In a photo that went viral recently, an elderly man with COVID-19 is seen from the back. His head is buried in the arms of a physician as he weeps. The hospital gown gaps, his scalp shows through thinning hair: a vision of naked vulnerability. The doctor who hugs him is fully garbed in PPE: you see only his sad, sad eyes.
Contagion is a physical thing. You catch the flu, or chicken pox, or COVID-19 from someone who has it. Of course, the presence of a bacteria or virus isn’t the full story. We don’t get sick simply because we are exposed. Some of us might be physically susceptible while others are particularly robust. Physical and mental well-being always play a part in illness and disease.
Most of us recognize, whether we’re conscious of it or not, that feelings are also contagious. Just think about how it feels when someone you love is depressed; when your best friend is fearful; when your neighbour rants about people who don’t wear masks (or maybe about those who insist that others wear masks). We can catch another’s discomfort. We humans constantly impact each other’s neural systems.
When our granddaughter Ella was born, I was part of the grandparent support brigade. We each took two weeks as chief child-minder when Ella’s mom went back to work. My stint coincided with reading A General Theory of Love (Lewis, Amini and Lannon). It was holy coincidence that gave me hands-on experience of what I was studying—that children were “open-loop neural systems.” I noticed how calming myself when Ella was screaming immediately calmed her. I noticed how slowing my breathing helped her to slow down. I noticed that my low and murmured songs made us both feel safe.
The authors suggested that children are maximally “open-loop.” Because their brains are still developing, the energetic flavour of a trusted adult affects them deeply. A parent who can’t get a grip spawns kids who have difficulty regulating their feelings. A parent who practices calming himself supports kids who can calm themselves. Parents who do their own emotional work create resilient children.
Which brings us back to contagion. When the Nelson hospital started preparing for coronavirus, one doctor noticed anxiety escalating among staff. She suggested that fear was infectious, but observed that so, too, was compassion. The hospital staff adopted a program to help remind themselves that love is contagious, too.
Fear, anger, sorrow and anxiety are pandemic right now. There are real reasons for these feelings; but they are not the full story, or the only story. As responsible adults, we can calm ourselves in the face of uncontrollable situations and intolerable suffering. We slow our breathing; we murmur songs of comfort. Then we love. Compassion for neighbors, forgiveness for family members, resistance to injustice: all are contagious. Love will not make this all go away. But it will shift how we experience these times: whether we will leave each other to weep alone or hold each other in compassion.
Love is contagious, too.