Trying to find peace of mind

For two weeks, I’ve been in quarantine, without illness, in my home in Austin, Texas. 

Like so many people, I begin my day searching for information and updates about the “Coronavirus.” For the first ten days, it felt like business as usual, as I am sixty years old and I work from home. But, as with all truly painful and horrific events, there is a cycle of how we receive the information. In the case of COVID-19, we see the numbers elevate. Death is not longer relegated to China, over 7,000 miles away. Now it’s down the street from our home.

We learn of friends shutting down businesses, employees losing jobs, students seeing plans derailed. We see our healthcare teams being overwhelmed by the deluge of cases, without the supplies and support they need to do their job.

We are told that we are not prepared for the exponentially rising number of cases. We are asked to stay home, and we are left profoundly unclear about how bad this will ultimately impact our lives. 

I am both fascinated and alarmed at the speed for which the U.S. federal government and state governments have almost “shut down” an entire society and economy. That reality brings on a new set of fears about nefarious “social engineering,” and I find myself falling prey too easily to concoct artificial doom scenarios.

I have a need to cultivate a larger perspective—bigger than the Coronavirus.  A need to find whatever data might help me feel less vulnerable and anxious. 

During the time of the Black Death in Europe, people died often alone because physicians and priests were unwilling to see patients.  People couldn’t get their basic needs met. Now we live in a time in which we can be connected with the entire world in an instant, we can be in the care of a doctor in minutes, and we can have delicious food and wine delivered to our doorsteps. 

It occurs to me that the very thing that gives us great advantage in the modern world — speed of communication and delivery — is the very thing that threatens to kills us!

In between data harvesting, I watch a video about a patient struggling for his life with COVID-19. He is being interviewed from his hospital bed. The patient describes in great detail the horror of his illness, how his lungs feel like glass. His pain from trying to walk, and how it makes him vomit. How the virus steals his comfort, to simply lay down to rest as it steals his ability to breathe. 

It makes me more afraid. It makes me think about the Black Death and how physicians wouldn’t see a patient, how they were left to die alone in horrific squalor. I’m filled with gratitude for the medical professionals in the world that do everything in their power to try and keep us alive, and recognize, and value human life. 

photo: New York Times

Even as I marvel at their toughness, I wonder: Am I tough enough to fight this virus?

How do we, as a society, process our feelings, slow down enough, cope with isolation, and the real fear of being potentially very ill?  We can’t even employ “Fight-or-flight response” because we don’t know who to fight, and can’t leave in flight!  So we are held prisoner to uncertainty and fear. What are we afraid of? Is it death? Statistics suggest that only 11% of Americans are very afraid of death.

From a 2018 Chapman University study of the top ten things Americans are afraid of:

1. Corrupt Government, 73.6%

4. Not having enough money in the future, 57% 

5. People I love becoming seriously ill, 56.5% 

6. People I love dying, 56.4%

10. High medical bills, 52.9%

The five fears not mentioned above all dealt with pollution and environmental concerns. So currently, our social reality, thanks to COVID-19, is playing on FIVE of our ten greatest fears! No wonder we are batshit crazy!

My search for great perspective continues, and I think about the tremendously high death rates associated with heart disease, cancer, car accidents, and how many other things kill us everyday as a people, and so often we are silent. Like war.

I found a Brown University report on how many people have lost their lives in the Middle East since we invaded Iraq and Afghanistan in 2003.  According to the “Cost of War” Project, its somewhere between 479,858 and 507,236 total deaths. It breaks down like this:

Iraq: 267,792 to 295,170 deaths 

Afghanistan: 147,124 deaths

Pakistan: 64,942 deaths 

I don’t hear people talking about that horrifying reality. I don’t see our entire nation focused on how to eliminate war in the Middle East, Mali, and other conflict-heavy hotspots around the world. I don’t see them raising trillions of dollars to eradicate global poverty, which over three billion people suffer from, living on less than $2.50 per day.

My brain won’t turn off and the coffee is beginning to give me a desire to chew on my desk. So I command myself to leave the computer and go outside, where Mother Nature is performing the miracle of spring. I am determined to observe the majesty of her performance: bright green leaves flirting in the breeze, flowers pressing into bloom, the intoxicating syncopated flats and sharps of the bird’s song. I surrender to the rhythms of the natural world. I stop thinking about anything specific. I begin to breathe.

Under an enormous Arizona green sage bush, I struggle to cut back underbrush and prune sharp wiry branches. Sweat comes. Blood rolls down my forearm. But the sun feels like a warm welcome hug from an old friend. I’m overcome with a profound sense of gratitude. I am alive, in the arms of nature, and I realize that I am consciously choosing life

Somehow this philosophical shift, away from my fears and focus on death, gives me a deeper sense of peace.

So, I will probably continue to watch too many movies, drink too much wine, paint, write and garden. And call friends and family and tell them how much I love them. 

I will continue to worry about the future, and the myriad of “what-if” scenarios. The difference now is that I am profoundly grounded in a deeper commitment to choose life, and to live fully.  In that reality, there are responsibilities. To love with all of my heart, to dance without fear, and to be grateful for every breathe. To do the best I am able to help myself, and others.

Well, friends, I send love to those in fear. I thank everybody working so hard to help other human beings get through this. With all the uncertainty that we are experiencing, as a human race, I am certain that we will continue to thrive, and evolve. Let us hope it is with a deep commitment to live, with compassion and love as our compass.

by Lane Rockford Orsak
March 30, 2020


Protest: Black Like Me