What We Can Do

We all respond in times of crisis differently.

A woman I know is an infectious disease specialist. She has been called back from sabbatical early to take the lead for her hospital in preparing. Her husband, also a doctor, is treating people. Their daughter is home from Harvard, forced to evacuate with all her dorm possessions; her brother, a teenaged boy, retreats into anger and depression.

Her father has taken to calling his children and speaking to them as if they were five years old: Mommy and Daddy are very worried about you. You must go to a store, a drug store should have them, and buy masks and wear a mask at all times. You must buy some Lysol disinfectant and spray it on you when you return home. I want you to promise me that you will do this. You should be able to get them at a drug store. Promise Daddy that you will do this. Between the deafness and the cognitive decline, no form of reason gets through to him. He calls his daughter – the chief of infectious disease for a major hospital – at work, and lectures her this way.

His other daughter has filled three refrigerators, two full-height pantries, and her basement with supplies. She was, she tells us, visiting Cosco every other day. Her teenaged son brought home the flu (she thinks), and the entire family succumbed, including her parents who live with them, despite the masks and the Lysol. Birthday parties, cancelled. Easter, cancelled. Can they get tested? They can’t. She alludes to the fact that her father is hurt by her sister’s reaction to his well-meant if highly annoying advice about masks and disinfectant.

Patience is unravelling.

My husband, usually steady, is channeling his fears into fear of loss of income. We’re both employed outside of restaurants, sports, and retail. We have a healthy retirement fund – despite the stock market because we are both fairly conservative – and we spent two hours strategizing with our investment advisor on Saturday. We paid off our mortgage just before the last crash, and don’t carry any debt. We live simply and, aside from groceries and a monthly mini-storage fee, our expenses will be minimal while we shelter in place. But, when I got up out of bed today, instead of saying, Good Morning, my husband greeted me with, “Maybe we should cut back on our cable package to save money.” This from a man who turns on the TV when he wakes up and falls asleep to it at night. The main thing the cable package that we’re on gives us is coverage of the Tour de France, which we watch faithfully, in full, every year.

Last night my phone rang. My phone rarely rings – most people texting me instead. I jumped up to get it and tripped over the power cables from my husband’s laptop and fell on my bad knee. It was an old colleague, returning a call from weeks ago. She’s in HR and has been spending 12-hour days listening to her employees worry about their jobs. She said, “I crawled into bed tonight and thought I would call you for a break, because you’re always so calm.”

I am often calm. I am sometimes not calm. One of my best qualities is that I stay calm when everyone else is freaking out, often because I don’t feel like I have any other choice and I don’t know what to do, so I do nothing. And that looks like calm.

Sometimes it annoys people who are upset. When I was a young manager, I was asked to be present during a contentious discussion with an employee who was in policy violation that was impacting his performance and the performance of several coworkers. I sat quietly until he really got out of hand, then said, gently, “I don’t think this line is productive.” He lashed out at me, calling me an Ice Queen, to which I replied, “That has nothing to do with this!” But he was satisfied, he had gotten me to stop being calm, which is what he wanted: he wanted me to feel as upset as he was.

But I am not always calm. Sometimes I don’t sleep well. Sometimes I yell at the cat. Sometimes I get so upset that my brain stops working, my hands shake, I can’t sit still, I babble. Sometimes I get so scared I can do nothing by cry with rage and rock back and forth.

I haven’t reached that last point in this crisis. I don’t feel like my world is crumbling. I don’t feel in imminent danger. I am cautious. I shelter in place. I try not to listen to Morning Joe because, well, Mika sounds little hysterical – she wants people to feel as upset as she is. And I don’t think that’s healthy in a TV host. Especially right now.

Some of us — doctors — have important jobs to do right now: they are on the front lines, planning, preparing, battling, putting their lives at risk.

The rest of us have an important job to do on our own: sheltering in place, staying calm, not panicking. While not as dangerous, it can be more challenging.

But it needs to be done. And it is what we can do.

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