“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself” is as true now as it was when FDR first spoke those words in his inaugural address in 1933. Fear is the most destructive and divisive force on the planet. Anything that divides us makes us weaker, less secure, less productive, and less resilient.
We should do everything we can to protect ourselves, our communities, our nations, and our world from COVID19 but we should NOT fear it. We need to step through and beyond fear. That is the only path to effective, unified, and coordinated action. Stepping through fear toward unity is the only path that will truly put this crisis behind us.
Throughout my life, I, like so many others, have been asked to step beyond fear. I put my life on the line as a combat pilot, test pilot, and as an astronaut who launched to space from both American and Russian launch pads. I participated in four spacewalks where I was in constant danger. I returned to Earth traveling back through the atmosphere on fire at 5 miles per second (twice). In combat, I was routinely shot at with bullets and missiles. I have also ejected from a malfunctioning F-16 seconds before it crashed and was destroyed. In all those cases I felt fear, but I was able to overcome it because I believed in the importance of what I was doing for our country and world. Today our most courageous citizens aren’t wearing space helmets, they’re our healthcare workers on the frontline putting their own safety at risk in the service of others. They are the folks keeping critical activities going like stocking shelves, picking up garbage, and keeping the lights on.
Today every person on the planet is being asked to step beyond fear. Now, for the first time in human history, every person on the planet is faced with an obvious and undeniable existential threat. There is not a single person on the planet that is not affected by COVID19 one way or another. For the first time the saying, “We’re all in this together” is obviously not a cliché. It is literally and undeniably true. Realizing that we are all facing an existential threat together is not cause for fear–it is cause for resolve.
Fear is a natural response to real danger but beyond its evolutionary importance, fear can also be counterproductive to survival. When we allow fear to guide us what we are really doing is allowing the amygdala which is a reactive and evolutionarily primitive part of the brain to take control of our actions. The amygdala puts us into a fight or flight response which dumps cortisol into our bloodstreams and severely hampers our body’s immune system. This means that fearing coronavirus actually makes us more vulnerable to contracting it or battling it if we already have it.
We know we are in an amygdala-controlled fight or flight mode when we feel the need to horde things like toilet paper or when we lash out on Facebook in an attempt to assign blame to someone or some group. When the amygdala is given control over us we become selfish and lose the ability to emphasize which ironically makes our bodies weaker and more vulnerable. And these are just fear’s effects on us individually. Fear’s effect on us as a society is even more counterproductive and self-destructive.
Fear deceives us into believing that we need to construct a simplified framework through which we view the world. Fear drives us to lump other races, religions, nations, cultures, and political parties into the cubby holes of our artificially constructed and misguided view of the world. Fear dictates that we establish a group to flee from or lash out against. In the two-dimensional “us-versus-them” world we’ve constructed, we’re quick to find a “them” to assign blame.
But the world isn’t flat. (Trust me — I’ve seen it from space.) We don’t live in a two-dimensional world. To start solving real problems, we need to approach them in the context of the real world with all its multidimensional complexity.
The cubby holes in our artificially constructed framework serve as walls and boundaries that severely limit our ability to progress and evolve toward a more healthy, peaceful, and prosperous future. When we cordon off whole groups, there will inevitably be people that we’ve separated ourselves from who hold key pieces of the puzzle needed to solve our most pressing shared problems.
The bedrock on which our country was built is the interrelated unity of our nation’s most precious resource, our diverse people. America is at its strongest when all of us including our political parties and special interest groups can summon the courage to step outside of our narrow self-interest and unite around a cause for all. United, we have proven again and again that we can accomplish the seemingly impossible — whether combating terrorism, toppling tyranny, landing on the moon, or curing disease.
To overcome this crisis we all need to take on what we call in the space business, expeditionary behavior. The goal of expeditionary behavior is to ensure that every member of the team is contributing and propelling the team forward toward the accomplishment of the team’s objective.
In this case, the team is humanity and the objective is reducing new COVID19 infections to zero worldwide while caring for and saving as many people already infected as possible.
The first rule of expeditionary behavior is you don’t do the team any good if you become sick and become a burden on the team yourself. To that end, every member of the team has a responsibility to maintain a high level of safe-care.
We’ve heard over and over again all the things we need to do to keep ourselves safe. Such as wash your hands, practice social distancing, and avoid large gatherings. These are all important but don’t do these out of fear. Instead, treat them as acts of service. Do it with the motivation to prevent others from getting infected. Do it because you are saving lives.
During this crisis, it’s important that all members of team-humanity take active steps to boost their immune systems. The most important of those steps is to reduce fear-inducing activities. It’s one thing to keep track of the current COVID19 data from reliable science-based sources. It’s another thing to become obsessed with news outlets and pundits that boost ratings by spinning fear-inducing tales. Or worse yet, spreading false, fear-based information on the internet yourself. This not only lowers your immune system it lowers the immunity of all those you infected when you “coughed” un-fact-checked, fear infected information out into the internet.
We need to take steps to get our brains out of the constant fight or flight mode. If we find ourselves complaining, feeling self-pity, or overwhelmed these are telltale signs that the amygdala is in control and our immune system is being compromised. We don’t fear what IS happening we fear what might happen. We need to focus on what we have control over. What we have control over is what we do with this moment in time. Prepare for the possibilities of what might happen but don’t spend any energy worrying about them or fearing them. Instead, focus on things that we should be grateful for. If nothing else, be thankful for being alive and be thankful for all those people on the frontlines of this crisis putting others first.
If you want to boost your immune system practice empathy. Look for ways to help your neighbors. Check on folks you haven’t heard from in a while. See how they are doing. And above all else, actually look for ways to help. I believe there is nothing more beneficial to our immune systems than sacrificing some of our comforts to help others in need. Evolution has wired our immune systems to promote cooperation of the species. Generosity is wired into our DNA. Help yourself by helping others is not a cliché it is a biological truth.
Choose what you consume wisely. Everything that we put into our bodies and minds affects our immune system. If we are eating unhealthy food our immune system will be compromised. If we are consuming unhealthy news reports and unhealthy “entertainment” that will also make us more susceptible to illness. Instead, seek out healthy food and healthy forms of entertainment. Look for shows and activities that make you laugh and lift your spirit. Communicate with loved ones. Tell them how much you appreciate them. Share joy with friends. Send out uplifting messages to the world. Doing so not only helps the world it helps you.
We are all paying a price during this crisis. We might as well get a benefit from the price we are paying anyway. Make the most of the situation both personally and collectively. Treat any new free-time you have as a precious opportunity for self-improvement. We all know the world is not perfect. Instead of focusing on all that is wrong with the world, we can look for ways to come out the other side of this crisis stronger and more unified than ever. We can look for ways to use this crises as a rallying cry to come together as one human family. A family that is better equipped to handle any other crisis that may come at us in the future. Treat COVID19 as a wakeup call and a call to action. A call to action to fix the things that weaken our collective immune system. A wakeup call to move away from those antiquated systems that are holding humanity back from achieving our potential.
When we move beyond the amygdala-controlled fight or flight response we engage our rational prefrontal cortex. With the prefrontal cortex controlling our actions, we have an exponentially better chance to use this period of darkness as a period of personal and collective growth. With the prefrontal cortex in charge, our immune systems are operating at peak performance. With the prefrontal cortex in charge, fear is no longer contagious. Instead, empathy and compassion spread exponentially faster than coronavirus which lifts us out of this crisis.
We are going to get through this! When we emerge from the dark cave of COVID19 and look back, we will realize that what saved us in the end, was our ability to evolve beyond our own fear. We will realize that what saved us was the realization that we are all truly one human family and what happens to one of us happens to all of us.