Don’t Underestimate the Emotional Quotient of Feeling Far Far Away
AND ALSO | PLEASE DON’T JUDGE MY RESPONSE
We live in Copenhagen. For the last five years. And last night, the Prime Minister of Denmark announced that the country would go on lockdown, in an effort to mitigate the spread of the novel Coronavirus COVID19. Schools and universities and daycares would close. Public sector employees would be sent home (with pay.) Cultural institutions should shutter. People were recommended to work from home. Indoor gatherings of 100+ participants to be banned. This is serious stuff. Not since World War II has the little Scandinavian nation of Denmark recommended such a lockdown.
But the virus here is ramping up. Rapidly. And while my family may not be in the high-risk group for complications from the virus, watching the sudden spread is seriously scary. The announcement came over a live broadcast press conference on Danish tv. And it was in Danish. Of course, it was. Because we live in Denmark. But when your own Danish is limited to restaurant ordering, public transport transactions, grocery store maneuverings and coffee shop klatsching – press conferences on emergency topics prove a wee challenge to follow. Did they say what I think they said?
Yes. Yes, they did. And immediately the emails and notices started to buzz in from our children’s schools and our places of employment with subject lines like “Extremely Extraordinary Situation.” That’s truly what one message said. For me this IS extraordinary. I have never lived through something like this. And I realize that admitting that may reveal my privilege, but for me – and my family – this is… an extremely extraordinary situation.
So our knee-jerk response? Grab our reusable sacks and hit up the local grocery store. Just in case. And as we cycled through our Copenhagen neighborhood, it seemed we weren’t the only ones with a similar idea. Turns out – the press conference had continued. After announcing an immediate lockdown – the Prime Minister and gathered officials went on to state, that food sources were stable and the public shouldn’t hoard. In Danish, the word for hoarding is “hamstring.” No, not the muscle that you can easily pull past a certain age or athletic ability – hamstring here directly translates to “hamstering.” Like a hamster.
But many of us didn’t get that message until after our spontaneous trips to stock up on some staples. Living in the city, we have learned to shop on a daily basis for our family of five. Although my eldest is away dealing with his own coronavirus challenges on his gap year experience in southeast Asia – we still need plenty of food. As we don’t have a car here, we can only take as much as we can carry or load in the baskets of our bikes. So American levels of Costco-type bulk shopping is just not physically possible. For us. And most in our neighborhood.
I have since seen the videos of people who panicked. Here in Copenhagen. (And around the world.) Here there were shopping carts full of toilet paper and pasta and packets of yeast. Apparently – a certain segment of Danes is dearly afraid of not being able to bake. I have also seen and read the lambasting of those same people. Posts that point out their idiocy and ineptitude in times of crisis.
But I too was challenged. Judged and questioned. Why was I out? Waiting in long lines to buy some essentials? Why was I hamstering. Several had asked. Posting photos of empty bread cases and nary a block of gær (yeast.) And to you, I offer my response. Because.
Because. I needed to. For my own emotional sanity. Luckily, our experience last night was safe and completely sane. To be honest, it was one of the loveliest lines I’ve ever waited in for all my five years here living in Denmark. People were patient. People were chatting. And for those of you who don’t know or don’t live here, people don’t normally do that at the grocery store in Denmark. Chat with strangers. But this. This was an extraordinary situation.
I can’t answer for everyone, but for me – knowing I that had enough for a few cups of coffee, some pasta, canned beans and possibly (probably) a bottle of wine or two was reassuring. A little something I could control in an unknowable time. There is no precedent for this. We don’t know what it will become. I’m really not paranoid and have great hope that the dramatic precautions taken in Denmark and elsewhere will ease all of our risk. But for a moment, I needed to feel that I had done something.
And before you judge. Because some of you already are. And some of you already have. Realize that your comfort level may be different than mine. I live around the world from my extended family. Far, far away from people I love. In a country that repeatedly makes it clear that it isn’t mine. And while dealing with disasters or crises or emergencies is something you do consider when choosing a life lived abroad, until you’re hit with it, in your own home – it’s hard to prepare for or know how to respond.
So for a few minutes, I hamstered last night. Although it was truly only a couple of days dining – so we’ll have to believe the food sources to Denmark remain solid. But “hamstring” might now be my new least favorite Danish word. For now. Don’t underestimate the emotional quotient or psychology of needing to protect your own family.
I loved this post by writer Elizabeth Gilbert as it sums up how I feel and felt last night:
for now, the only thing I have to say about the Coronavirus is this:
Let’s not judge people too fiercely for how they are reacting to this situation.It may be the case that people are overreacting, or it may be that they are under-reacting….it’s not my place to judge that. I don’t have all the answers and I can’t see into the future—no more than anybody else can.
But I do know that when I add my condemnation to the conversation, it just ratchets up hysteria in a different way—and most of all, it’s not kind.
If you believe that somebody is overreacting, just try to remember that another word for “overreaction” is “fear”. Try to be compassionate, not contemptuous. We don’t all share the same fears, but we all know what fear feels like, and it’s a terrible sensation. I wouldn’t wish fear on anybody, and I know that a lot of people are genuinely afraid right now.
I have no way of knowing how many people are going to suffer physically from this virus, but I do know that millions of people are already suffering from it emotionally—and those people need love, not contempt. Those people are my brothers and sisters. Let me never forget my compassion for their anxiety, rather than telling them how they should or should not be feeling.
And let me also show a strong measure of mercy to the people across the world who are running institutions, schools, governments, and companies right now. Those people are faced with the supremely unenviable task of trying to figure out how to respond to this crisis responsibly. There is no playbook. They will make mistakes. They will overreact; they will under react. They are human beings in an impossible dilemma. I would not wish to be the person faced with such massive, impactful decisions right now. Let me show compassion to them.
Let me show compassion to all.
And let me never stop asking: “How can I help?”
So please. Let’s be patient with each other. This will pass. And we’ll have stories to tell. Cheers from here. Send cute puppy photos. I need a distraction.
Love from Denmark, Erin