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What Do You Do With The Fear That You Feel?

Imagining a post COVID-19 world.

Words: Lovely Umayam
Pictures: Robert F.

Most people have a fond memory of watching “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood.” And what sticks to mind the most is his voice, his songs. “What do you do with the mad that you feel?” I first heard this song as a kid enjoying a lazy afternoon of PBS re-runs, my reward after finishing my homework early. I found Mr. Rogers curious and a little slow; as an immigrant acclimated to the streetscapes of Los Angeles, I did not fully identify with his Americana wholesomeness, but I nonetheless took his words to heart. At a young age, I knew how anger could grip the soul, and it was comforting to hear an adult validate that emotion and offer an alternative approach. “I can stop when I want to/Stop when I wish/Stop, stop, stop any time/And what a good feeling to feel like this.”

Mr. Rogers’ show eventually dissolved into the backdrop of my life as I came of age in a mad world. I also took on a profession that required familiarity with the power dynamics that make the world go mad: foreign affairs, or in other words, how governments wage wars, abandon alliances, and break treaties for security and self-interest. In this line of work, I was particularly struck by the politics of nuclear weapons — the weapon every country seems to repudiate and desire at the same time — and how it feeds on anger and fear to remain relevant today. President Trump has eagerly boasted sole authority to launch a nuclear attack against enemies, most recently his threats against Iran, a country which has signaled its intention to develop a nuclear arsenal in response against American aggression. And in popular culture, nuclear weapons are the ultimate harbinger of destruction, the overused plot device in movies that represent the unimaginable demise. As the scholar Spencer Weart pointed out in his book “Nuclear Fear,” the anger and fear embedded in nuclear images and stories drives our understanding of nuclear policy, often preventing us from responding diplomatically, even rationally. As I specialized in nuclear policy, it became harder to see how the tenets of tolerance, compassion, as well as the feeling of control can co-exist with the anger and fear that fuel the work. In the lowest (or “realist”) of moments, a nuclear-weapons-free world feels like a pipe-dream, and that countries will continue to pursue aggressive policies motivated by global competition.

But then, another global catastrophe stole the spotlight. It turns out 2020 was not going to open the gates of #WWIII and a renewed nuclear arms race. Instead, a virus locked us out and away from one another. COVID-19 suddenly forced me, along with billions of people to confront anger — rooted in fear — in a profound way.

It is during this time of chaos I am reminded of Mr. Rogers’ song. “It’s great to be able to stop/When you’ve planned a thing that’s wrong.”

The fear from a pandemic is unsettling — an undercurrent of dread and uncertainty creep in as the number of infected, as well as the number of dead, exponentially rise with no end in sight. The enemy is largely invisible; symptoms emerge days later or not at all. As the virus dismantles the economic, political, and cultural systems that anchor modern society’s sense of stability, people are left physically isolated and mentally unmoored, worried about what tomorrow will bring. I personally have always associated the apocalypse with nuclear weapons, so I never anticipated its face to look like this. And as someone in the business of warning against nuclear destruction, talking about it now feels disingenuous during this time of universal grief.

But amid the environment of anger and fear is also a flowering of kindness. As systems begin to falter, opportunities to imagine new ways of working and living emerge. While borders close, digital connections forge virtual communities that transcend borderlines. While some political leaders insist on divisiveness, everyday people are counterbalancing negativity by caring for health professionals, low-wage workers, and nature. Disaster preparedness is back in vogue, but with an added emphasis on civic duty — protect yourself and those around you. Geopolitics will also shift, as the United States finds itself in a position of need, instead of its usual role as protector/giver/leader.

It is during this time of chaos I am reminded of Mr. Rogers’ song. “It’s great to be able to stop/When you’ve planned a thing that’s wrong.” To me, Mr. Rogers’ advice goes beyond personal self-care and control, but represents a larger call to action: institutions, systems, culture, relationships, emotions are never static, but fluid — they can be stopped, adapted, and transformed. So seize the opportunity to stop and think differently, act differently. The rigid approaches that uphold the status quo of national politics and foreign policy are not always fail-safe in the face of unprecedented crises. And when they begin to erode, we all have a duty to imagine alternatives to make a better society.

Applied to the nuclear field, this disruption can be a chance to rethink the work. How do we keep the fight against nuclear weapons relevant when our tools encourage fear and anger in an already exhausted COVID-19 world? How do we reframe our strategies that rely so heavily on apocalyptic imagery? How do we engage unrecognized expert voices from different parts of the country and the world, now that virtual gatherings are part of our normal routines? How do we reach out to “non-experts” the field traditionally overlooked, now that we see the power of everyday people carrying the fate of nations on their shoulders?

As this pandemic humbles us in all aspects of our lives — as family members, friends, policy experts, citizens, or just plain humans trying to get by — it is clear we cannot return to the way it was before. But we don’t have to navigate our new ways of being in darkness. As the song goes, “Know that there’s something deep inside/That helps us become what we can.” As we endure, we should take comfort in our ability to stop, adapt, and transform.

Lovely Umayam

Editorial Board Member

Lovely Umayam is the founder and chief writer for Bombshelltoe, a blog featuring stories about nuclear history/politics, art, and media. Bombshelltoe is the first-prize winner of the U.S. Department of State’s Innovation in Arms Control Challenge in 2013. Lovely’s work under Bombshelltoe was featured at the 2013 SxSW Interactive, FastCompany, The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, and the 2013 U.S. Department of State’s Generation Prague Conference in which she interviewed Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security Rose Gottemoeller.


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