Photo via Pikrepo

It’s okay to not be okay.

Will this novel coronavirus reach you? Will you contract its disease, COVID-19? Might your parents? Other loved ones? If so, who will survive? Who won’t? Will you be able to pay your rent or mortgage in the coming months? When things return to ‘normal’ again, will you have a job? What will that new normal look like?

The enormity of these questions and the obvious strain they place on us can have a liberating silver lining.

No one is secure

We are swamped by more uncertainty today than we’ve ever encountered. Isolated and half-informed, we face a deep insecurity that was unimaginable only weeks ago.

The threats and risks before us remain unevenly distributed. This disease is particularly harsh toward the older and less well among us. Our sudden economic contraction hits some sectors harder than others. Those individuals and families who’ve only just been scraping by are most likely to fall behind as resources run short.

Still, in a sense we’ve not felt before, this crisis threatens everyone. With a virus this nimble and an economic shock this comprehensive, neither fame nor family name guarantees immunity. COVID-19 respects no border, favours no religion, exempts no employment status, makes no credit checks. Nobody knows what next week or next autumn holds for them. You do not have personal security, but you are not alone. No one is secure.

No one has ever been secure

It’s true; the world is different than it was at the end of 2019. In their details, our lives have shifted immensely in just a few months.

But drawing back, we see that our reality, writ large, is much as it has ever been. Any sunrise might be the last for us or our loved ones. The comforts we’ve counted on can slip away or be taken from us at any point.

In any one of those thousands of showers we’ve taken, we might have slipped and cracked our skull. We’ve driven countless miles and could have crashed spectacularly through no fault of our own (or through a single silly mistake on our part). Among our many stormy nights, a lightning strike could have found us. Triggered by who knows what, a mutation in our cells could have set off a cancerous cascade. Our employers could have gone under despite our best efforts at work, casting us into the ranks of the unemployed. Flood could have taken our homes. Our investments might have gone sour, evaporating our retirement dreams. In fact, most of these things have befallen people we’ve known.

Even the prospect of global destruction is not new to us. We lived for decades with the threat (still very real) of nuclear war consuming our civilisation. NASA and others have long scanned the skies for asteroids that could do to humanity what we suspect one did to the dinosaurs.

You see, we’ve never had security. None of us. No matter how much we want some things to stay the same, everything changes. No pleasure we enjoy is guaranteed to continue. We can beaver away to create small niches that seem secure and within a certain range of conditions might make us more secure than others. But whether we call it Life, the universe, reality or God’s will, there is a whole of which we are a part. As a part, we can’t bend the whole to our will. Neither can our intelligence wrestle the unfathomable complexities of nature to certainty. We can’t chart an untroubled life, let alone deliver on the plan.

You have never been secure. No one has ever been secure.

Now, you can drop the mask of security, the pretence of certainty

This coronavirus is not a gift, but there may be silver linings. One is that the health and economic threats posed by the virus are so in-your-face that there is no way to pretend, even to yourself, that things are fine.

We spend so much of our lives in this charade of okay-ness, but we don’t realise the enormous energy we waste on it. It’s a self-perpetuating force in our society. Why?

We see our friends and colleagues projecting an image of strength, solidity and well-being. Yet we have an underlying sense of doubt, anxiety and malaise. “I must be messed up,” we tell ourselves, “The one misfit who feels this way.” This thought that everyone else is okay while we are not magnifies our unease. We put on an act to hide our vulnerability and look as with-it as others appear. We reach a point where we can’t even admit many of our weaknesses and insecurities to ourselves, so we expand the make-believe to deceive not just those around us but also ourselves.

But very rarely, something truly awful and overwhelming on a global scale emerges. This novel coronavirus is one of those events; the last of this magnitude was the Second World War. In the face of such cataclysmic threat, few of us can keep our mask in place.

Here is the silver lining. We see the mask slip on others. What has always been true becomes obvious: no one is secure. As we recognise that, we realise we are not solitary screw-ups in a world of comfortable and self-assured people. We are just like everyone else. As the masks around us start to falter, we might invest less in our own. We may begin to re-capture and divert the energy we’ve spent maintaining our projected image. Where might we apply it, as we admit insecurity and uncertainty, as we face our own vulnerability?

We might direct this energy toward dealing with our situation and helping those around us. We can tend to our own mental health. Recognising the importance of connection, we might reach out to those we love and to people most at risk. We can share our vulnerability and in doing so invite them to do the same. This invitation helps them free the same energy we’ve rediscovered, energy crucial to their surviving this crisis and thriving after it.

The charade of security we’ve played throughout our lives is, in a way, the pretence that we can hold the perpetual change of reality at bay, that we can secure ourselves against it. Of course we can’t. When we realise that it’s okay to be insecure, that we are not weirdos for feeling not-okay, we can stop the deception. No longer putting on our act, we can instead face and deal with this frightening and ever-changing reality. Then we’re able to help others do the same, simply by sharing our vulnerability, letting our mask fall.

It’s okay to not be okay. Take this chance to stop pretending. Instead, connect, share and cope.

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