The other day, I was driving home from picking up a cloth mask. I was listening to music, singing along, as I often do during normal times. Then, without thinking, I touched my face.
I caught myself as the knuckle of my pointer finger scratched the side of my nose. I threw my hand back onto the steering wheel. Oh no, I thought. Oh no.
I started to think, what had I touched. The inside of my car. The outside of my car. The mailbox. The plastic package with the mask inside. I’d tossed the mask on the passenger side floor, and immediately sanitized my hands before touching the wheel to drive home.
The knowledge that I had sanitized my hands did little to quell the anxiety. What if I did a bad job? What if this hand sanitizer is faulty? What if we discover that none of this sanitizing stuff is even working? Years from now, when we’ve all gotten sick?
It happened quickly, the rabbit hole. The music still blared, but I stopped singing. In two weeks, I’ll know I’d gotten it here. I have so few exposures, this will surely have been the one. I could see the news articles: “Hand sanitizer proven ineffective,” “Woman left home only once to pick up mask, contracted Covid-19 from mailbox,” “Right hand more dangerous than left hand in transmitting virus to face, study finds.”
In an instant, I saw myself sick. I saw myself in the hospital. I saw my loved ones weeping. My chest felt constricted, fear stealing my breath, as would the illness I feared I contracted. This is what it will feel like.
Then, again without thinking, I said aloud:
“We were so scared then.”
I heard myself tell, from the future, the story of this time. The story of my fears, not all of which came to pass, but which nevertheless were profound.
Not just my fears, our fears. That this panic, vigilance, brutal uncertainty, is how we lived for a while. I could see myself, much older, in an armchair with a mug of tea, recounting to someone of the next generation this story for their social studies project.
There is something elemental to storytelling. To sitting around a proverbial (or real) fire, sharing and listening. Creating a narrative, and hearing those of others, can help us make sense of things. Inside ourselves, a narrative provides a bit of reprieve from the roiling, consuming intensity of feeling.
It’s the difference between being in the middle of the ocean, and standing hip-deep near the shore. You are still wet, the waves are still knocking you around; but you are not overtaken. You can see the ocean, describe it, label it, tell people around you what’s going on. Something from outside – in this case, the beach – is brought to bear to help contain the experience. In other words, there is more than just ocean, and you are more than just in it.
We don’t have to wait until it’s over. We can begin to tell our story now. We can narrate for ourselves, and each other, what this is like to be in. Articulation – whether through talking, writing, music, art, movement, or even inside our own minds – can give us a place to stand inside the experience, closer to the edge.
In moments of idle intensity, fear that action can’t dispel, see if it helps you to imagine how to express the experience.
How will you tell this story?