When a large crisis occurs, whether that’s a massive fire, a tornado, a terrorist attack, or pandemic, I, like many, freeze up and tend to panic. 

Often we feel helpless, hopeless, fearful. Even if we’re not directly affected, we sense the tension around us. The response to panic frequently can be senseless and absurd. Some may react poorly and fall apart, get super-selfish, even violent. Buy out all the toilet paper and cereal in a grocery store. Start slinging racist accusations at others.

Then there are the people in crisis who react well and rise to the occasion. These are folks able to organize donation drives or rescue the kids perched on their roof during a flood.

I haven’t figured out why, but I’m fascinated with human responses to an emergency. I’ve decided some of the reaction is rooted in a feeling of control. 

Years ago, after 9/11, my 3-year-old granddaughter knew something bad had happened. She also noticed people exhibiting American flags as a symbol of undefeated spirit.  Failing to distinguish between one flag and another, she collected small state flags and displayed them around the house to raise everyone’s spirits. 

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That’s when I realized the importance of taking a positive step to establish your control over yourself and life. Kids continue to learn this by scrawling encouraging messages in chalk on sidewalks in my neighborhood during this quarantine.

In the current COVID crisis, we’ve been inundated with advice, some of it incorrect; some hysterical and encouraging extreme reactions; much of it as repetitive as old “I Love Lucy” segments. How often do we need to be lectured about washing our hands?

An example of our compliance is face masks. Until recently, all the advice from experts indicated face masks held little value unless a COVID patient or health care worker were involved. 

Yet within the space of less than a week, masks became de rigueur at all times, in all places, for all ages. I’ve seen babies wrapped in masks that surely are interfering with their breathing, bicyclists endangering themselves and others as their masks block their vision and their physical responses.

Rather than debate the pros and cons of masks or other “safeguards,” I gave up once I realized these actions are ways people are attempting to regain control over their lives. Parents need to believe they’re doing the best for their kids; those with health problems hope they’re gaining a slight advantage in their struggles. This also applies to compulsive behaviors, such as bleaching or wiping every surface in sight. 

To me, these actions are no different from throwing salt over your shoulder, crossing yourself or spitting literally or figuratively by saying “pooh, pooh, pooh” to drive away bad luck. We don’t know for sure if any of these are helpful, but they can’t hurt.

Or can they, if carried to extremes? 

In the March 22, 2020, issue of Scientific American, David H. Rosmarin asks, “What’s Scarier than the Coronavirus?” He says, “There is no question in my mind that our emotional and behavioral responses at the present time are creating more damage than COVID-19.” 

He continues by pointing out our extreme responses—my example: screaming at passersby in a park who aren’t walking six feet apart—reveal a social vulnerability of more concern than the virus itself. 

We’re handicapping ourselves by not admitting there are limits to what we can know and control. We must learn to accept being human means we aren’t invincible, we can’t control everything, and, yes, living means taking risks.

I reluctantly comply with most social distancing mandates. First, because I’d like to maintain cordial relations with friends and family, many of whom are enthusiastic practitioners. Second, because I hesitate to become a pariah in society by not conforming. Third, because pandemics are as much a condition of life as are eating and breathing. We might as well discover and test effective responses to prepare ourselves for the next one. 

But let’s also accept and learn from the unreasonable actions in our current situation as part of our very human existence. That’s part of regaining control over ourselves. 

Bonnie McCune lives in Denver.