COVID-19 Has a Lot to Teach Americans About Being Brave

Photo: Stocksy/Lyuba Burakova
I'm trying to think of the moment in my life when I felt the most brave. Maybe it was as a kid, standing up in front of a group of adults to bow after my very first piano recital. Or singing in my church choir as a teen—I was so nervous, I locked my knees and passed out, which made me feel rather stupid. As an anxious adult, it took a lot (of therapy; of Klonopin) for me to prepare to learn to drive a car again after many years of not driving. But I knew then that I had to breathe deep and fight my fears and get behind the wheel. This was vital for my independence, my ability to get what I wanted, to live a life unrestricted by self-imposed boundaries. That's what bravery was: doing things, out in the world, showing people you weren’t afraid.

But bravery has never been just that.

Over the weekend, social media was full of scenes of people convening in restaurants and bars, doing what they had been explicitly told not to do. For them, tweeting and 'gramming was a defiant (rather misinformed) signal that they refused to be afraid. A lot of the rest of us tried to explain that no, in this case, that was not bravery at all. It was only selfishness, and way more stupid than locking your knees while singing in the church choir.

And it wasn’t just young people displaying their misplaced sense of bravery; it was old people, too. It was the people who we often turn to for wisdom in a crisis. Over the weekend, I talked to my 70-something parents on the phone, and they told me they’d been to the gym. They’d also met friends for dinner. They said this somewhat proudly. It would be fine, they said, this panic is overstated. They live in Florida; they’ve weathered many a hurricane. But this is not a hurricane, I tried to tell them. The panic is real. Stay home. For the love of God, just stay home. What are you people even thinking?

On social media, I watched as my peers relayed their own difficulties in convincing their boomer parents to stop venturing out into the world. I watched people censure New Yorkers—young and old—who kept going out to dinner, sitting inches from one another, even while sometimes wearing face masks, which seemed an odd precaution to take while trying to eat a meal. It was all infuriating, but it wasn’t in the least bit surprising.

This is what America was, and maybe still is, all about: You didn’t let the terrorists win. But this time, we’re up against an entirely different enemy, and there are different rules.

If you happened to be in New York City (or, really, in America at all) after 9/11—a historic tragedy that keeps getting compared to where we are now, even though it’s hardly the same at all—you’ll remember what happened in the days and weeks that followed. We got back up again, resuming normal or semi-normal activities, to show the terrorists they hadn’t won. They couldn’t and would never win. We fed the economy (ah, capitalist society, how imbued with “moral” value spending becomes in these times; what a duty we have to what remains of our surviving democracy to purchase stuff!), we drank and ate in restaurants and bars with friends and with strangers we suddenly felt were our friends. We hugged. We took care of each other, spending time with other humans to remind ourselves of what was good, and we felt sad but also alive and proud. And so, so brave.

This is what America was, and maybe still is, all about: You didn’t let the terrorists win. But this time, we’re up against an entirely different enemy, and there are different rules—ones we seem intrinsically ill-equipped to deal with.

As Heather Havrilesky wrote for The Cut, “We Americans have been training for this pandemic with denial. From the minute we were born, our culture has taught us to embrace fantasy at every turn, over every other option available to us.” Capitalist society has instilled in us a form of universal, self-immolating denial, sure, but also: We are wrong—with far too narrow a vision, built on action movies and blustery government officials, Twitter takedowns and underdog triumphs—about what it means to be brave. We have been taught that to be brave means to reject fear, to show fear who’s boss by punching it right in the face. We've been taught to buy something to prove we have control and can exert our freedom to self-determine and make our lives better. (And then let’s show it off on our Instagrams, shall we? Our orchestrated vulnerability is so brave.)

This virus and the way we're supposed to act to fight it—by self-isolating, by staying inside, by not doing instead of doing—goes against everything we've been taught our entire lives about how we face our own fear and pain. We may have no choice but to simply sit with ourselves, with whatever we're feeling, when we’re bored or lonely or stressed beyond measure, when we're suddenly home-schooling our young children while also trying to do what remains of a job, or fighting with our loved ones while sequestered inside with them. Or we might be alone in a 250-square-foot apartment with no end in sight. We have to learn what it means to be brave in panic mode, when things are falling apart; we have to learn to be brave in the face of running out of toilet paper, or supplies, or money. We have to realize that bravery has a far wider scope than the self; it’s what you can do to help others, and your community, and it’s also coming to terms with the idea that we can’t control everything in our lives. In fact, there’s very little we can control.

We have to realize that bravery has a far wider scope than the self; it’s what you can do to help others, and your community, and it’s also coming to terms with the idea that we can’t control everything in our lives.

I got on the phone with David Austern, PsyD, clinical assistant professor of psychiatry at NYU Langone Health, who’s set up a home office in his bathroom during the outbreak. I asked what he thinks about bravery and how the American psyche is handling the situation. “I would hope that no one thinks that’s what being brave is,” he said of the college kids crowding beaches on spring break. But also, boredom is one of humanity’s most terrifying emotions, he said. “People will do anything possible to make it go away, and, with this new coronavirus, your options are limited.” It’s not unusual, then, that we’d see what we’re seeing. But it’s time for an important recalibration, and it starts with ourselves.

There are so many ways to be brave right now. Resist panic-buying. Call your elderly neighbors and relatives and check on them. Have an honest conversation with your parents about your fears. Set up a Skype appointment with a therapist. If there is a way you can help in your community without risking the health of others, perhaps by delivering meals to doorsteps or donating to those who need it, do that. If you are in a position of privilege, share. Wash your hands, and wash them again. Take care of someone you love. Create art that channels your fear and makes you feel strong.

And maybe, if you’re feeling really, truly brave, you can just sit with your boredom and see how it feels; let it wash over you and realize that this is a moment in time, like and unlike any other, and you are here, right now, and there may be little more you can do to control it than what you’re already doing. The freedom will come with giving this moment time—time, that thing we never seemed to have enough of before now, when we have far too much of it stretching out in front of us—but also the impending fear that it could simply go away in a second. We'll get through it eventually. We have to just be brave enough to stop and wait.

After social distancing could come "sheltering in place"—here's what that means. And here are six common myths doctors want you to stop believing about COVID-19.

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