How Coronavirus Impacts the Heart…and Three Things You Can Do About It

Every hour, a new reason for coronavirus fear comes across the wire.  Hospital overload.  Travel bans.  Food shortages.  Economic pain.

Everyone from global leaders to ordinary citizens strains to peer ahead.  This forethought is appropriate in times of crisis – seeking to discern what is coming and how we might prevent the worst.

But we must also keep in mind what this experience does to the human psyche – in other words, to our hearts.  In the terms of neuroscience, “…Anxiety and fear…affect cognitive functioning, in particular by narrowing individuals’ attention span (Eysenck, 2007) and by enhancing selective attention towards the threatening content ( Finucane, 2011).”  Fear also make us less creative and less open to the creative ideas of others.

Fear shrinks our field of vision, causing us to see and feel with less breadth. 

Fear shrinks our field of vision, causing us to see and feel with less breadth.  As fear rises in our hearts, we become dramatically more focused upon self and self-protection.  Our field of concern grows smaller, prioritizing ever smaller circles of friends and family until that circle includes only a few…or maybe just one.

None of this is to diminish the very real dangers of the coronavirus.  But it points us to the great challenge – and immense opportunity – to be found in any crisis.  As fear pulls our focus self-ward, God’s love can pull our focus outward.

That’s not to say we shouldn’t prepare and act for the good of family, friends and even ourselves.  But we also must choose to do more than that.  We intentionally expand our field of vision to include those whom fear and worry would naturally cause us to lose sight of.

As fear pulls our focus self-ward, God’s love can pull our focus outward.

As always, Jesus shows the way.  As we anticipate Easter in this season of Lent, consider the journey of his Passion week.  As Scripture tells, Jesus felt the emotions common to all (Hebrews 4:15).  In the garden of Gethsemane, his soul was “overwhelmed” such that his body sweat blood.

Yet in the moments leading to this – and anticipating the horror of all that was coming – Jesus prayed not only for himself, but also for his disciples and for “all who would believe” in him.  While being arrested at sword point, he paused to heal the ear of the high priest’s servant.  While led stumbling toward Golgotha, he expressed to the weeping women nearby not concern for his own future, but theirs.  Even dangling from the cross, Jesus’ field of vision was breath-takingly wide.  He forgave those who murdered him, offered hope to the thief beside him, and arranged for his mother and dearest friend to care for one another in his absence.

This lifting of the eyes, this intentional expansion of vision and heart, is our opportunity as well.

How?  Three elements are especially needed.

  1. Choose it.  If we’re not to succumb to the self-ward gravity that fear creates, we must choose otherwise.  We must intentionally expand our field of vision and concern.  Who out there has it worse than me?  Who nearby might need my help?
  2. Pray it.  Prayer turns our attention outward – first toward God’s loving providence, then to the needs of others.  We can “cast all our anxiety on Him, because He cares for you.” (I Peter 5:7).  Then, with confidence that God will cause all things to work for our good, even the worst (Romans 8:28), we’re freed to focus on more than our personal concerns. God, who would You want me to pray for?  Who is hurting that needs Your aid?
  3. Do it.  For some, this might mean risking life itself to serve – like Christians from the early church to Father Damien or St. Francis to Paul Brand.   But more often, it means a hundred small actions of simple love, from bringing a meal or running an errand for a housebound friend … to a financial gift to a ministry or struggling neighbor.  In particular, social isolation – which studies have shown to be worse for health than smoking 15 cigarettes a day – is likely to be especially prevalent in the days ahead.  A simple phone call or note or visit (when not medically unwise) may often be the most needed gift of all.  Who is especially likely to be lonely?  How can I best express love and create connection?

In any crisis, the most vulnerable tend to be the hardest hit, including the elderly, children without families, and the poor.  When public systems are strained and resources spread thin, these individuals are the most likely to fall through the cracks.

In my line of work, I see that reality play out daily, especially among orphaned children globally and foster youth in the US.  Like other young people, these populations appear not to be at significant risk from COVID-19 directly.  But children without family are at special risk of neglect, isolation and/or deprivation amidst the tumult created by the virus.  These children – in local communities all over the world – especially need our attention, our prayer and our caring action.  Expanding our vision means including not only people we know, but also those who were on the margins even before coronavirus hit.

The effects of coronavirus on the body can be devastating, particularly for the most vulnerable populations.  Its effects on the heart – for all of us – could be just as destructive.  Thankfully, we can choose otherwise.  We can resist the inward pull of anxiety and willfully broaden our field of concern.  Like Jesus, we can acknowledge our fear – and even pain – yet not allow it to have the final word.  We can turn our vision and our hearts outward, loving just as God first loved us.