Hope : Hoax :: Health : Big Mac

Can I get some fries with that conspiracy theory?

Back in March I wrote an essay entitled, “The Virus that Ate the Future”. I was feeling pretty down about how the pandemic was affecting just about every aspect of our lives. I encouraged readers not to feel guilty about acknowledging their fears. I encouraged them to share their feelings with friends and loved ones rather than try to deny or sublimate what they were actually feeling. “Shared sorrow is half sorrow”, I wrote. Several readers wrote to say it was a relief to know they were not the only one feeling hopeless. They said they actually felt better reading this. One reader even said it was a relief to not have to pretend to be optimistic.

It is now five months later since I first addressed the huge impact the pandemic was having on our future. Since then I have been hopeful that a vaccine will be coming soon. I have been encouraged by the actions of a few countries and American states to slow the spread of the virus. Other times I have been greatly dismayed at the huge loss of life that has continued around the world. I have been particularly saddened and angered by the miserably ineffective response of the US Government to take any coordinated action to mitigate the impact of the virus.

It is clear that this virus has continued to influence everything we do and believe in, yet there is a seemingly impenetrable resistance by many people to accept the reality of it.

It would be easy to write off this resistance by assuming it is only from ignorant people, to label them as too stupid to understand what is really happening. Another explanation might be that it serves a political agenda.

While both of these might be correct in some cases, I have come to see that there is another more fundamental reason for people’s denial of this pandemic. I gained this insight thanks to a good friend I was with recently.

My friend is a very intelligent and accomplished lawyer. In the course of our conversation, my friend regularly expressed her skepticism about a number of things about the pandemic. She felt it was important to question the orthodoxy being put forth by governments, scientists, media, politicians, and any other entity that claimed to know what the best response was. My friend grew up under a totalitarian government so I think her skepticism is worth paying attention to. She knows what it is like to be told how to think.

As our conversations continued, my friend shared something that turned on a light for me. She shared that she had to question the orthodoxy because to not ask questions was to have no hope.

For my friend, she managed her fears and maintained hope by being willing to at least consider some of the unorthodox explanations for what the world was going through.

I saw the resistance to Covid-19 in a new perspective. I saw that the denial of people to the perniciousness of the virus was a way to maintain hope. It was a way to beat back the fear and chaos that this pandemic has wrought on our lives.

My friend is intelligent so she isn’t going to fully embrace just any unorthodox explanation of this pandemic but she is going to consider them because she is looking for hope. Hope sustains her as it does all of us in difficult times. An unexamined desire for hope is what leads people to fall prey to hoaxes, to false prophets, to quack science and to demagogues who promise miracle cures and easy solutions to complicated problems.

Where seeking hope crosses the line into dangerous thoughts or activities is not clear cut. It depends on the person’s ability to manage their anxiety. The more anxious and frightened a person becomes, the more likely they are to gravitate to views that live outside the limits of common sense. Reality bends to the need to feel safe. The mind seeks answers that soothe our fears even if those answers lack any grounding in science or rationality. Fear is the genesis of conspiracy theories. Fear is what creates mobs. Fear is what supports dictators. The exploitation of people’s fear is what gets incompetent or even dangerous people in positions of power.

We probably all have some beliefs that would not hold up to close scrutiny. Those beliefs help us make sense out of the parts of life where we feel vulnerable. Those beliefs are our protection from what we can’t understand. They shield our egos and sustain our sense of self and safety. They are our Big Macs and fries, our junk food. They can keep us alive and provide some nourishment but if that is all we ate, our health would eventually be negatively affected. This does not stop some people from making fast food their main source of nutrition. The consequences, the reality of their actions, are not immediately felt so they are ignored. A balanced, healthy diet just seems too far out of reach, too difficult or the junk food just seems taste better to them. This is the same with the resistance to adhering to measures to stop this pandemic.

Thanks to my friend, I am looking at this pandemic from a new perspective. I see the responses of people to it as a longing for hope and a need to believe they can survive. In the absence of leadership that unites people, they will seek whatever makes them individually feel they have some control over their lives. Reality bends to the need to feel safe.

What we need now are leaders who will not exploit this pandemic for their own selfish needs but will offer hope based on sound information, not wishful thinking and quack remedies. We need leaders who will model cooperative behavior, who won’t pick fights with everyone who disagrees with them, who won’t seek to politicize mitigating measures and treat them as if junk food is just as good for you as good nutrition.

Until we take this pandemic as the threat it is to every aspect of our lives, it will be among us. That is a bitter pill for me but one that would be wrong to pretend otherwise. I so want this pandemic to be over but my wanting is not enough. I have to do my personal part to protect myself and others. I also have to support leaders who can bring order out of chaos and real hope as an anecdote to hoaxes and fear.

Those who ascribe to alternative theories about this pandemic are not terrible people. Their need to maintain skepticism isn’t wrong. They are not my enemy. They are acting as humans do when overcome with anxiety. They want the security all humans want. False prophets and false information always appear when there is a threat to our safety. How we respond to them is what matters. We have to listen carefully to all opinions and look for the source of their beliefs, difficult as that may be. In doing so we will begin to find the way to concentrate our efforts to beat this pandemic.

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Thank you for being one of my readers. Your support is essential to my ability to continue to write, to reach out to all of you. I welcome your feed back. Please forward this to friends and colleagues you feel would find it interesting. Love the ones you are with. Be patient with those that are hard to love. Life is short even when there isn’t a pandemic. Be safe. Be well.