The Fire and The Plague
Imagine spending a year in a forest fire. Your house is fire proof but you’re surrounded by an inferno. You’re safe inside, but it’s still necessary to venture out occasionally for food and water. You dodge burning branches, skirt around raging flames, and you learn to clock every ember and flare and whiff of smoke. It’s like a child’s game of hot lava but with a devastating outcome if you step wrong or misjudge the timing of a falling tree engulfed in flames. Now imagine that at the end of this interminably long year, the fire begins to die. You can again wander through the forest, carefully making sure to stay upwind of the smoke, but you still look for any sign of flare ups and avoid fire at all costs.
Now it’s winter. The fire has died. The forest, while burned to a crisp, is no longer dangerous. But the part of your brain that has kept you alive has not changed its feelings about fire. This important but primitive part of your brain is binary. There is alive, and there is dead, and it sees everything it encounters as contributing singularly to one or the other. This part of your brain has no use for nuance or entropy. It wants to know the outcome of any given input before it happens. And after a year of avoiding all fire at all costs for fear of certain death, it now clocks the smallest ember as potentially fatal. Even though you know an ember alone is harmless, this part of your brain will release every chemical it has at its disposal to get you to run for your life if someone so much as lights a cigarette in your presence. But it’s winter. It’s cold. And if you allow this blunt force instrument of survival to continue to hold sway over you, you will ignore everything about fire that you need. In short, you’ll freeze to death.
Those of us who have listened to the experts, researched virology and epidemiology, and generally towed the line when it comes to masks and distancing have allowed that part of our brain to see every human that we don’t live with as potentially fatal. We’ve counted on it. When we walk down the street we have mastered the dance of crossing politely to the other side when a stranger approaches. We’ve abstained from getting close to even the closest of friends and family. We skipped holidays and birthdays. We shiver in disgust and fear when we see people on the bus or in restaurants. We can’t imagine the terror of a waiter taking our order. The blunt instrument of our predictive brain has done an amazing short-term job of keeping us alive, but it’s time to begin rewiring our brains for life in the long term. If we see every flame as an inferno we’ll freeze to death. And if we see every person as the plague, we’ll die of anxiety, loneliness, and depression.
As we crawl out of this pandemic, I worry that many people I hold dear will continue to feed and listen to that blunt part of our brain that is designed only to keep us alive with the crudest and quickest information it can grab. It only cares that we survive and gives not one shit about whether or not we thrive. We have to dig deeper to rewire those circuits back towards contact and community. We have to relearn to dance and hug and love. And we have to extend patience and kindness to those who may get there slower than others.
Find a way into your mind that lets you take command of that old lizard brain, thank it for its service, and send it on vacation. Sadly, it will be needed again soon enough. But for now, let’s light a fire, get together, and keep each other from freezing to death.