Courage in a Pandemic

Oren Jay Sofer
April 14, 2020

Each time we check our phones, a headline sends a current of energy rushing through us. “The virus is spreading… markets are crashing… schools are closed…” 

If you’re worried (or worse), it’s understandable. There’s panic in the air and anxiety in our bones. And fear is a natural, healthy response to danger.

But how can we resist giving in to overwhelm, letting panicked thoughts take over, or allowing the sirens of the news media infect our mind? We know intellectually that these kinds of reactions don’t help—but how can we actually prevent ourselves from falling under their sway?

The answer begins with an old-fashioned word that seems remarkably relevant today: courage.

One of the greatest myths about courage is that it means not feeling afraid. If I were brave and courageous, I wouldn’t feel anxious, panicked or worried, we might think. 

But courage isn’t the absence of fear. It’s the willingness to be present and respond in spite of fear.

It means we have the capacity to see clearly and self-soothe and during a crisis. It means we have enough balance and wisdom so that we don’t freak out when things go haywire—or, perhaps even more importantly, so we don’t shut off in denial and pretend everything is okay.

For all of us alive today, this pandemic is unprecedented. In the midst of such urgent danger, of course many of us are on high-alert. Three of my own loved ones are in very high-risk categories. Two of them are stuck in Rome as I write (and have been for months now). I feel concerned, and I'm in touch with them almost daily.

But I don't feed the fear or let my mind move into panic. This is where all the effort we’ve put into meditation, mindfulness, and wisdom can start to pay off. This is what we’ve practiced for.

It takes courage to be with things as they are. And that is what meditation teaches. Meditation teaches us how to turn toward and be with the truth of each moment—pleasant or painful. When there’s pain, hardship or discomfort our hard-wired tendencies are to resist: to fight it, to look for someone to blame, to turn and run the other way, or to just shut off altogether and avoid it.

From an evolutionary perspective, the fight-flight-freeze response make complete sense. It’s adaptive and can keep us alive in extreme circumstances.

But when the threat becomes amplified by our own minds, that evolutionary mechanism can end up making things worse, adding more spin to an already anxious situation.

Here’s what courage looks like for me.

It was pouring rain outside during my meditation this morning—blessed rain during this dry California winter. I sat quietly, feeling the firmness of the chair and allowing the patter of the rain to blend with the rhythmic sensations of my breathing. I thought of my parents one of them across the country, the others half-way around the world, thought of their age and vulnerability. I could feel the shiver of fear and uncertainty move through my heart and limbs. I let it be here, without turning away, without tightening or spinning worst-case scenarios. I became aware of the space around me, the drops of water touching the earth outside. With each breath, allowing myself to feel the fear, it slowly started to melt.

It takes courage to turn towards what’s happening. This is possible. It’s available for each and every one of us. And when we can meet our own life with courage, we have more discernment, more compassion, and more gifts to share with others.

Oren Jay Sofer is a nationally recognized teacher of meditation, mindfulness and Nonviolent Communication and a regular contributor to the Ten Percent Happier app. A member of the Spirit Rock Teachers Council, he holds a degree in Comparative Religion from Columbia University, is the author of Say What You Mean: A Mindful Approach to Nonviolent Communication, and is the co-author of Teaching Mindfulness to Empower Adolescents. Oren also teaches online courses in Mindful Communication. Social: @Orenjaysofer

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