Hold on

Agony of WaitingFour years ago today I had a nerve-wracking morning in a Brussels hotel room, as news emerged of a first, then a second explosion in the city. It was a relief to be able to instantly contact family and friends back home, but the hours of uncertainty were frightening, and unclear information and people’s conflicting advice paralysed me. Stay in my room? Try to leave the city before they shut down transport? Wait in case something else happens?

Thirty-two people died in those terror attacks. My own experience – rattled, but unharmed and soon over – is unimportant in comparison, and certainly not unique. But on a personal level, that was maybe the first time I consciously thought about what it means to feel safe, and how lucky I was to live in a place where I barely thought about danger. Whatever the actual probability of terrible things happening, I realised, your perception of those risk and threats matters, too.

Today, in March 2020, awareness of risk blankets all of us. And it feels all-consuming at times. How do you switch off and talk about something else, when there is only one thing to talk about? When conversations are dominated by our brand new vocabulary (social distancing, self-isolation, lockdown), when every social media post and every news story is just a different angle on the same topic? And when – maybe hardest of all – everything is unclear or unproven and no one knows how long any of this will last? Here in the UK, the vast majority don’t even know if we have (or have had) the virus, because so little testing is happening here. We’re struggling with regularly changing, at times all too vague messages from the government, while hearing about different (better?) approaches being taken elsewhere.

For many people in the world, the danger is especially real: frontline health workers, people with existing health conditions, those living in crowded slums – and we need to do whatever we can to help them. 

But for all of us there are risks, and for all of us this is a supreme test of managing uncertainty. Staying still and waiting, accepting we can’t control something is hard. As a recent New Scientist cover story points out, people find uncertainty so unsettling that they’d rather receive an electric shock than wait for the possibility of one (see also: How I Met Your Mother, ‘Slap Bet’ episode). In the current era we’re even less well-equipped to deal with this: researchers say our tolerance of uncertainty has decreased significantly over the past 20 years – possibly because of access to phones and internet access that encourage us to lean on ‘safety behaviours’, such as texting people to check on them or regularly checking the news. 

So what can we do? (I’m not managing to take my own advice much, but maybe these links will be useful to someone else.) Focus on small things: this essay on appreciation from the School of Life struck a chord with me. Help others: Positive News has 10 ways to help others during the coronavirus outbreak. Read up on what is working: the Solutions Journalism Hub is collecting stories and features about responses that are (at least partially) successful. If possible, though it feels hard to focus on anything else, find your own personal distractions: I like Austin Kleon’s creativity books. And I suppose, above all, try to reassure ourselves that fears and discomfort about the great unknown are entirely human.