Fear Is the Mind Killer

“Fear is the mind killer,” I should have said after receiving her cautionary text message about compulsory lockdowns across the nation and militias patrolling the streets at night to make sure that nobody looted or rioted. I knew that awareness of the right to civil disobedience was rapidly eroding in this strange new era, but I also knew that reliable sources of information were a rare and valuable commodity.

Instead, I offered, “I know you’re trying to be helpful.” I was conciliatory, not wanting to bruise a premature friendship that hadn’t yet ripened. Not wanting to offer a criticism that might not be received.

“Well, I thought you should be aware,” she said curtly, reading between the lines. “I was doing you a favor.”

I remained silent, but my mind was exploding with images. The amygdala flashing in neon lights, signaling alarm. An entire networked collection of amygdalas mirroring each other’s levels of panic and fear, setting off a chain reaction of neon lights bright enough to power a city and be visible from space. A collective nervous system infected by the virus of misinformation. Of course, it looks a little different from the view on the ground. It looks like entire supermarkets emptied of toilet paper. Ammunition stores wiped out of bullets. Subtle and overt hostilities directed at the people and places where this virus is said to have originated.

“Shame on you,” I wanted to say to her. “At a time like this, our words and actions matter. And here you are, adding fuel to fire. Wrapping the steaming pile of shit that is your fear in a nice pretty blanket of unsolicited information.”

But she was my friend, so I tried to be calm and collected. I tried not to sound like a know-it-all. “Hearing news from a friend of a friend of a friend is a common trope of fear mongering and crowd manipulation,” I explained. “This is how urban legends are born. This is how ugly myths get seeded in the collective consciousness.”

“Maybe so,” she responded, adding an emoji with a protective face mask. “But still, it wouldn’t hurt to stock up on some extra items.”

I decided not to continue the conversation, for at that moment, I was lulled by the birdsong outside my window. The cerulean sky held only a few scattered clouds. A pair of squirrels were climbing the giant oak tree, playfully chasing each other’s tails. I hadn’t seen a groundhog since winter, and one was now happily sunning herself on the lawn. The knot that had formed in my belly slowly dissipated, and I breathed in the sights and sounds of spring.

For all the strange realities that we humans inhabit, there is still a world beyond this one, governed by seasons and cycles.

I’m Nirmala Nataraj, a New York–based writer, editor, book midwife, theater artist, and mythmaker.

As someone who has woven in and out of a number of different word realms—nonprofit communications, advertising, theatre, publishing, and community arts, to name a few—I know that liberation is possible through the stories we choose to tell. As a first-generation South Asian American, I myself exist in the liminal spaces between cultures, art forms, and languages—and it is this multiplicity of narratives that informs my personal and professional approach.

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