How Stranger-Danger Has Gone Viral in the Pandemic

How to counteract the fear of strangers provoked by the coronavirus.

Posted Apr 10, 2020

Source: Photo credit: zoranm

During my most recent foray to the supermarket, as I stood in the middle of the beverage aisle, I noticed a man with a face-mask and rubber gloves come around the corner, abruptly back up when he saw me, and wait awkwardly at the end of the aisle until I moved on—leaving me feeling a bit soiled and contaminated.

At this point in the pandemic, most of us have probably had similar encounters with people who went out of their way to avoid getting too close to us, or glanced nervously over their shoulders to make sure we were standing the requisite six feet from them on the checkout line, or looked sharply at us if we so much as cleared our throat.

Our very breath is suddenly treacherous. Inspiration—to breathe in—now carries the whiff of expiration. Same with our touch. The laying on of hands isn't a thing of healing anymore, but pestilence. One of our most time-honored rituals of trust-building—shaking hands—has stopped cold. People aren't even elbow-bumping one another anymore, given that we've been instructed to sneeze into those very elbows. To say nothing of the suspicions suddenly cast on every doorknob and keypad, every seat-back and tray-table. The pandemic may be a boon to mindfulness, but it's also a goad to paranoia.

We're literally avoiding one another like the plague, and suffering from a bad case of "guilty until proven innocent." This may, of course, be the better part of wisdom if not survival at present, but it's not overstating things to say that there are actually two pandemics side by side, one of disease and one of fear, which is its own kind of pathology, and one that's also "gone viral," spreading far faster than the coronavirus itself. And the object of that fear is, by and large, the stranger, and each of us is other people's stranger.

Fear of the stranger is nothing new in human affairs, and the kind of "fear contagion" provoked by the pandemic is apparently bundled into our evolutionary upbringing, human and animal alike—one antelope bolts at a rustling in the bush, and they all bolt. (But by the same logic, if fear can spread when we hear cries of alarm from our herd-members, calm can also spread when we hear soothing, healing, or optimistic messages. Which suggests that we might want to spend more time in the company of calm and confident people, hopeful thoughts and messages, and perhaps even go on the occasional media fast.)

I'm just concerned that the pandemic will only give us yet another reason to fear strangers, in all their iterations. Not just the guy behind you on the checkout line who might be breathing hot, condensed coronavirus down your neck, but the foreigner, the immigrant, the wanderer, the refugee—the other. And the longer the pandemic lasts, the more ingrained this sense of stranger-danger is likely to become. And not just in the form of xenophobia (the fear of strangers), but agoraphobia, the fear of public places, where there be strangers.

Another danger is that the awkward encounters we're having in those public places could support the unconscious belief that we only made it through the evolutionary maze by being wary of strangers, even demonizing them—that it's natural. But Kio Stark, author of When Strangers Meet, argues that "The blunt argument made by some academics (and further oversimplified by the media) says we became hardwired for categorization and stereotyping in an early moment in human evolution, when having a strong sense of 'us and them' helped humans in an extremely resource-poor environment choose who to help and who to exclude so that their group had a better shot at survival. In other words, fear and bias were once useful.

"But turn your most suspicious eye on theories that say humans are hardwired for anything. Someone may be using that idea as a sledgehammer. That word is trying to tell you there's something we can't change. The fact that 'us and them' thinking has long roots in human history does not mean that it's natural, or acceptable. It does not mean bias is inevitable and immutable, or that fearful and defensive instincts should continue to drive us."

Yes, at its worst, history speaks to us with brutal and protracted eloquence about how fear contagion can turn into stereotyping and racism, pogroms and witch-hunts—and in fact, there's been an uptick in hate crimes against Asian-Americans lately, and a lot of snarky talk about the "Kung-flu." But there have also been countless acts of heroism, compassion, and sanity, of communities pulling together, and a rare lesson for the majority in the kind of fear and stigmatization that many minorities live with day in and day out.

It's ironic that in attempting to "flatten the curve," we're being asked to extend our sympathies beyond our usual circles of acquaintance and into the far vaster, almost abstract, realm of strangers—people who, to put it bluntly, most of us find it hard to care about—but then when we run into those very strangers in the supermarket, we find ourselves feeling fear rather than fellowship. We may go all gooey about the goals of Oneness and Unity, but in our actual close encounters, we're discovering that interconnectedness itself is the problem, and we want our space.

It's ironic, too, that the impulse to talk to strangers is the very bedrock of our drive toward unity and connection, because all community-building, all relationship-building, starts with the stranger. As John O'Donohue says in Eternal Echoes: Exploring Our Yearning to Belong, "Each one of us enters the world a total stranger. No one has ever seen you before."

We may have to wait until the pandemic is more in our rearview mirrors to put this into practice, but there's a scene in Shakespeare's Hamlet that speaks eloquently to the challenges the pandemic has presented us vis-a-vis strangers. The appearance of the ghost of the murdered king provokes Hamlet's friend Horatio to say, "O day and night, but this is wondrous strange!" To which Hamlet replies, "And therefore as a stranger give it welcome. There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy."

The unexpected suddenly arises in the midst of ordinary day and night, appearing in its binary form—wondrous and strange—and with it comes the call to give it welcome. And one way we can attempt to do this in relation to the strangers looking askance at us in the grocery store is not to take it personally, try to see their humanity and vulnerability, and remember that they're frightened. We're all a bit frightened. And compassion is, by definition, shared suffering.

To the degree we're feeling estranged from our tribes by the curve-flattening commandments of our health officials, we might also consider an idea proposed by Brene Brown in her book Braving the Wilderness: "Belonging isn't something we achieve or accomplish with others. It's something we carry in our hearts. Once we belong thoroughly to ourselves and believe thoroughly in ourselves, true belonging is ours."

This would undoubtedly be given a boost by contemplating the stranger within, the other in our own psyches—because strangers aren't just out there. The existence of the unconscious is proof of how much we don't know about our own selves. In fact, Carl Jung considered consciousness the tip of an iceberg, and unconsciousness the nine-tenths of it that's underwater (and the ocean the whole thing floats in what we're unconscious of collectively).

These inner strangers are the parts of us we've distanced ourselves from or tried to sanitize. They could be our deepest fears or our highest powers, our rage or our creativity. They make up our unlived life, the hidden messages in our dreams and symptoms, and all the back alleys of the soul. And who hasn't had the experience of feeling like a stranger to themselves? Surprised by the words that sometimes tumble from our mouth, or the dreams that spill from our subconscious while we sleep, or those unfamiliar behaviors that arise during a moment when you're "not yourself"—"Why do I do that?" "Where did that come from?"

And like all psychological projection, if we own it, we don't have to disown it in others. We can treat the-other-within the same way the ancient Greeks treated strangers as if they might be gods and goddesses in disguise, which they might be. In fact, the word they coined to describe such hospitality was philoxenia (love of the stranger), the exact opposite of xenophobia.

Longing belongs to the same word-family as "long," and whether what's long is in time or space, longing is what's evoked by distance. And the distances that have lately come between us—to say nothing of us and them—is something most of us are (already) longing to close. And the fact that we're lamenting the separateness that's descended on us during the pandemic, and find hurtful and alienating the contagions of fear and suspiciousness, these are ultimately hopeful signs.

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