Six responses to a weird concept
People say “you can’t live in fear” re: COVID-19.
Um, actually, you can.
Whether the topic is mask-wearing, limiting indoor interactions, choosing to only socialize outside or virtually, having boundaries around a pod or household, practicing better hand-washing, or other coronavirus precautions, there’s always someone saying, “You can’t live in fear! You’re going to die one day anyway!”
This line of thinking contains logical fallacies from multiple angles. Is fear even the driving factor? If so, is fear inherently invalid? What’s a driving factor besides fear? Why are temporary precautions seen as bad sacrifices, but long-term organ damage and death seen as perfectly reasonable sacrifices?
The accusation of “living in fear” as a trump card to both invalidate the cautious and to validate the selfishly reckless, is a loaded concept worth examining. The following responses highlight different considerations that I have had or that I’ve observed others having:
1. Fear is a survival instinct
Fear is a survival instinct. It’s a natural thing to not want to suffer, die, or inflict harm on others. Those instincts shouldn’t be shamed. Particularly to those of us who have had a loved one die from COVID-19, it comes across as a bit tactless to scoff at our precautions in a tone reminiscent of schoolyard “What, are you chicken?”
In modern American society, fear and vulnerability are viewed as embarrassing. Ironically, when people have a knee-jerk reaction to oppose any precautions that they think signal fear, this may be a defense mechanism against appearing fearful or vulnerable (aka embarrassing) themselves. Good news to all: fear and vulnerability serve important functions, and it’s legal to stop labeling them as embarrassing. Brené Brown said so.
2. It’s not fear, it’s ethics
For some people the root of their pandemic choices isn’t fear, it’s an ethical stance of caring. The virus can only be passed from human to human, so it’s a choice to break that chain, which would otherwise connect the virus to a number of people who could suffer. For some, it’s a fierce loyalty towards an immunocompromised loved one. For others, it’s a broader community-mindedness, an understanding that even if you aren’t personally worried about your own health, the chain of connection you choose to be for the virus could result in someone down the line being hospitalized, overburdening healthcare workers, or dying early.
The virus can only be passed from human to human, so it’s a choice to break that chain, which would otherwise connect the virus to a number of people who could suffer.
3. It’s like wearing a seatbelt
Most of us don’t quiver in fear as we wash our hands after pooping, or feel oppressed as we put on a seatbelt. We’ve learned that these small acts can mitigate risk, so we do them not out of fear, but out of common sense and to improve life quality and quantity.
Here’s the thing — I don’t calculate the chances of getting E.coli each time I am faced with the decision of whether to wash my hands after pooping. I just wash them. When putting on a seatbelt, I don’t think “we’re all going to die in some way, so why bother?” I also don’t fixate on the logical fallacy that “people die in car accidents even with seatbelts sometimes!” I just know it reduces risk, and put it on.
With masks in particular, Roz Warren explains how “People Who Refuse to Wear Masks in Public Are Like Men Who Refuse to Wear Condoms in Bed.”
4. This isn’t like other daily risks
Yes, we “will all die one day.” Wow, what a point! Excuse me while I go play in traffic.
It’s a fallacy to think that we should incorporate taking on COVID risks the same way we take on regular risks. Yes, on a daily basis we all calculate risks of crossing the street, eating medium-rare meat, etc. But this is different: This is more communal — our mere breathing indoors is a potential threat to others, even if we’re immune. This is huge — bigger than hospitals and morgues are equipped for. And, this is temporary — there’s an end in sight if we just stay vigilant a bit longer.
It helps me to step back and realize that the way our brains perceive risk isn’t always an accurate reflection of reality. The brain’s comprehension of risk can be wonky, seeing news like “SARS-CoV-2 . . . declined or remained stable during the week” or “Arizona hospital beds 93% full,” but inadvertently digesting risk level as 0% or 100%, at least emotionally. This can translate into a false sense of security or false sense of hopelessness. We might not be able to change how our brains perceive numbers, but we can have the self-awareness to question our brains, seek expert advice, and if we are susceptible to err, then to err in the direction that causes less unnecessary harm.
5. “Unafraid” is an emotion, not a risk assessment
People who throw around the “you're just afraid” logic fail to realize that they themselves are emotion-driven (e.g., “I feel unafraid, I trust you to not have the virus, I feel safe”). The fallacy here is that feeling safe=being safe. Many of us feel pandemic fatigue. Many of us feel desensitized. The point is to not let those feelings dictate our behaviors, especially when lives are on the line. Not to mention, the behaviors asked of us are a joke of a sacrifice compared to what is sacrificed by healthcare workers, long-term sufferers, and the dead.
6. Precautions can ease anxiety
Precautions don’t cause my anxiety, they ease my anxiety.
Precautions actually ease my anxiety because I know I’m doing the parts that are within my control. I’m content to not see friends and relatives indoors until we are all as vaccinated as can be. It soothes me to wear a mask and know I’m minimizing hurting others. I’m more comfortable having a boundary around who I share indoor air with.
Precautions don’t cause my anxiety, they ease my anxiety.
Some people say they need to socialize for their mental health. Well, I need to know a deadly disease isn’t being brought into my home, for my mental health.
(Ok ok. Socializing is important for mental health. Absolutely. But for the next few months, we can socialize outdoors, or from a distance, or with masks, or in closed-network pods, or virtually. . .)
The idea that it’s one or the other — physical health or mental health — is a false dichotomy. We can be creative. We’ve made it this far.
For further reading . . .