What We Can Do

“I think frankly, our biggest enemy is giving up, saying, ‘well, this is just going to happen. There’s nothing we can do.’ I think that is the biggest threat, because the fact is there remains a lot we can do.”

-Dr. Céline Gounder
This post is an excerpt from Shelter in Place Season 2, episode 8: Trust the Messenger. Listen above or wherever you get podcasts.

When wildfires and pandemic living temporarily pushed us from our home in California, my family and I road-tripped from one side of the country to the other to be closer to extended family. Because our kids are young and we had no urgent reason to rush, we took our time, driving for three and a half weeks before we reached our destination in Massachusetts in late September.

We visited a few friends and family along the way, but we were careful to travel safely. We made the kids wear masks, and did a lot of hand washing and using hand sanitizer. We stayed only in places that implemented extra cleaning precautions, and spent most of our time outdoors, away from people. 

But there was one moment in Utah when things got tense. We stopped at the only gas station for miles around, and the sign on the door said, “wear a mask if you want to—or don’t.”

I put mine on and went inside to use the bathroom. When I came out, my husband was letting our 3-year-old wash the windows with one a squeegee, the kind next to the pump that everyone uses and I’m guessing never get cleaned. 

I lost it. I wiped her head to toe with disinfectant wipes and even made her change her clothes. Even then, I didn’t want her to touch me. 

It took miles of road behind us to realize that my overreaction in that Utah gas station was rooted in more than paranoia. Beneath the mask/no mask conversation is an uncomfortable truth: if we accept that this virus can kill us, then even the people we love most—the people who make us feel safest—are potentially dangerous. Putting physical distance or even a mask between us and our loved ones forces us to view each other through a lens of fear. 

But last month I talked to someone who says it doesn’t have to be that way. Dr. Céline Gounder is an infectious disease specialist, epidemiologist, and medical journalist who was recently appointed to Biden’s COVID-19 task force. People Magazine named her as one of 25 Women Changing the World. We talked a lot about COVID-19—what we know now that we didn’t back in March (some of which surprised me), why the virus hitting black and brown populations isn’t just about where they live or how much money they make, and how we can make informed decisions about the holidays. It was a great conversation, and I encourage you to check it out here. But the thing that has stuck with me most was what Dr. Gounder had to say about fear.

“I think the problem with fear is it’s very disempowering,” she said. “It makes you feel like you’re helpless. I think frankly, our biggest enemy is giving up, of saying, ‘well, this is just going to happen. There’s nothing we can do.’ The fact is there remains a lot we can do. The biggest threat to people’s health right now is do they buy into that or not?” 

Dr. Gounder doesn’t believe that having a functioning economy and protecting people from the virus are mutually exclusive. Something as simple as wearing a mask can make a huge difference, and if we can shift our perspective to see mask-wearing not as a limitation, but a tangible way to take action, then we take one small step to conquer fear and helplessness. Dr. Gounder says that focusing on what she can do helps her to stay positive and hopeful even as the numbers of COVID deaths climb.

“Having that sense of purpose, feeling like I am making a difference in my small way, makes me feel empowered,” she said. “I know that we can control this. I know we can. And so knowing that gives me hope. I think what we’re seeing is the loss of hope and action. That’s why we’re losing. I think we need to have hope in order to win this. And I am hopeful that others see that, and put that into action.”

As we head into the holidays, I’m thinking a lot about Dr. Gounder’s words, and trying to figure out specific ways to take action in my own life . . . not just wearing a mask, but getting creative about how to reach out to others and encourage them in a season when it’s easy to lose hope. At Shelter in Place, we’ve dreamed up an idea that we hope will help with that: for twelve days, we’ll be sending daily delights to the inboxes of everyone who is signed up for our newsletter. Coming up with these gifts for our listeners has been the highlight of an otherwise cold and dark month. And Dr. Gounder is right. Taking action helps us to feel like we’re making a difference in some small way. It gives us a sense of purpose and makes us feel empowered. And knowing that gives us hope, even on the days when hope is in short supply. 

Hear my conversation with Dr. Céline Gounder and sign up to receive our 12 Daily Gifts of Delight here

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