The ordinary coronavirus hero: You
One of the world's leading pyschologists writes about how you can act heroically in the face of a pandemic
If you like books or movies or epic poems you’ve undoubtedly been drawn into stories of normal people suddenly challenged by extraordinary events. Private Ryan lands on Omaha Beach. Oskar Schindler has a chance to save who he can. Frodo Baggins is given a ring.
Ordinary heroes. Like you perhaps.
We are currently facing an epidemic outbreak of historic proportions that is asking the extraordinary of us. In a matter of weeks, the coronavirus has reached over 164 countries, with—at the time of this writing (Editor’s note: March 19)—over 240,000 confirmed cases and 10,000 deaths. The virus is spreading fast, and it does not look like it will slow down in the coming weeks and months.
Chances are, you have already witnessed firsthand how this affects our society:
Schools, bars, and restaurants have been closed. Music festivals and sports competitions have been canceled or postponed indefinitely. More people than ever before are required to work from home. And yes, you will have a hard time buying toilet paper.
This challenge is not like a winter storm, it is more like a winter season, and that season has just begun.
This situation will be thought about and written about for decades to come. It puts us all in a position to reconsider our habits and ask ourselves what we can do to stay safe, protect our loved ones, and slow down the spread. That is a lot to ask, but I think we can better step up to this challenge if we decide to live out this moment as an ordinary hero. It is a simple mental device that will slow down mindless choices, and allow you to put your deepest yearnings into your life during this corona winter.
We need to act
If you turn on a screen—your phone, laptop, or television—you will learn that available spots in hospitals are limited, especially in the intensive care units. And when hospitals become overcrowded, patients receive inadequate treatment from an overworked medical staff, often in the waiting rooms or hallways (if they receive treatment at all).
Medical equipment becomes sparse, making doctors having to decide who gets a potentially life-saving treatment, based on a patient’s probability of survival. Our healthcare system is finite and breakable, and if we overload it, we may cause thousands of thousands of unnecessary, otherwise preventable deaths.
We need to slow down the spread of the virus so that hospitals and care facilities are able to catch up with the growing demand for medical attention. The more we slow down the outbreak, the better hospitals are able to attend to those in need. If we want to prevent unnecessary deaths, we need to take effective action here and now.
How to do what needs to be done
It is one thing to list what needs to be done, it is quite another to describe how to do those things.
I suggest we assume a simple device. Imagine that your life right now is a movie or novel. It is a story about an ordinary hero: You. Every action is being filmed or written down. In this story, the fate of this person’s loved ones depends on the mundane choices she or he makes, moment by moment, day by day. In a sense, the hero is writing this story.
The ordinary hero stays home
The hero learns that the important thing to do right now is to create social distance—to stay home, only go out if necessary, and cancel all social events.
OK, how will this hero called “you” do that? How will you write your story?
What if YOU get to say how you deal with this challenge?
Will you do what is needed? Will you stock up only what is needed (e.g., for two weeks, not three months)? Will you go out as little as possible? This is not only sensible, but it is also kind and responsible. This part of the movie or story is up to you. You are authoring this script.
The ordinary hero washes hands
Washing is so simple, yet really easy to dismiss. Washing your hands is still one of the most effective things you can do to protect yourself from catching the virus. You know you need to do it regularly, do it thoroughly, and do it for at least 20 seconds. I suggest that as you do that, imagine a camera is zooming in on your hands. This simple action is meaningful because it is based on your choice and the camera wants to show how even such mundane moments are filled with meaning. Wash your hands like you would if it might get you a “best actor” nomination.
The ordinary hero refrains from touch
This advice is equally simple as it is hard. Refrain from touching your face, and refrain from shaking hands with other people. I published several studies over 40 years ago on how to reduce face-touching (it was in research on the reactivity of assessment) and based on that research I have a suggestion.
Keep a running tally of every single time you touch your face. It may take a short time to sink in, but it’s important to become conscious of it. Leave your assessment sheet in easy view. Very soon that simple act of recording your face touches will reduce it to near zero, and just seeing the recording sheet will help remind you of it. Let every mark on that tally sheet stand for as an ordinary but heroic act, an act of caring by the protagonist. By you.
The ordinary hero reaches out to others
In the middle of this outbreak, a lot of people will feel scared, lonely, and isolated. Now is a good time to call friends or family, let them know you care about them and be there for one another. This epidemic is psychologically taxing, and we must not forget our emotional needs. Don’t try to eliminate fear, that only amplifies it and makes fear become fearsome. Every hero's journey asks the protagonist to face fear head-on. Do that. Be kind to yourself. Inhale your fear. Take it in. Hold it as you would a crying child. That’s what heroes do.
The ordinary hero donates
People are going hungry. If you wish to donate to help vulnerable people in need, you can do so by contributing to food banks.
Where to go from here
The coronavirus will continue to spread, and it is up to every one of us, to help slow down the spread and save lives. We can better step up to this challenge if we decide to live out this moment as an ordinary hero, the kind who is not noticed but yet show her or his best self through actual behavior.
This is not just about you, but about your elderly neighbor, about your friends and families who are dealing with chronic illnesses, and about those who lack the means to prepare themselves.
This is not about eliminating the infection, it is here. This is about postponing it so that hospitals can catch up with demand.
You can learn more about the reasoning and the steps behind socially distancing in this article. Also to stay in the loop about important updates about COVID-19, you can check the CDC or the WHO.
Stay safe, stay healthy, and stay socially distanced. Be that ordinary hero about whom stories and songs and movies are made. Your story will likely never be told, but it will be noticed. By you; by your children; by your friends; by your family. And most important, it may be noticed anonymously by people you will never meet for whom the reduced demand for hospital beds may be a life and death matter.
(Note: Steven C. Hayes, Ph.D., is a Nevada Foundation Professor at the Department of Psychology in the College of Science at the University of Nevada Reno. This article was originally published in Psychology Today on March 19, 2020.)