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  • Writer's pictureEric Knabel

Fear of the Dark

“I have a constant fear that something’s always near.” – Fear of the Dark, Iron Maiden

We are living in a time of darkness. To those of us who live in the light, it is terrifying – but for those who spend their lives in metaphorical darkness, they are merely happy that others can “feel their pain” for this moment in time. I speak not of actual dark, but of the kind of psychological darkness that comes with uncertainty and a lack of control. When a foe is a person or a group of people, one can usually rely on their knowledge of human nature or previous behavior patterns to prepare for a set of possible outcomes. But when the foe is raw nature, we tend to cower before its unpredictable and sometimes awful tendencies – ask anyone who has survived a tornado. To take it one step further, when we are attacked at a microscopic level, the unrestrained power of the natural universe is combined with the unseen. Our invisible attacker forces us into the dark, and for a species that prides itself on its ability to control its environment, that’s terrifying.

I’m speaking, of course, of COVID-19, and its impact on society. Not only have we been overwhelmed by the magnitude of the threat, our minds are still spinning at how quickly it all happened. I remember picking up my son from a drum lesson at his high school when I learned that they were starting spring break a day early, just as a precaution. We remember being excited for the kids at the time, congratulating them on an unexpected extra day of vacation. Little did we realize that everyone’s life was about to change. The kids haven’t been back to school since. We haven’t seen the inside of a restaurant since. Images of an empty Times Square and Las Vegas strip soon followed, and my previously enjoyable reads of dystopian societies took on an eerie reality. Sporting events canceled. My daughter’s graduation canceled. So many disappointments. Society has been hit at the most basic of levels; the comfort and convenience that most of us have enjoyed for our entire lives was yanked from us in a single motion. Those of our elders that survived the Great Depression can’t even chuckle at our fear, because they are even more afraid of our invisible attacker.

Our microscopic foe has cast us into darkness, and we are afraid of the dark.

And just like when the lights go out, everyone reacts in different ways. “We have been spoiled by own abundance,” is the cry of some. “What a great opportunity for families to focus on what’s really important” is akin to the one who tells us there are people working to get the power back on. Don’t show emotion. Vomit your emotions all over everyone you see. The opinions are like, you know what – everybody’s got one. All points of view converge on one undeniable truth – human beings are desperate to derive order from chaos. The top of the evolutionary food chain demands control, and the house of cards that we construct for ourselves falls with the slightest of breezes when things appear uncontrollable.

I remember being at a summer camp as a child, playing a game out in the dark. I was not used to a life without nighttime lighting. There was no moon, and my surroundings were indistinguishable, so I did what anyone in my position would do – I found the nearest tree and stood next to it, a point of stability in the swirling chaos of the dark. My eyes adjusted somewhat, but not enough to know what to do. A group of other kids came past, one of whom was one of the camp counselors. He asked what I was doing, and I told him that I’d lost my way. I remember his words to this day – “Just stay with me, I know the way.” I was soon reunited with my friends, but I never forgot the lessons of that night. Isn’t that what we are doing in our current “darkness?” We try to anchor to some point of reality that reassures us, whether it be ordering takeout from our favorite restaurant, or scouring the Internet/social media for any data, anything that will tell us where we are. Sometimes, we don’t even seek reassurance – we will listen to anyone that appears credible. Hell, I’ve even seen people seek out wisdom from a random meme on Facebook. And every time I see another social media post about this virus that no one (even me) took seriously two months ago, I think back to that time in the woods where I clung to a tree for dear life, looking for any piece of normal that existed.

Which brings me to the next point – where is our camp counselor that knows the way, to lead us out of the woods? No matter your politics, I think we can all agree that our national government has failed us abysmally in that regard, turning our state governments into the Wild West of opinions. That being said, we should be used to our government letting us down – after all, they’ve disappointed half of our divided country for over twenty years, right? But here’s where it gets disturbing for me. Our intuition tells us that we should seek the advice of our health professionals during this crisis – surely, they can give us some idea of what to expect in the coming months. But we don’t know any more than anyone else about what’s ahead. I’ve spoken to many colleagues in the past few weeks, and the number of shoulder shrugs I receive when we discuss this issue is astonishing. The wandering target of protocols changes from day to day – when we hear an intervention shows promise, someone else tells us about a study that refutes the claim. I’m embarrassed to admit that those who seek reassurance from me won’t necessarily find it, and I will have more faith statements to give them than data. I read a recent study making recommendations based on a study size of four patients. Four. Make no mistake, my colleagues working in the hospital are heroes, and I guess my willingness to see patients with the virus makes me one too, but I sure don’t feel like one. That leaves the news media to comfort us in this critical time, and it may take years to overcome the psychological trauma from that move. I remember back to 9/11, when the news channels showed the planes hitting those buildings over and over, until I finally had to shut it off after four days. I’ll try to avoid any extended thoughts on the media, but I’ll simply say that I’m wary of someone who starts blaming me for my mistakes before I’m done making them.

I’ve rambled for a long time here, but I guess what I’m trying to say is, take care of yourself. Do things for you. Be creative. I guess this is my way of coping. Don’t be tempted to think this isn’t real – it is. I’m in the camp where it’s an extraordinary opportunity to do the things you’re always complaining about not being able to do because of lack of time. You’ve been given all the time in the world. I leave you with a couple of movie quotes (I know, shocking from me):

“The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.” - Spock, the Wrath of Khan

“Happiness can be found in the darkest of times, if one only remembers to turn on the light.” – Albus Dumbledore, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

Be excellent to each other. Party on, dude. (Okay, that’s a bonus movie quote)

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