Updated: Mar 13
One of my favorite book genres is historical fiction set in Victorian England. These books offer a strange kind of comfort, even though I intellectually recognize that I would hate the soul-chafing strictures that society imposed on women, minorities, and those who were not lucky enough to be born rich and/or titled. So why do I love it so? And why is this particular timeframe such a popular setting for historical fiction?
I think one of the things that draws us to novels set in that very rigid society is the fact that there were rules for every single situation. While it would have been suffocating to be stuck in such rules, worried about the cut direct, being gossiped about during the season, and never finding anyone “at home” when you went to make social calls, the fact that everything was codified offers us in 2020 a kind of comfortable nostalgia. When living in the modern world sometimes feels like a kind of free fall, knowing exactly what colors someone in mourning is allowed to wear or the precise type of paper a respectable person uses for correspondence can feel freeing, rather than constrictive. At least, from the perspective of a reader just visiting the world for a few hours.
I’ve been thinking about this over the past two weeks as reports about the coronavirus in American have become more and more serious, as the market has been making like a limbo dancer, and (as of this writing) the bottom has dropped out of the oil and petroleum market. Wouldn’t it be comforting to have a list of rules to follow when everything seems to be going poorly? (Not that the Victorian ladies I read about would ever be so vulgar as to discuss bodily effluvia or money).
Unfortunately, there are no hard-and-fast rules now, just as there were none then, really. We are all deciding how to react to whatever life throws at us, and even etiquette as useful as the rule that “no topic of absorbing interest may be admitted to polite conversation” (since it might lead to discussion) is only a guideline unless everyone chooses to follow it.
So without a framework of arcane rules to lean into when chaos seems imminent, how do we avoid freaking out? Here are some ways you can calm your fears, with no worries that you’ll show up in society with the wrong color gloves:
Write Down Your Fears
Over the years, I’ve learned that putting my fears down in writing makes them much more manageable. Writing my fears is a way of releasing them from my head, where they are doing me no good.
To start, there’s something about seeing the thing you are afraid of in black and white that can help put it in perspective. Either you are worried about something that is entirely improbable (no, snakes will not crawl up into my toilet through the sewer system), or the thing you fear is something that people have gone through, meaning there are things that can help to make it manageable.
In addition, I’ve also found that writing down my fears often relieves me of the burden of worrying about them. I don’t need to worry anymore—my notebook is carrying my worry for me. Once written down, they can either simply float away (like my snake fear), or they can help me come up with a course of action.
Whether you are concerned about illness, your finances, or the economy as a whole, take the time to write down all the things that you’re worried about. Perhaps you are worried about how to afford extended time off work in case you are quarantined. Write down each specific part of your worry so you can start coming up with a plan for how to deal with it. Or maybe, you are worried about how your investments are faring in this downward market.
Write down everything you are afraid of happening to your portfolio to determine if your fears are snake-in-the-toilet type outlandish worries or if they are concerns you might want to get proactive about.
Once you’ve written down your worries, you can start thinking how you’ll deal with the next steps by making yourself a good old fashioned to-do list.
List the Tasks Ahead
My sister called me one morning last December, quite upset that her plan to get her daughter’s passport that day was derailed. Their planned international trip to see my deployed brother-in-law was only weeks away. But due to incomplete information on the state department website, she did not have everything she needed that day, and would have to take another day off work, take her daughter out of school, and get paperwork transferred from her husband to make sure she got my niece’s passport in time.
I’m not gonna lie—that situation sucked a lot. But, as I pointed out to my sister, it was just a series of tasks she was going to have to take care of. Not only is my sister one of the most capable individuals I know (give that woman a to-do list and watch that ish get DONE), but simply listing out the things she would need to do made the entire situation more manageable. Each specific item on the list was doable. Folding each item into her schedule was not exactly a stress-free day at the beach, but it was doable. Getting the passport in time so they could enjoy family time during my brother-in-law’s deployment was doable.
The same is true no matter what stressful situation you are dreading. If you’re worried about COVID-19 and possibility of being quarantined, or worried about your financial stability because of the current wobbliness of the economy, then make a list of the tasks ahead of you.
This may sound like pie in the sky thinking if you are among the millions of workers who do not have sick leave. What will listing tasks do to help you keep money coming in if you are not able to work and are therefore going without pay? However, even in such a horrible situation as that, going through your list of financial options can help you feel more in control of your situation.
What could you do to make ends meet if you’re quarantined? Is there anything you could sell? Are there any costs you could negotiate? Could you borrow from your sister-in-law? None of these are options that people in a functioning society should have to turn to in a major global pandemic, and that is infuriating. But with the situation as it is, thinking through what assets you have, from actual physical items you could sell to relationships, will give you a plan for what to do just in case.
Taking the time to plan out a course of action, with individual tasks listed out, means that all you have to do if you are forced to self-quarantine (or otherwise take a major financial hit) is put your plan in action.
Know When to Limit Your Information Intake
My father read three newspapers a day when I was growing up, and I have always associated being well-informed with maturity. I’ve followed his example by consistently reading the news, watching news reports, and capping it off by reading and watching the humorous takes on the news that I just read and watched.
That’s not even mentioning my regular supervision of my financial investments. I like to log into my 401(k) about twice a month (or more) to see how my money is growing. Like my financial planner father (noticing a theme here?), I keep an eye on the market in general and my investments in particular.
It can be a lot, y’all, especially the last two weeks. Suddenly, my regular information diet is giving me a serious case of panic-heartburn.
Of the two issues that are causing concern right now, I’m definitely more likely to freak out about the coronavirus rather than the market drop. That’s because I spend my days reading and thinking about money and the market, and it’s always easier to put something in perspective if you understand it well. That’s why I had the following conversation with my husband on Monday:
Me: You probably don’t want to look at your investments today.
Him: I don’t think I want to look for at least another year.
Me: You’ll need to rebalance before then. How about I let you know when it’s safe to look?
When it comes to fears about the coronavirus, however, I don’t have the same kind of background that will allow me to easily separate the wheat information from the chaff alarmism. So I’m trying to reduce my consumption of information, which is easier said than done. At this point, constantly refreshing news sites, scrolling social media, and turning on the radio will do nothing to improve my understanding or knowledge of the issue. It will only fan the flames of that panic-heartburn until I’m running around like Chicken Little and mainlining Purell.
Turning off the scary headlines is not refusing to be informed (as I might sometimes worry). It’s about taking control of what you focus on. Unless and until you need to worry about being quarantined or about your investment portfolio, it’s okay to simply ignore it.
(In related news, I can neither confirm nor deny that I have binged three entire seasons of Superstore in the past two weeks. What shows, books, or movies are getting you through this?)
Above All, Don’t Panic
Being told "Don't Panic" can feel a little like when someone shouts “CALM DOWN!” at you when you’re in the middle of an enjoyable bout of hyperventilating. You’re no closer to serenity, and now you feel insulted, too. However, I do think it’s a good idea to remember the wisdom of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, which has the words “DON'T PANIC” in large, friendly letters on the cover. Taking a moment to collect yourself when you’re feeling ready to start running like your hair's on fire will never go amiss.
There is no complex system of etiquette rules and expectations to lead us through chaotic times. While having no rulebook may have been disastrous back in the day when you weren’t sure whether to greet an Earl or a Marquess first, not having one now doesn’t have to mean shutting down, descending into chaos, war-profiteering on toilet paper and surgical masks, or panicking.
We’ll get through this. Although I would consider this a perfect time to bring back gloves as regular day wear.
What’s worrying you right now?