From the time when I began to read, stories and poems, especially song lyrics, that resonate most are those that “speak to me.” They are usually character or theme driven. In them, the protagonist(s) address(es) some essential truth about life in general or that is personally relevant to me.
For others who similarly look at life through the lens of literature, stories in the sci-fi genre that deal with killer strains might come to mind in context of the situation that we find ourselves captive in. The Andromeda Strain, by Michael Crichton, perhaps.
For me, it’s the 1951 film The Day the Earth Stood Still. The movie stars Michael Rennie as the alien Klaatu, Patricia Neal as Helen Benson, and Sam Jaffe, who portrays an Albert Einstein look-alike scientist. To demonstrate he means business, Klaatu causes all the power in the world to go out. Lights go out, elevators stop, and cars stall. It’s an eerie scene, conveying an awesome power beyond human scale that evokes a sense of helplessness.
Re-watching the scene in which Helen struggles to relay the message from Klaatu to the robot Gort to stop him from destroying the earth still causes goosebumps. She is terrified, but she heroically overcomes her fear and acts courageously. “Klaatu barada nikto,” she says as Gort prepares a laser beam to vaporize her.
Helplessness in the face of an immense power. It’s what many feel now in the face of this scourge.
Many can and do step up and contribute, but only scientists and the medical community can engage offensively by finding a vaccine, and only necessary workers and able-bodied volunteers can be soldiers on the front line: Medical personnel primarily as well as millions who provide ancillary necessary services such as supermarket and grocery store workers, gas station attendants, power company technicians, and more. Others step up by volunteering to assist the countless in need by delivering life-sustaining food and medicines. Their courage in the face of a deadly virus goes beyond description.
The rest of us are asked to do one thing: Nothing.
Except it isn’t nothing; it’s critical. Keeping yours and yourself safe and healthy by practicing social distancing, for one.
It might seem then, in the macro sense, the rest of us are playing defensive roles. And that can conjure a sense of helplessness which can be debilitating. For it seems all we can do is to stand by as the drama unfolds.
However, when one thinks it through, everyone can play an active role in combating this. The first, as I write above, is by keeping yourself physically healthy. Closely related is keeping yourself mentally and emotionally healthy by staying engaged in whatever capacity you can. Keep in mind, by the way, mental and emotional health, while related, are not the same. It’s the difference between what you think and how you feel about those thoughts.
Presidential scholar and historian Jon Meacham, author of The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels, likens our current national situation to that of the Brits in WW II when the Luftwaffe was raining destruction down on England. Everyone was a potential victim. One of my favorite lines from history is that of the then Queen Elizabeth. After Windsor Castle was bombed and she and King George VI barely escaped, she said, “I am glad we have been bombed. Now we can look the East End in the eye.”
Humans are social creatures. Our earliest Homo sapiens ancestors realized that from the start. They also learned that fear can be debilitating if not overcome with rationality and courageous action, as Helen demonstrates in The Day the Earth Stood Still.
Two lessons we can collectively learn from this: our vulnerability and our inter-connectedness. To overcome fear and worry, it requires mutual cooperation and engagement beyond the self. That is something almost everyone can do. E.g., To pick up the phone, to send an email, to mail a letter – remember those? – or a card.
And a third: You’re not helpless.