We were responding to a visible threat and collective action can be a great way of feeling like you’re managing fear.
The problem for me is that I was also surrendering to it. In the early days of the pandemic, lying in the dark, I’d pick up my phone each morning hoping to vanquish the fear and the dread. Hoping that while we’d slept, someone had solved everything. As the days turned into weeks, that hope was replaced by despair and automatous doom scrolling.
Change did eventually arrive overnight as we dropped down alert levels. It seemed we’d beaten the virus and I gladly eased myself into a warm bath of complacency. Complacency has always had negative connotations, associated with feeling smug or even lazy, and recently it’s come to represent a catch-all for the very worst and most selfish behaviour we could possibly exhibit right now. But, as clinical psychologist, Dr Sarb Johal outlines in his recent piece for Newsroom complacency is a feeling of quiet pleasure or security, often while unaware of some potential danger, defect, or the like.
Last year felt as if there were only two states to be in, both individually and as a country. It was either fear, which motivated the necessary mass compliance required to pull off dramatic action, or, despite many warnings and pleas, complacency. I’d argue that complacency was probably inevitable. That it was probably natural for us to collectively grab hold of something resembling security.
Jumping between those two left very little room for learning to live with the virus, a phrase that got annoyingly distorted by the people who thought we should just let the virus in and see what happened. People die anyway, right? What learning to live with the virus should mean is acceptance that for now, the threat is ever-present. That the world has, and will continue to change as a result of the pandemic. That our own lives have changed and our behaviour has to as well. For me that feels less like something motivated by fear and a reliance on big collective set pieces, or hope that someone else will sort things out, and more like something I need to be personally responsible for.
My resolution to feel calm is largely a bid to find the middle ground, a state that I missed last year. I’d humbly suggest that we, as a collective, may have also missed it. Not because we’re selfish assholes who don’t care about each other but because adaptation and acceptance are hard. After living in a state of fear, which has a limited shelf life as a motivator for behavioural change, a desire for security and normalcy seems like a pretty human response.
Like so many people, I got a bit slack on using the Covid tracer app late last year. My sense is that, as we gladly watched what we thought was the threat receding, the fuel of fear that powered the national response seemed to evaporate. We were left without any intrinsic motivation to replace the extrinsic motivations that logically and necessarily worked so well.
I’m using the app again, religiously. Not for Saint Ashley – may the Lord continue to bless and protect him – and not because it brought the unfashionable QR code back from the dead in Lazarene fashion.
I use the app because it’s easy.
It’s easy to use. It’s easy to understand why I need to use it in line with my own quest for calm this year. It’s the middle ground, it’s acceptance and it’s a small action that makes me feel less susceptible to involuntarily lurching between hope and despair. It’s easy to connect my natural desire for security and normalcy, to one individual action I can take with full responsibility and little effort that can help me, and everyone to truly, constructively live with the threat of the virus. I have found my intrinsic motivator.
It’s replacing complacency with calm.