Sometimes a person’s brain seems to be particularly susceptible to an external message. Say, for example, you’re experiencing a feeling of hunger while not being aware of the actual feeling. You may be watching television and you see someone eating some chocolate. “I know,” you think, “I wonder if I’ve got any chocolate. I feel the need for something sweet.” And off you go, none the wiser.
And that’s how advertising works. By persuading the unaware person that what is being sold is what you want. Sometimes it is. Sometimes it’s just clever psychology.
One phrase has been resonating with me more and more in the past few weeks.
Don’t be afraid!” is the command I hear, even when I’m least expecting it and when I’m not doing anything that needs particular care. It arrived a number of times over the festive season and it seems to have snuck up from somewhere in my subconscious to reach my conscious mind where it’s been hammering ever since. It’s a constant – one that keeps popping into my head – like an earworm but without the jaunty jingle.
It doesn’t take too much reflection to understand from where this may be coming. The past two years of our lives have been dominated by fear, not just individually but as a collective. It’s been an extraordinary and exhausting time.
The arrival of Covid-19 at the beginning of 2020 (there are indications it was in Europe as early as November 2019 and the clue may be in the name) took the UK from what appeared to be a nation looking forward with a reasonable share of optimism to a country full of despair. Hopeless, in fact.
Suddenly, we went from being a society full of mainly sociable people to a group of fearful and isolated individuals and the longer we stayed like that, the more fearful we became.
It’s easy to look back and suggest things should have been done differently. Who knows? There’s to be an inquiry into the official handling of the virus and that will offer up its findings in due course. The data will be telling but what it says, I imagine, will be dependent on who’s listening.
What we do know is that it has always been open to interpretation and, even as recently as last month, we were still being kept in a vortex of terror. One day we were being allowed and encouraged to believe life was on the verge of returning to normal, the next day came omicron and the threat of another complete lockdown. Our political leaders appeared to have no idea – though the scientists seemed determined that their way was the right one – and we were back to a level of uncertainly that does not improve with age.
There is a glimmer of hope though because there may be signs that we could be experiencing the beginning of the end. If the virus is mutating into a less deadly form, or if the vaccinations are as effective as hoped, then there will be no need for another lockdown.
So what are we to do about the fear factor with which some of us are still left?
Some people argue that we need to be kept apart and isolated for the good of society as a whole; the opposite of how we were used to interacting. Those people – including some influential scientists – seem to enjoy the status quo. I puzzle to understand that and look to the past for an explanation.
Philosopher Thomas Hobbes put forward the idea of offering total allegiance to the sovereign in exchange for safety. You put your all (including material possessions) at the feet of your sovereign and, in return, he kept you safe. If not, the contract was void. Hobbes was living during the Civil War so we can perhaps understand his reasoning.
Psychoanalyst Erich Fromm, in The Fear of Freedom, argued that humans are not actually that keen on individual freedom and are drawn to having rules imposed on them from above. That, he explained, was the reason for the rise of the desire for a totalitarian state. He was writing in the 1940s, during World War II, so we can again see his influences.
And moving into the present, journalist Laura Dodsworth talking specifically about this pandemic discusses the theory that it’s easier to control a population if we make them frightened. I don’t think we can deny that we have been frightened.
I’m hoping against hope all this was not a deliberate plan to frighten us. However, I’m one of those people who believe it’s time to escape from this almost-solitary confinement and to take the risk of living again.
We need to be brave and draw on the strength we all have within us if only we remember. Personally, I’m going to acknowledge I’m afraid – no, maybe not afraid, maybe just nervous – while continuing with the “don’t be afraid” mantra to allow me to take those first delicate steps to reconnect with the world outside.
I may even dust down my edition of Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway and see what extra tips I can glean. The one thing I do know is that I’m not going to allow another two years to go by before I get back my old level of bravery.
If you watched the latest Strictly Come Dancing, you’ll remember the inspiration winner Rose Ayling-Ellis, who has been deaf from birth. She showed what an amazing talent she is and how resilience and perseverance can pay off.
She posted this on Instagram: “Stay afraid, but do it anyway. What’s important is the action. You don’t have to wait to be confident. Just do it and eventually the confidence will follow.”