Cancer patients who steer between the Scylla of alarmism and the Charybdis of defeatism have devised oblique stratagems to navigate the difficult passageway of fearful vigilance. Within its straits, we seek not to banish fear — an impossibility — but to filter, buffer, intercept, sidetrack or dilute it so it can serve as a safeguard without obliterating us.
Concentrating on something besides the fright — on breathing or stretching, on an intriguing task to accomplish — distracts us but also gives us a routine or objective over which we can exert some control. Just as happiness cannot be attained by making it a goal — John Stuart Mill believed one must aim at “something else” to stumble upon happiness as a sort of byproduct — fear cannot be defanged except through indirect methods.
Especially within the narrowed circumstances imposed by the coronavirus, it requires ingenuity to discover quotidian undertakings that can convert fear from a virulent to a vigilant emotion. While we strive to remain conscious of our interdependence — our vulnerability to people who may be contagious, our responsibility not to endanger others — we need to engage in small but innovative enterprises.
On a practical level, consider what activities you enjoy in normal times. Begin to bake bread, one member of my support group advises; go on nature walks, another says. Organize digital pictures into a photo album, practice the guitar, check out a remote learning class, put together a film festival or a playlist, take a virtual tour of a museum, cultivate a garden, set up regular FaceTime or Skype sessions with family, try woodworking, use apps to play games with distant friends, devise home schooling lessons, sing on your balcony as many Italians did or for Yo-Yo Ma’s #SongsofComfort project, contribute to a food bank, or do as I am doing: Learn how to knit socks.
Munch’s screamer clearly cannot heed instructions not to touch his face or to take shelter at home, but we are trying to do so and trying to use vigilant fear as a bulwark against incapacitating terror.
In the cruelest month of April, here’s what many of us hope: That we will be able to look back on this alarming period in years to come and say that the power of vigilant fear — for ourselves and for each other — has seen more of us through than we had ever thought possible.
Susan Gubar, who has been dealing with ovarian cancer since 2008, is distinguished emerita professor of English at Indiana University. Her latest book is “Late-Life Love.”