What's Tony Thinking



(To repeat an earlier prefatory note: I am posting more often during this crisis. I hope it is helpful to you. I don’t know how long I’ll continue at this level or pace. If for you I am over-posting, I trust you will apply the delete button :).)

As noted in yesterday’s post, this is getting hard. Anxiety builds as we self-isolate, examine predictions about the course of the pandemic, witness the President’s self-congratulatory cluelessness and find the possible future of pandemic growing longer and longer.

I came across this article several days ago at Vox on “managing anxiety.” I think it’s pretty good. Here’s a bit from it:

“As an actionable step, try writing down your worries, getting as granular and close to the root cause as possible. As you write, what may have seemed like an overwhelming, murky constellation of problems will suddenly come into focus and be narrowed down to a set of realistic concerns. This will make it easier to problem-solve, eliminate obstacles, and be more accepting of the things you can’t predict or change.”

Anxiety is, of course, part of being human. It is an emotional response to an anticipated future threat. As such, it may be unique to humans. It comes with being able to think beyond the present moment and project ourselves into the future. Which is why we experience anxiety and squirrels don’t.

It’s part of life. But it is also, theologian Reinhold Niebuhr said, “the pre-condition of sin.” It is not a sin to be anxious. It comes with the territory. But when we’re too anxious, when our anxiety takes over, we are more likely to do bad things. Several folks (David Brooks, Jill Lepore) have been going back to study earlier eras of pandemic and plague. What do they find? Panic. People behaving badly, often very badly, because their anxiety got the best of them.

Here’s more from the Vox article:

“For some, the reality of ‘sheltering in place’ is inherently stressful. Whether it’s the idea of crowding into close quarters with roommates or being unable to relieve stress through normal social interaction that’s contributing to your anxiety, Hanson says it’s key to establish solid boundaries for yourself and tune in to what your mind is telling you.

“If you’re holed up with someone who differs from you in their evaluation of the severity of the situation or their level of preparedness, for example, it’s possible to approach the situation with empathy while also standing firm on your own needs. Hanson says it’s helpful to think of yourself as a sturdy tree weathering a storm: The thoughts and feelings of others blow by while you stand open to them but unbowed.”

Jason Isbell, i.m.h.o. one of very best contemporary singer/ songwriters, has a song titled simply “Anxiety.” Here’s the opening lyric:

How do you always get the best of me?
I’m out here living in a fantasy
I can’t enjoy a goddamn thing
Why am I never where I am supposed to be?
Even with my lover sleeping close to me
I’m wide awake and I’m in pain”

I appreciate the raw honesty of Isbell’s song. He knows whereof he speaks.

One of the hard things about this is that I want “to do something.” I want to do something that will take the situation in hand, something that will make a difference. But the paradox, and the bind, is we are to do something by doing nothing. Or at least not much. We are to self-isolate and shelter in place. It doesn’t feel like quite enough, does it?

Of course, there are many suggestions out there for something to do. They range from baking cookies to sending postcards to people in Florida encouraging them to register to vote. I’ve found two things that seem important (not to say that the aforementioned are not). One is staying in touch with people who are alone. This morning I had a long email from such a friend. Physically compromised and limited, the self-isolation has sent him spiraling into depression and suicidal thoughts. Stay in touch with the folks you know that are especially at risk.

The other thing I’ve been able to do is make contributions to not-for-profits I care about. They are every bit as much at risk as for-profit businesses. When I sent a gift to one yesterday the ED emailed immediately to express her thanks, adding that they have enough money to keep going for three months. But that’s it. And usually most of their support comes in at the end of the year.

Some are writing, accurately I think, about this as a time of testing, of moral testing. When we look back on it, how will we evaluate ourselves and our actions? Will anxiety, the pre-condition of sin, have led us there? Or will it have led us into sacrifice and a better humanity?

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