The world is on lockdown. The stock market is volatile. Unemployment has set multiple records and not in a good way. Politicians are acknowledging death. None of that might compare to the deprivation of human connection.
We are socially distancing from people we love… or even like. We yearn for human connections beyond those displayed on a 5.5″ screen. We want handshakes and hugs, not YAZ (yet another Zoom). We want to greet our neighbors with a smile rather than suspicion if they washed their hands or have honored social distancing.
In the last few weeks, we have experienced a range of emotions as a new level of uncertainty has crept into the world. These times are rightfully driving the overwhelming feelings of fear, uncertainty, doubt, and anxiety for many.
I feel gratitude – an insurmountable amount of gratitude more than any other emotion. And a nagging desire to express the gratitude coursing through my veins because the source is worthy and surprising.
I realize that my family is navigating this pandemic with minimal pain. That drives gratitude. An overwhelming 22 million are struggling with unemployment. Courtney and I are blessed to still be working. I am fortunate to have a job that allowed me to transition to WFH easily. Courtney has been alternating between WFH and the clinic, which does impose some risk. Our kids have found a balance with online learning, personal time, and family bonding. We are focused on what matters. Oh, and we are getting up to work out together every weekday.
Yet, I realize that my family is navigating this pandemic with near-maximum risk. That has driven even greater gratitude.
I live with an internal enemy relentless committed to attacking my body. I have grown to accept this intrinsic threat and what it means. Multiple sclerosis is the result of an overactive immune system that attacks the myelin sheathing around nerve connections. In plain and fun terms, it’s like having a badass military force that can defeat almost any foe. They are also really bored. So, they attack a subset of those they are supposed to protect.
Many of us with MS and other conditions are on disease-modifying therapies (DMTs). In the case of my DMTs, my immune system is suppressed. It creates truckloads of risks and consequences. I have a minimally viable immune system and get sick easier than most. People with MS commit suicide at twice the rate of the population.
It also means those with MS are one of the most vulnerable during this pandemic – a virus that attacks the body and social isolation that attacks the mind.
I am watching a society sacrifice to help all of us, especially the most vulnerable. Nurses, nurse practitioners, PAs, MAs, doctors, and many other healthcare professionals are risking exposure to assist those with COVID-19. The backbone of society continues to strive to maintain our way of life and create some level of normalcy – retail employees, grocers, truck drivers, teachers, and many others. They are doing this with kindness and concern for all of us.
Tammy, a pharmacy technician at my local Costco pharmacy, is an example of this commitment. She was deeply worried about my health and going out in public even to pick up prescriptions. So, she voluntarily offered to drop off my prescriptions at my house. This is not mail order. This is not a Costco service. This is one person wanting to help another as she was going to personally drive them to my house during her time off.
And in all of that, I feel gratitude over fear, doubt, anxiety, or any negativity. When the best of humanity is in action to help one another, how could I not?
(NOTE: This was one of the most difficult posts to draft. These sacrifices are causing pain and struggle for many. That cannot be taken for granted.)
In 2016, neuroscientists published a paper entitled, “Social Transfer of Pain In Mice” in Science Advances. The experiment tested pain experience and tolerance in three different groups of mice. The first group underwent controlled changes to have a more acute feeling of pain. The remaining two groups were unchanged.
Researchers then conducted a series of standard tests that allow the measurement of pain each felt. (The ethical merits of animal testing are not up for debate in this post.) Only a portion of the mice underwent anything causing pain. A controlled group of mice was left that neither underwent any changes nor had undergone tests causing pain.
The researchers were surprised to discover that a portion of the control group experienced pain. This only occurred with the control group mice that were roommates with those that experienced pain. To reiter, the mice under pain had effectively caused their roommates to experience pain. The authors theorize that the social transfer of pain occurred via smell.
The end result – Pain is contagious.
I can understand any skepticism around that conclusion and its relevance. Yet, how different are we as humans? Maybe, we transfer our pain, fear, and anxieties via smell. Maybe. I believe we might do it via more complicated manners, and those are not pretty in the long term for ourselves and others.
The transfer of pain does not merely exist in the lab or for mice. We have each experienced this in our personal lives. We can treat the ones we most cherish and love as our personal emotional punching bag almost irrespective of the topic.
We use words like “hangry” to describe an emotional state derived by a lack of fulfilling the lowest need in Maslov’s hierarchy.
We live in a world of road rage which fundamentally does not make sense. It effectively translates to – “I am pissed at someone cutting me off and putting me in danger. My response is to drastically and actively increase my risk and danger by being hostile to another car.” It’s an increase of our negative and pain while trying to spread it to another.
We have emotional bleed, and pain is contagious. So are anxiety and other negative emotions.
The world is scary right now. Life contains a level of uncertainty that many have not experienced since 2008 or perhaps 2001. An entire generation of adults, the Millenials, may only have faint whispers in their memories of there previous periods that have challenged us. I wrote about how the generations need each other more than ever, and that one of our greatest modern workplace challenges may be one of our greatest resources.
Pain can stem from the uncertainty in front of us. That is the danger zone. Are we really pissed at the person receiving our anger? Perhaps. At the level in which we are expressing it? Doubtful.
We have decisions to make in the midst of today’s chaos and increased emotion. Will we amplify the pain through ignorance? Will we amplify the pain through exaggeration? Will we amplify the pain, anxiety, and fear of others so we are in comparatively less pain to become the one-eyed man on the island of the blind. (The wild disbelief that pain is a zero-sum game.)
Another option is to lead our inner selves, our families, and our communities through this pain. Instead of doubling down on our infection, we can stop hurting ourselves and use this moment for personal growth. We can process the traumatic events in front of us and use it to come together with the love and cherish that unite us.
DISCLAIMER: I posted this and realized someone could think this is a passive-aggressive message to a person in particular. It is not. I am absolutely sure I have pissed people off and hurt people. I have relationships that could be healthier. I am human, and that statement is an explanation BUT not a reason or excuse. I have not heard from anyone, but if I did hurt you, I am truly sorry if I didn’t heed my own musings.