Mortal fear

I fear death. So, there it is, in black and white. It’s not incomprehensible that I’m afraid of death. My father passed away when I was 14 and only recently I found out what the real impact was of that event. I think most of the world’s population fears death, but we don’t talk about it much. For a lot of people death is abstract, elusive. Even for a believer like me. Don’t get me wrong, my faith was and is a great source of comfort in times of death. And yet I am and remain a human being, one with a broken heart of a father who is missed.

At the same time, my father’s death taught me many valuable things. The most important is how precious our time is. I have a personal aversion to people who say, “I’m going to go all-out, work hard, make a lot of money in the coming years so I can retire early. Then I can enjoy my hard work and relax”. Because in my experience, what if you don’t make it? What if you die before you reach retirement age? Like my father, who was 55 when he died. That’s why I have an aversion to a “I’ll enjoy life when I’m retired”-attitude. Because I know from experience that you’re not sure you’re gonna make it to retirement. That’s why it’s better to live today as if every day matters.

That brings me to the reason for this blog. My anxiety regarding the coronavirus pandemic, which is spreading around the world like a slow-moving blanket. It took me a few days to realize it, but this is a perfect storm for me. First of all, the reporting about the virus is related to my doctoral research, so I’ve been keeping a close eye on it. Secondly, my brain tends to exaggerate risks, so it reacts more strongly to the possibility that something could go wrong in this pandemic. Finally, I am currently staying in a different country than most of my family and friends, so travel restrictions could seriously affect my life. And since I’m not the only one who’s worried, I decided to write this blog.

The virus is very likely to be a zoonotic disease, which means that it has jumped from wild animals to humans. This means that I heard about the virus at an early stage, because it is related to my doctoral research. In my doctoral research I focus on health monitoring of wild animals, in particular great apes. Traditionally, wild animals were mainly monitored for reasons that are now surfacing with the coronavirus: monitoring viruses in wild animals can provide insight into what kind of diseases can spill over to humans. But in my research I’m particularly interested in how researchers can monitor the health of wild animals in order to protect endangered species from extinction. What new research methods can we implement to make this health monitoring as informative and fast as possible? And how can this contribute to the protection of great apes against (new) infectious diseases that could further endanger the species?

So during those first weeks keeping up with the news was out of curiosity: how is the virus going to develop, what are the symptoms, where did it come from? Then the focus shifted to: how is it going to spread, is it highly contagious, how do viruses from different geographical locations relate to each other genetically? Until the main focus of the news became: the virus is spreading rapidly and could have a serious impact on our societies. And that’s where we are now. Every day more is written about the virus, information and misinformation follow one another and people become afraid, not least because they notice the consequences in their daily lives. And with that shift, something changed in my brain, too. My fear of death was rekindled. Not a personal fear of death: interestingly enough, I am not afraid of my personal death. But a fear that people around me will die from it. And a fear that if I get the virus, I’ll accidentally pass it on to someone who dies from it.

That brings me to the last point of the perfect storm: I am so privileged that I have become accustomed to the fact that I have freedom of movement. Even when I’m in another country, I can easily fly back to the Netherlands should something go wrong. A few years ago my grandmother’s brother died and I was in the Netherlands within two days, in time for the funeral. The ability to be there physically for people we love, whether it’s a celebration or to comfort someone. And the travel restrictions that are set stir up a fear that this possibility may soon no longer be there. The “what-ifs” can easily prevail at such a moment. “What if… my grandmother or mother dies and I can’t be at the funeral, because I wouldn’t be allowed into the Netherlands anymore?” 

One of the best things I could do in the past week was give myself time to understand these underlying reasons for my inner turmoil. And if you are concerned, I would like to encourage you to make time and space to investigate that unrest. Cry the tension out your body, write down your worries and get “what-ifs” clear. That made it possible for me to express them, not only in this blog, but also to family and friends. I could find comfort with my housemates. Realistically, that means I’ve had a few less efficient working days this last week. And at times like that, I remind myself of the life lesson my father taught me at a young age: “Als het niet wil zoals het moet, dan moet het maar zoals het wil.” Which doesn’t translate very well, but means something like this: “If things don’t go the way they should be going, then they should be going the way they are going.”

Why am I overly worried about this? It doesn’t make sense, it doesn’t change the situation. I’d better accept that things are the way they are. I used to interpret my father’s statement as follows: if things don’t go the way you’d like them to go, then you just must do them in the way that will work. Action. But nowadays I interpret it as follows: if things don’t go the way you would like them to go, then you have to accept how things are going. No action, but just embracing what is. One way of doing that is by following the suggestions I gave above for investigating your unrest. Once you know what your core fear is, it will become easier to acknowledge and accept it. And then you can challenge yourself to let go of your need for control (I can write about this extensively, but that’s for another time).

The pandemic is scary, because we don’t know exactly what it’s going to bring. That’s okay, we can allow ourselves to feel that fear. And at the same time, the reality is that our worries don’t change the course of the pandemic. We can use common sense to prevent spreading the disease by following the advice of our government. The vast majority of people are recovering from this virus and the pandemic and the restrictive measures that currently affect our lives will come to an end. Until then, we may remind ourselves that we are all human beings with our individual sensitivities and fears. As Brene Brown says: “Try to be scared without being scary”. The best thing we can do is to keep paying attention to the people around us and ask: “How can I help you?”

6 Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. 7 And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

Philippians 4: 6-7 (NBV)