Anxiety in the Time of Coronavirus

How to maintain your civic duty and go viral with your sanity in tact

America is an oligarchy organized by the hierarchy of the white supremacist patriarchy. Pancake Brain is a (free) Friday newsletter dedicated to replacing the status quo with equitable public power, and a community dedicated to building the discipline of democracy that equity requires. We move through the world committed to a daily practice of activism and critical thinking. We reject limitations and embrace the possibilities of social imagination, certain that the queer future is better than anything we’ve yet dreamed up. We insist on our right and duty to the political conversation, and empower others to join us. Out of love for ourselves and the collective, we are engaged in a sustainable practice of freedom, endlessly un-fucking our brains.

This project is based on How to Start a Revolution, which I hope you can read or listen to here.

Dearest Pancake Brains,

Hello from self-quarantine, or, as I used to call it, “freelance writing.”

I’m emailing you from New York, where I returned yesterday from my second work trip in the past week.* I’ve spent what feels like several eternities reading the New York Times while strapped into the tin-can purgatory of air travel, wondering if I might land in a different reality. We’re all in this torturous liminal space of uncertainty now, and I come to you from the heightened anxiety of being trapped on a plane to say: It is your civic duty to stop worrying for the sake of worrying and take care of your goddamn brain. (And, yes, I’m also talking to myself here.)

I spent much of my time at the airport thinking about my partner, and remembering how I said goodbye when we parted, suddenly convinced that trivial interaction might be immortalized as our last one. Buying $17 water, or $23 yogurt, or a $43 burrito before my flight, I’d stare off into the the distance, and see our last hug instilled with the poetic urgency of a flashback from the Before Times in any survival horror. It was also at the airport that it occurred to me that I have seen way too many scary movies.

I used to be obsessed with any and all horror. I’d see anything that aspired to the label, regardless of quality. (“Oh, what’s this? Happy Death Day, and the title is written on a birthday cake? One ticket, please.”) At the peak of my obsession, I was fully hijacked by trauma brain. I lived in the grip of constant anxiety, broken only by sleep riddled with gruesome nightmares. Given that I was the meticulous architect of my own personal hell, going to scary movies was like a dare. It seemed as if there was no way even the most deranged fiction could best my personal supply of worst-case scenarios. (I went to see Hereditary by myself, and shrugged.)

I can’t watch scary movies anymore, and maybe that’s because it increasingly feels like we’re living in one. Ever since I started my journey of spiritual healing, after turning in the first draft of How to Start a Revolution in fall 2018, I’ve struggled to watch my once-beloved horror movies. I used to re-watch my favorites — including Hellraiser, The Fly, and The Thing — and consume every new piece-of-shit slasher film that auto-generated on Fandango’s home page. Now I find myself faced with a difficult decision each time my favorite directors release a new film. (I saw Midsommar with a friend, and while my thinking mind delighted in Ari Arster’s brilliant absurdity, I was so struck by the toxic stress of fear, I still felt sick the next day.)

What are we doing to ourselves when we deliberately consume violence?

What are we doing to ourselves when we worry about every possible worst case scenario related to the Coronavirus?

This is not to say you can choose to skip the news along with the latest horror film. You have a duty to be informed. How informed, exactly? Perhaps a better framing of that question is: What do you need to know to ensure your safety? For example, I doubt it’s helping you to read the bureaucratic specifics behind school closings in Northern Italy if your own governor has recently declared a state of emergency (*raises hand*). The purpose of the news ought to be to empower citizens to be free and self-governing, and right now, I think it is safe to say the mainstream media has succeeded mostly in making otherwise sane people fill their closets with toilet paper.

Given the threat of the pandemic, I’d urge you to act as a journalist for your micro-community, seeking out information, and verifying it. Look to local news and elected officials to understand how to be prepared. I promise that you can find the time to do the equivalent of a third-grade research project for your specific situation. (To begin, I recommend this piece from Zeynep Tufekci on how preparing for the Coronavirus is part of your civic duty.)

Someone recently asked me if I think the term “gaslighting” has been overused. In my humble opinion, the abuse technique is the thing that’s getting to be a bit too too on-the-nose. The Coronavirus would be a crisis under any presidency, but it will almost certainly be more deadly than it might have been given that Trump is brazenly lying to the public about the most basic information, ultimately depriving the country of a shared foundation of fact from which to navigate this global emergency.

As far as I’m concerned, this illegitimate president is a white supremacist authoritarian, but even if you could somehow erase this administration’s corrupt attacks on democracy and cruelty toward the marginalized, we would still be languishing under profound incompetence that has been explicitly conceded by even some of his fiercest loyalists. Trump is responsible for so much unspeakable evil, it’s easy to forget that he’s also an idiot. There is a mad king tweeting from the Oval Office, and I wouldn’t be surprised if there are huge swaths of the population hoping that the Coronavirus saves us from Trump.

A certain level of perpetual anxiety is only reasonable, but we have to be more intentional when we wonder about what tomorrow will bring. You need to make a choice about how you direct the focus of your big, beautiful brain, and the ongoing modern-update of 28 Days Later is not helping anyone. If you’re going to speculate wildly around the Coronavirus, why not do so in terms of total human potential? Or, in other words: If international governments can organize mass shifts in global behavior in response to a public health crisis, what would it mean if those world leaders were willing to declare that the climate crisis is an emergency?

That amount of hope is a lot to ask for, and, it won’t always be possible to summon total optimism in moments of darkness, but you must make a sustainable commitment to your own mental health.

Under impending threat of quarantine and social isolation, self-imposed and otherwise, many of us are facing the possibility of squaring off with our own thoughts. As a former suicidal asshole, I know that used to be my greatest fear. I’d like to remind you, and myself, that we have to make the decision to engage in the constant process of clicking on the light. Let your preparedness include that list of books you’ve always been meaning to read. When you find yourself struggling, listen to music that makes you dance, watch movies that make you laugh, or call a friend who makes you smile. And when the parasite of destructive speculation scuttles across your frontal cortex once again, notice it, and try your best to make the decision to think differently. Or maybe just get up and wash your hands.

With earnest irreverence,
Lauren

*First I went to Napa, to deliver a keynote and moderate a panel on reproductive rights for International Women’s Day, and, earlier this week, to Toronto, where I did a Q&A about How to Start a Revolution with Dr. Sonia Kang at Rotman School of Management. I’ve added some lovely folks from both of those events to join us here. Hello new friends, and old ones!

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Given that we’re all going to have far too much time to read in the next few weeks, I think it’s time to start the conversation about making virtual book club happen.

What would you like to read together? Sound off in the comments below, and I’ll build a poll from your suggestions.