Say it into a mirror. Look yourself in the eye and say it with confidence. “After you, I insist.”
Are you prepared for their friendly response? You didn’t think of that did you? The neighbor that cares is the neighbor that dares. They are the risk taker, the empath, and the victim. That’s when you hear it.
“No, you go first.”
I’m breathing now with my eyes closed, picturing the layout of the grocery store. I can feel the chilled draft from the produce department. The sweet, groovy jams from the store’s personalized music playlist waltzes and plays over my panicked meditation. I usually smile, ironically, when I first notice a store’s tunes, but today I’m distracted. As I breath in, I do so lightly and through the nose. I can smell the dry, stale remnants of musty cardboard. They have to restock so frequently now. I’ve noticed its smell before but it’s more pungent now, embalmed in the air. It’s as if the stench were a purposeful, urgent reminder of my food’s travels. The past whereabouts of everything and everyone around me are circulating around me and above me, always present and never still.
I don’t want them breathing behind me. I don’t want anyone behind me, but I am more than certain I’m not the only one feeling this way. There is tension forming in the corners of their eyes. Their attempt at nicety suddenly felt taboo. I knew we were both thinking the same thing when he blinked: How can I be sure this asshole takes this shit seriously? In that moment I reminded myself they very well could be more neurotic than I am. I surely doubt it. My anxiety was and is informed by conversations with locals who said things at the beginning like:
“You know, some people think this whole thing is overblown.”
“We can’t just shut the economy down.”
Or my personal favorite, “When I think about end of life scenarios, I’d rather just be able to live my life. I’m sure older people would be happy to be able to just enjoy a meal. We should just live our life without fear of death. I know I’m not afraid to meet my maker.” This person deserved a big, old “Congratulations! You’re a martyr” cake.
The novel Coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2: the virus that causes the disease COVID-19 or just plain old COVID) caused indecision in our interactions and will continue to morph the way we all interact with the world. I have always been indecisive or, more accurately, too decisive too quickly without thinking. I choose the path of least resistance to avoid conflict or hardship more often than not. It’s more convenient for me to live each day restrained in silence. If I don’t voice my true self, I avoid the world’s rejection — or, better yet, my own disappointment.
Our society is guilty of a similar restraint. Most everyone acknowledges the shortcomings of our systems but still engages with its mass productions. We lack a basic awareness of what is essential in life. As goes shopping in the strip malls of the internet, so goes the nation. Like an addict clinging to their pills, we need consumerism or we cannot function. We are all forced to pause now and stop.
“Stop and slow the spread.” It really could be an envelope term for all of humanity’s stupidity. Let it be our rally cry. It does not have to apply to one pathogen or scenario. Stop and slow the spread of the Arby’s “We have the meats” commercials. If you have not seen them stop the spread by not googling it. Stop and slow the spread of signing up for paperless bank statements only to receive 10 pages of a bank statements every month.
I started therapy right before the crisis. At such a reflective time, I was being unconsciously forced to reflect as if I was sniffing psychotherapeutic cocaine. There were times where I thought I might faint from the lack of distraction and singular focus on accepting my true self. I became aware of myself more quickly in the moment. The world I had made for myself had decayed. The realization that there were so many moments where my life was lived to fulfill another’s vision. And they went by as if it were a passing daydream, time-lapsed, frame by frame. My worldview was dressed up in cheap veneers of other people’s expectations and versions of my identity.
Maybe that’s what was supposed to happen: everyone and everything is beginning pandemic psychotherapy. Everything seems so grey and murky. The future always has, in truth, been this way. So, I have decided there is only one way to stop and slow the spread of my perceived bleak and dismal future. I need to say this to myself: I am measured, and I am practiced. I will not and cannot freeze in the grocery store just because of what people say and feel. This is where I am going to start. And you can do it with me too. Say it one more time with me, “After you…..”