On Mindset, Perspective, and Fear
Over the last year, I’ve been thinking a lot about the power of mindset, the value in experiencing the same reality from different perspectives, and the consequences of fear.
Obviously, this exploration has been driven by the pandemic and I’m sure many others have been considering similar topics. For me, much of my contemplation has been shaped by the unique duality of my pandemic experience: living through the first months in San Francisco and then abruptly relocating to a radically different context in Israel.
When we left San Francisco in June, the city was still very much reeling from the shock of the pandemic and sheltering in place with fervor: empty office buildings, deserted financial district streets, restaurants and cafes only doing pickup and delivery, storefronts boarded up, and a lot of fear in the air — of the virus and of people.
When we said goodbye to our friends and family, most of them waved to us from the sidewalk and a few very close friends came into our home. For the majority of us, it was the first time in months we had had an indoor social experience with people outside our nuclear families. It was deeply sad to say goodbye in this way, but we were all trying to minimize the spread of Covid.
Our air travel experience was something like a vortex through space and psychology — it took us from one mindset to another, despite the reality being similar on both ends. The transit itself is what you’d expect from early in the pandemic: the airport was nearly empty and no one wanted to be near others; upon boarding the plane, everyone was scrubbing down surfaces with disinfectant wipes; the bathroom was avoided at all costs; and I kept sanitizing the kids’ and my hands and marveling the surreality of the situation.
But when we landed in Israel and arrived at our new home, the mood and attitudes we encountered with our friends and family were dramatically different. Despite Israel’s Coronavirus situation being similar to the Bay Area’s in terms of infection and serious illness rates, people were meeting with close friends and family regularly and were using their own judgement about what constitutes risky behavior for themselves and those around them.
It was striking to me that people of the same ilk who make up our social group in Israel as in the US were behaving radically differently (similar socioeconomic status, educational experience, lifestyle, etc.). Unlike the partisan divide in the US, I found that in Israel the more relaxed attitude toward the risks of the virus came not from a denial that Covid is serious and not with a spiteful disregard for the rules, but rather from a pragmatic consideration that reflected Israelis’ prioritization of the supreme importance of social relationships. It seemed like people think “Covid is a serious disease and I’d rather not get it, but I’m not going to abstain from seeing my friends and family indefinitely to avoid it. ”
I’m sure that part of this is a consequence of the reality that Israelis have lived through dangerous situations since the founding of the country. Life is rife with risks and Israelis have become accustomed to living with those risks. Life must be lived, otherwise what’s the point?
The prioritization of closeness and relationships as the baseline for what matters in life and what must not be forfeited is evidenced in behaviors small and large in Israel:
- Visitors to our home routinely take off their masks upon entering. Despite the fact that this is one of the best ways to spread Covid, it was not ignorance that fueled this action. It was the notion that we would cover our faces, hide our expressions, and succumb to fear that would diminish the quality of our personal interactions was not an option.
- During one of the three lockdowns, travel more than 1km from home was limited except to exercise. A certain family member of ours would regularly bike more than 30km each way to see us and our kids. Can you reconcile for me the refusal to break one rule (traveling more than 1km by car) while being willing to break another (being in a home that is not yours)? I attribute it to a recognition that the lockdown matters, but that family matters more. Or, if you’re more cynical, that family matters and not getting caught matters too.
- People regularly rationalized and carved out exceptions to justify seeing people. e.g., even though outdoor gatherings were limited to very small groups and socialization cross-household was prohibited, we would regularly meet kids from our children’s classes at the playground because we could have easily just showed up there independently and then it would have been fine. Similarly, we regularly met with our family members who live on our street arguing to ourselves that we are effectively one household.
That line I crossed when we landed in Israel — from fear and adherence on one side to adaptation and resilience on the other was jarring. The people on both sides of the line are the same sort of people living in the same global reality with similar local pandemic conditions, but possess a radically different mindset.
What surprised me even more was just how pliable and shaped I am by the mindset of those around me. At first, I was appalled by what I saw as a lackadaisical approach, a failure to appreciate the severity of the pandemic, and a willingness to put others at risk. But I was soon confronted with whether I wanted to live out my San Francisco sensibilities in my new environment or if I would adapt quickly to the different mindset around me. Maintaining what I had just so recently decided was responsible and ethical would mean, amongst other things, not sending my kids to camp even though camp was running, not welcoming people over for dinner, even though everyone was doing it, and asking people to wear a mask inside and confuse or offend my guests. Needless to say, it happened quickly; over a couple days, I adopted a new set of standards for what is reasonable behavior that just days earlier I would have considered with disdain. Honestly, this surprised me, that my own version of what is right and what is wrong, what is considerate and kind, could so quickly change just because everyone around me thinks so. I guess it shouldn’t be surprising, as morals, ethics, and behavioral norms are just that — norms, dictated by society, and a matter of perspective. But it did open my eyes to the power of perspective.
Ultimately, the mindset of those around me was also seen in Israel’s official pandemic response. Although the response is much maligned by many in Israel, I see it as a relative success. Other than three short lived lockdowns, Israelis have largely been free — first and foremost to socialize with their friends and family, but also to enjoy the liberties and freedoms that make life a joy to live. While there have, no doubt, been mental health impacts of the pandemic in Israel, I see the average person here as less traumatized than in the US. From personal anecdotes and the media narrative, Americans are contending with the impacts of a year lived in fear. Despite being vaccinated, many report being unsure they will feel comfortable being in a crowd for a long time. The media talks about re-entrance anxiety and the challenges people face in surrounding themselves with more people. I visited New York in March; cafes were open, but the barista hands you sugar packets so that you won’t touch something someone else touches and signs of “contactless” pickup were everywhere. It’s easy to conclude that the more you enable fear to dominate your experience, the more traumatizing it is and the harder it is to bounce back.
For what it’s worth, I don’t mean to cheerlead Israel and denounce the US here. I found Israeli behavior to be pragmatic, but also inconsiderate and often cavalier while Americans maintained a narrative about protecting the vulnerable and doing what’s best for everyone. But in the grand scheme of things, I value the priorities that Israel and Israelis insisted on maintaining. While our friends in the US have still not seen many friends or family in a year, Israelis only had to bear the pain of that separation for limited periods of time.
Maybe it’s obvious, but I learned that because mindset is different in different places, even when people are similar, where you live and who surrounds you shape how you see the world.
Maybe it’s just the vaccine talking, but I’m ready for the post pandemic world, and I give Israel a lot of credit for giving me the courage to embrace what’s next and run at it full steam.