I woke up at 3:00 am choking and sweating and generally in a state of panic. I got out of bed and went straight to the bathroom feeling like I might vomit, repeatedly whispering to myself, “It’s just anxiety, it’s just anxiety, it’s just anxiety.“
The operative word, of course, is “just,” as if anxiety alone isn’t enough to bring a world of hell upon you with all its psychosomatic impact.
Standing in nothing but my boxers in the bathroom, I went from sweating to freezing in a matter of seconds, and tried to calm myself while also trying desperately to cough up what felt like my throat and my stomach in the same gasp of air.
For about five minutes, it was like this, and I wondered if this was what coronavirus is like.
When I was finally able to catch my breath, I got some water and lemon and began drinking and pacing around the kitchen repeating my mantra. Then came the pleading with myself, with the gods, with the universe–those familiar phrases when worry overwhelms: “I’ll do anything if,” or “Just show me a sign it’ll all be okay, anything, please.”
Then there it was, a mourning dove that cooed, the first one I’d heard since the fall.
I can’t tell you why that was calming or even really say it was a “sign,” because hey, things might not be okay, but just being reminded for a brief moment of life, of the raw and real natural world, was somehow exactly what I need to slow my beating heart.
My breathing eased, and though my throat was still sore (and still is), the lemon water was soothing like the dove. I paced around the kitchen searching for something comforting, but instead my mind went to a darker place, one that brought even more comfort in a weird way.
A few years back, while working to help refugees, I had attended a screening on the Rwandan genocide at the United Nations building, and after the screening, a doctor called in to the audience from a hospital in Aleppo, the last hospital in Aleppo, to provide an firsthand account of the war in Syria. They had trouble staying connected because the reception was so terrible.
Still, they described horrific conditions: shortages of food and medical supplies, the constant threat of Russian missiles or barrel bombs thrown from helicopters. They noted that the bombs would drop, then the pilots would wait until people gathered to rescue anyone trapped in the rubble–and then strike again.
They targeted hospitals, locations of journalists, and anywhere they believed the opposition might go to guarantee themselves some safe haven. Human rights there were made non-existent.
And in that darkness, I found them inspiring. I found their courage impossibly, beautifully human. I thought I couldn’t imagine living through a war-zone like them, but seeing them do it was conviction to me that the human spirit can persevere through unbelievable odds.
I saw them a second time recently, when the movie For Sama was released–and I recognized the same doctor I’d encountered speaking before the UN.
I don’t mean to draw too sharp or unfair a parallel here: we are not being rained down on with bombs. There are not, so far, people policing the streets with gun or grenade. Coronavirus is not some war we are fighting.
And yet, the fear I have in this moment, the anxiety-inducing existential dread that overwhelms me when I really think through the implications of what the next eighteen months or more could hold, all of it, and the one thing that brings me back and calms me when nothing else will is the inspiration I draw from those who have faced just as much if not more terrifying odds–and in that, comes the reminder that we’re not really alone, ever.
To put that another way, you and I carry within us the same fierce spirit of the doctor in Aleppo, of the journalist imprisoned for her reporting who will stop at nothing to pursue the truth, of the soldier who lives on for nothing more than freedom. No wounds, to body or soul, can quiet that spirit unless we give away that power.
We’re not always in a place to hear that spirit. Sometimes, we wake up in our knickers shivering all over at the thought of our own mortality–and that’s okay.
Because we get back up. We listen for anything, and the mourning dove coos and calms us. And we remember why we’re in this, together, to carry on with the same passion and love for the world and all who are in it, because, well, that’s what we humans do.