Will COVID-19 promote trend toward isolation or restore our courage as Americans?

Beverly Willett, Opinion contributor

It’s not the coronavirus that troubles me most; it’s the potential aftermath.

In his inaugural address during the Great Depression, President Franklin D. Roosevelt said that the “only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” That’s as true now as it was then, even though far more is at stake in the current crisis than economic destruction. 

Clearly, postponement of public gatherings, fastidious hand-washing, and avoidance of unnecessary social interaction are prudent measures for the time being. But what happens when it’s all over? Will Americans retreat further into their already divisive, insular worlds? 

I’m heartened by certain things I see happening. The friend who’s organizing a telephone chain for those of us in the AARP category. The author who’s touting other writers on her website whose book tours have been cancelled. 

But there are also the hoarders. The ones who see only personal opportunity in the crisis and buy up the outstanding hand sanitizer. The toilet paper scrooges. The thieves at my neighborhood Kroger who emptied the container of Purell wipes needed to sanitize grocery carts. 

Fear is in our DNA

These actions are reprehensible, but also understandable. Fear is built into our DNA. And the longer the conditions that foment it go on, the more damage it does.  

I know all about fear first-hand. I lived with it for years after my husband left our family. Petrified whenever I watched a fresh batch of court documents roll out of my fax machine. Scared I’d lose my home and my children. Afraid I’d be unable to continue resisting the urge to swallow all the anti-depressants and painkillers in my cabinet. 

After the divorce was over, I clutched more tightly than ever to what I had left. It took a decade for me to heal and finally shed the constant fear that gripped me. Eventually I sold my house, moved to a town where I knew no one, and started over, buoyed by a lightheartedness I’d not felt in years. 

“Even your voice sounds different,” my mother said after I settled in Savannah, Georgia. 

But there I faced new challenges. A month before I launched my first book last year a hit and run driver nearly killed me. I’ve evacuated twice for hurricanes and hunkered down for a third. And Mom died.

What’s different now, however, is that I worked hard to build a solid core of inner peace that enables me to bounce back from life’s inevitable uncertainties. But my new lifestyle requires constant vigilance.

Our view: Coronavirus test 'failing' leaves America flying blind through a pandemic

With the pandemic, everyone and everything we touch is suspect, even the air we breathe. Public events have been cancelled. Schools are closing. Churches have shuttered their doors. Borders are on lockdown. Long-awaited college commencements for parents and students with six-digit debts have been called offBusinesses already on the edge will certainty close for good.

Now more than ever we need to be on guard against fear. 

New border walls in the name of safety

It’s easy to say that the crisis is temporary, even if of unknown duration. Those things will eventually go back to “normal.” In America, however, rapidly expanding new normals in our culture have become increasing abnormal.

Although September 11 brought out the best in American humanity, fear drove many people to exit New York City. As a country, we’ve been growing in social isolation ever since. People sitting across the dinner table with one another text instead of talk. Safe spaces abound. More and more Americans live alone. Online education continues to outstrip classroom enrollment for higher education. Social media intolerance is at an all-time high. Hollywood influencers are already wearing hazmat suits. 

FDA commissioner: Be wary of anyone claiming they can cure COVID-19. Talk to your doctor.

With the recent spike in Instacart grocery deliveries, will Americans really relinquish convenience in favor of meeting their neighbors in the supermarket aisle when this is all over? Will congregants at my church resume shaking hands and sharing the common cup at Mass, or instead pretend these ancient rituals that feed the soul don’t really matter that much? And what new border walls will we demand in the name of safety?

I think of all the times when words of comfort have failed me, and I’ve offered a hug instead. The coronavirus crisis is an opportunity for cultivating new habits for the ongoing health and welfare of ourselves and others. But I fear we’ll squander it and further breed the need and inclination for human touch and interaction out of us.

For all of existence human contact was necessary to populate our species. In the last 50 years, even that’s no longer required.

In Miami Beach, Florida, on March 17, 2020.

While we wait for the crisis to abate, we can either embrace FDR’s call to courage or continue our flight. In his Pulitzer-prize winning book "The Denial of Death", Ernest Becker concluded that “Modern man is drinking and drugging himself out of awareness, or he spends his time shopping, which is the same thing.” That’s one option. The other is to follow the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson, step up to the great bully called fear and grab “him boldly by the beard.” 

I hope we make the right choice.  

Beverly Willett is a former NYC attorney and author of the recent memoir "Disassembly Required". Follow her on Twitter: @BeverlyWillett

You can read diverse opinions from our Board of Contributors and other writers on the Opinion front page, on Twitter @usatodayopinion and in our daily Opinion newsletter. To respond to a column, submit a comment to letters@usatoday.com.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Will COVID-19 promote trend toward isolation or restore our courage?