This is not a false alarm. This is not a drill.
This is an emergency. It’s not just about an emergency.
It’s not just on the subject of an emergency,
it doesn’t merely refer to some emergency
that’s taking place elsewhere. Neither is it
a metaphor for an emergency, or an exclamation
drawing attention to an emergency.
It is actually the emergency, and it requires attention.
It’s not so much like a fire in a warehouse
where paper is stored, ordered by colour and weight
and finish and size, ordered by shape and age;
it’s more like a fire in a warehouse built for the storage of fire.
The fire can make nothing of its heat inside its burning home.
If you’re reading this sometime in Spring 2020, you will probably be aware that almost overnight, the sun and the earth seem to have swapped places. Which is to say that the sun, “the fire that can make nothing of the heat inside its burning ” seems to have morphed into the planet on which we all reside.
The shock of it, was that we were expecting this to happen through a climate crisis: for the summers to keep on getting hotter and hotter (don’t worry, they will), the winters more unpredictable, and for other extreme weather events to knock segments of our species into oblivion. The rains and floods that killed 150 people in Brazil last week, a piece of news lost in the deluge of corona reporting. Myanmar which was devastated by Cyclone Nargis in 2008, 140,000 people dead and 2.4 million more getting displaced. Most of this of course is happening in developing countries, who don’t have the public and private wealth and infrastructure and wealth to deal with these events. But even France has had 20,000 deaths linked to storms and heatwaves over the past two decades. Uncertainty, death, and destruction, are always with us.
And now we have this global fire, a fire that when I look outside my window, I cannot see. A fire that when I turn on the television or radio, apart from wall-to-wall talk of it, only the empty supermarket shelves are currently showing its devastation. The fire is as much about the power of symbolic language, our chief form of communication, which also works as a kind of virus, spreading ideas good and not so good or helpful at the speed of sound or in social media even faster. At the moment, our shared language is spreading anxiety’s mantra in a million different ways, a mantra which mainly sounds like some version of WHAT IF. And that WHAT IF, or THIS MIGHT HAPPEN, is currently driving us into hysteria, driving us into stockpiling food and essentials, most of which will probably sit in kitchen cupboards while we go out shopping for more, but the WHAT IF anxious mind doesn’t care about food rotting in personal storage. It’s role is to protect us, to try and give us a sense of control and competence, even if it drives us all a little bit doolally in the process.
A few nights ago, I walked into my local supermarket, a medium-sized Morrison’s store, to buy a handful of potatoes to have with some quorn sausages and frozen peas. The shelves were bare. Not just the toilet paper, the soap, the flour, the canned vegetables and fruit, the rice, the pasta, the eggs, the olive oil, about half of the biscuits and sweets. That had already become the norm, even after a few days. No, we’re talking here about a dearth of potatos in a British supermarket. That’s like no pasta anywhere to be found in Italy, no rice in China.
There was something about seeing fresh produce completely sold out, fresh produce that usually takes up about a 1/5th of the store’s total sundries: hundreds of kilos of it, frenziedly cleared from the shelves in a single day, that was truly alarming. Fresh produce that will not keep for longer than a week at most. It all felt incredibly eerie and uncanny, as if we’ve all suddenly stepped into an apocalyptic zombie movie, or one of Derren Brown’s ingenious stunts. I phoned my Mother whilst in the store and bleated to her “now they’re stockpiling fruit and veg!”. And she bleated back, in her wavery, cough-ridden voice, being ill with something chesty, headachey, fluey, possibly corona-y, about how Pa had gone out to find some more paracetamol for her, and come back with a single pack that someone in a pharmacy had produced from under the counter, in a gesture more of goodwill than commerce.
When I said they are stockpiling, of course I mean we are stockpiling. I’ve been trying really hard to not act on my own apocalyptic and self-centred anxiety, but I cannot lie. When I saw that my local Sri Lankan store still had brown rice on its shelves, which is my staple starch, a product which I have been unable to find anywhere for the last two weeks, I bought 8 kilo-sized bags of it, which will probably only last me for a couple of months, though I plan to eke it out as best I can. It is not a particularly tasty brown rice I discovered cooking up my first batch, hence the reason for it probably being on the shelves, but I will enjoy and appreciate it nonetheless.
Enjoyment unfortunately is the last emotion anxiety afford us. The purpose of anxiety is to focus the mind on what it (the anxiety) thinks we should focus on, and even more importantly what it thinks we need to do something about. And the way it focuses us and propels us into doing is through a kind of inner-alarm “This is an emergency! This is an emergency! This is an emergency!” which if we ignore or try and do something else whilst the alarm is sounding, the inner-alarm just screams louder and louder. And if we continue to ignore it, it may show up in painful or sickly bodily states, or it may drag us down into the depths of depression or a kind of anxious mania:
THIS IS AN EMERGENCY. IT’S NOT JUST ABOUT AN EMERGENCY.
IT’S NOT JUST ON THE SUBJECT OF AN EMERGENCY,
IT DOESN’T MERELY REFER TO SOME EMERGENCY
THAT’S TAKING PLACE ELSEWHERE. NEITHER IS IT
A METAPHOR FOR AN EMERGENCY, OR AN EXCLAMATION
DRAWING ATTENTION TO AN EMERGENCY.
IT IS ACTUALLY THE EMERGENCY, AND IT REQUIRES ATTENTION!
But what to do when that attention we give our anxiety is not especially helpful. What to do when our anxiety demands that we go and buy up half a supermarket, much of which, will no doubt just join the 10 billion tons of food we in the UK throw away every year. I suspect in 2020/21, that figure of wasted food will double. Shame on me, and shame on us.
But what to do when anxiety paradoxically wrestles away from us what might actually be our last few days, or weeks, or years of a meaningful and healthy life? What to do when anxiety demands that instead of writing, or seeing clients, or spending some time out in nature (all my most valued and treasured activities), I sit inside instead scrolling through social media feeds which are currently showing us what the hive mind looks like when it’s having a panic attack. Twitter, my main go-to, is largely millions of tweets which are all doing some version of:
THIS IS AN EMERGENCY. IT’S NOT JUST ABOUT AN EMERGENCY.
IT’S NOT JUST ON THE SUBJECT OF AN EMERGENCY…etc.
And at some level, this is how it should be. This is what anxiety is “designed for”. Anxiety says: take notice, take stock, and see if there is something useful and helpful that you can do either for yourself or for another sentient being that you care about.
Actually, the last part of that sentence is unfortunately not a common line from anxiety’s megaphone. It’s job is just to sound the alarm: RUN FOR YOUR LIVES! SHOP FOR YOUR LIVES! TWEET FOR YOUR LIVES! For it is predominantly a survival mechanism. Our job then, you might say, is to interpret and act wisely on its always urgent and alarming message.
Sometimes when I talk to clients I compare anxiety to the fire alarm in my kitchen. This particular fire alarm used to go off when the toaster sent out a tiny wisp of smoke, or sometimes even when the kettle boiled. I’m not saying Covid-19 is the equivalent of burnt toast or hot air. Rather it is more like that little boy who cried out that the Emperor is wearing no clothes. Because here’s the thing: we’re always living cheek-by-jowl with sickness and death, on an hourly and daily basis. At some level we know this, but our minds work very hard from keeping that truth from us because it’s not one we enjoy reflecting on.
Even if there wasn’t a coronavirus sitting on handrails or the shiny surfaces of fruit just waiting to be transferred to our inquisitive, tactile paws and then into our eyes or mouths in a moment of absent-minded fidgeting, there are still hundreds and thousands of other illnesses around, many of which kill us each year in the droves. But we’ve got very good at not-thinking about these, and for the most part, other than the odd person we hear about having cancer, or influenza, or Dengue, or Ebola, or SARS, or HIV, we’re mostly able to get through a day or a week, or even a year, in our by-and-large cushy, privileged lives, feeling pretty invincible.
And in this way, we are able to focus our anxiety on other matters, less life-and-death matters you might say, though they can often feel like life-and-death to us and our anxious minds. This is not an apocalyptic, end-of-the-world poem, this is a poem about what happens when the mind freaks out, particularly in a way, that doesn’t really help us or others to any great extent: the warehouse built for the storage of fire, the brain built for the storage of anxiety, where the fire, the anxiety, can make nothing useful or helpful of the heat inside its burning home. This is often our situation, whether we know it or not.
Ernest Becker in his book The Denial of Death, which I have returned to recently as a way of understanding this moment, reminds us of how we channel all our largely unconscious death terrors into “heroic activities”: politics, commerce, creative pursuits, even something as small and modest as a podcast, listened to by a dozen ears. We pour our heroic relationship building into friends and family, in the hope that when we are gone, something of us will live on. For some of us, this is a genetic project: handing down our values and customs to our children, or to others we believe we might have some influence over. We also do this through our cultural platforms, now largely the domain of the internet. Even the most frivolous tweet on Twitter, or the billionth photograph of a delicious plate of food or a sunset on Instagram holds in it at some level a very fragile, very mortal message: don’t you, forget about me.
That’s right, don’t you forget about me, a billion young and not so young men and woman, recording videos to upload to YouTube, or writing novels, or flirting with someone on a dating app that maybe at some point in the future will become a significant other, someone perhaps even to have children with. All of this is heroic stuff, is driven, Becker and other psychoanalysts would argue, by our deep-seated fear that we will be forgotten, or overlooked, or left to die without solace and comfort. And at some level, the 178,390 views of this particular video I’m watching are each saying to this young woman and her piano, to our so-easily forgotten egos, don’t worry, we won’t forget you. Even though history tells us that this is a lie. But that’s OK, we won’t be around for history’s summations and picky remembering.
“An animal who gets her feeling of worth symbolically,” writes Becker, “has to minutely compare herself to those around her, to make sure she doesn’t come off second-best. Sibling rivalry is a critical problem that reflects the basic human condition: it is not that children are vicious, selfish, or domineering. It is that they so openly express our tragic destiny: we feel the need more often than not, to desperately justify ourselves as an object of primary value in the universe; we must stand out, be a hero, make the biggest possible contribution to world life, show that we count more than anything or anyone else.”
It starts of course with the magical thinking of a child’s mind. As children, we live in a situation of utter dependence. When our needs are met it probably seems to us that we have special powers, real omnipotence. As children, if we’re lucky, when we experiences pain, hunger, or discomfort, all we have to do is scream and sometimes, enough to matter, we will be relieved and lulled by gentle, loving sounds from our parents, or another caregiver.
We are all, as children, magicians and a telepaths, Becker reminds us, who only have to mumble, or sing, or draw, ardently waiting for the world to notice us, to turn to our desires and fulfil them in some way. When we start to experience the inevitable and real frustration of having imperfect and ambivalent parents who cannot meet all our needs all the time, we direct hate and destructive feelings toward them. This is a natural and necessary part of our development too, and often continues into therapy as adults where we need to work through perhaps some of this unforgiving frustration that we still might have against our early caregivers. Even if they’re no longer around.
And when we discover, round about the age of three or four that we, like the goldfish, or the family dog, may be mortal, that life may include cataclysmic danger that we cannot be protected from entirely, not even by our parents, or politicians or celebrities, or the other Gods of our world, this is almost too overwhelming for our still-developing psyches to deal with, and so we all repress this knowledge, deny it, for as long as we can, perhaps all of our lives.
When we meet this fear again, is it usually not through consciousness of our utter mortality, our utter interconnected dependency, and contingency, but through anxiety at how little control or say we actually have in the world, over our careers, our partners, family and friends, even our own minds which are continually shifting to thoughts and notions we perhaps didn’t ask for or need. Whatever control or agency we do have is as much a gift as anything else. It is not our birthright, alas: old-age, sickness, and death can take it all away in an instant. And this is pretty terrifying if you even allow your mind to dwell on this for moment without its usual reasoning and denial strategies. So we don’t allow our minds to do this for the most part. We focus on heroics, and on other things.And for the most part, that works really well. It works really well for me.
A few nights ago, I watched John Cassavetes 1970 film Husbands. I don’t know why. I think I was curious to see a young Peter Falk in action. Well, youngish. At least from my perspective. I am 48. Falk in 1970 was 43. The film starts with 3 married, middle-aged men attending the funeral of a close friend, and each of them, in a way that is largely unconscious, is clearly having their first adult intimation of their own mortality, and perhaps even of the vacuousness of their middle-class, blue-collar worker heroics, brought into focus by the vacuous, impersonal eulogy delivered by the priest at the service. This is how the first two minutes of the film unfolds, so I’m hopefully not spoiling it for you if you ever decide to download and watch it. The rest of the film is about what these three men do to avoid, or deny, or just block out in some way their absolutely valid mortal terror. Which basically involves them going on a bit of a bender. Not a Netflix binge, no such options in the 70s, no they binge on good old-fashioned alcohol and each other’s fear-inducing as well as consoling company. They do what we all do in some shape or form to avoid thinking about the big questions like: Who are we? What values do we want to live our lives by? How are we going to get the best out of our nervous and reactive minds.
Well here’s an idea if you have such an anxious fire burning at the moment -I know I do. Rather than thinking you can put it out, which is going to be tricky if the warehouse itself is built for the storage of fire, you might want to consider some ways of using all this panicky energy to good effect. Here are maybe two ways to do this.
1) Fighting fire with fire: which is to say, channeling the DO-SOMETHING mind into doing something that will be helpful or useful for yourself, or for someone else. Making yourself available to help out in whatever way you feel comfortable. But also consider using that energy to write a poem or a mini essay, or some other creative act focusing on something that has amazed or delighted you today, especially something beautiful or awe-inspiring, something if possible outside your own head, your own troubled thoughts. Today I wrote a little poemy thing in my notebook about the burgundy-colored wallflower growing just outside my window where I’m recording this, and how it seems to be in conversation with the budding spirae bush and the photinia floribunda with its mohican “haircut” of red on green leaves shooting up towards the heavens, I swear it might grow taller than a house if I don’t prune it, and at this point in the game, I might just let it grow. I felt better after writing my ode to the wallflower, and I feel better writing this now.
2) But you also might want to do some kind of formal, anxiety-settling practice, something designed to bring your mind out of its panicky survivalist mode, which for the most part is the equivalent of Rambo running amok, armed with guns and knives, and a fuck-you glint in his terrified eyes. In the last few months, one of my main grounding or emotional-regulation practices, has become a version of Tara Brach’s RAIN (Recognise, Allow, Investigate, Nurture). My version of this is called RAF (Recognise, Allow, Focus) maybe because I’ve managed to smoosh two of the categories together in a way that pleases me, and also because when I’m feeling crappy or anxious, I like the idea of calling on the RAF, rather than RAIN. Rain, I could do less of at this point in the year, thank you very much British Winter.
But basically, RAF is Tara’s RAIN. And I find it incredibly helpful. If you’d like to try it out, here’s a ten minute version of it that I’ve uploaded to Google Docs:
Right now though, as good old Virgil says, which is also the first poem of the day that I like to recite:
Death whispers in my ear, live now for I am coming.
And even before the rona, before Covid-19 became a word on all our lips, this was fundamentally true. And reminding ourselves of this truth, even on a daily basis, is, I believe, not a bad thing at all. In fact, it may even allow us, to truly appreciate the things we so want to be able to appreciate and enjoy. And as long as we can stay in the driver’s seat when it comes to our minds which even at the moment might be telling you to go and buy ten kilos of potatoes from your local supermarket, we will still be able to enjoy life even if 1% of our species dies in the next few months (these are current predictions), and even if we’re part of that 1%. Whatever your mind is hollering at you to do right now, be kind and gentle with it, as you would a child screaming for a favourite toy when it feels scared and defenceless. Be kind to your self, and try, as much as possible to enjoy your self too. Even now. Especially now.