How Caution Divides Us

Who would have thought that the simple, practical, survival-handy emotion of caution would be what tore us apart?

Caution, it turns out, finds itself a sweet spot and declares anything on either side intolerable. (Seven feet apart? Ridiculous. Five feet? Courting death.)

Now that I am paying attention, I realize that caution has always been polarizing. Meet someone who takes more precautions than we do, and we roll our eyes. Meet someone who takes fewer precautions, and we frown upon their recklessness. In both instances, we are recoiling for the same reason: We do not like being reminded of what we must fear.

If a friend refuses to run outside in a glorious thunderstorm, hit a jazz club in a rough neighborhood, try a blind date, dive into icy water, or speak an awkward truth, my cruel impulse is to raise an eyebrow, suggest delicately that such safe behavior means they are overreacting, catastrophizing, being a big ol’ scaredypants. What they really are is a killjoy, because the minute I accept that their reasons are valid, some of my own ease and fun is thrown into doubt.

On the other hand, if I see someone chase a storm and barrel right into a funnel cloud, hang out with heroin addicts, sleep with a (no doubt less than) perfect stranger, ring in a subzero new year with a polar bear swim, or try to argue religion with a fundamentalist, I shake my head at such idiocy. This feels good, too, because I am bolstering my own righteousness, reassuring myself that my safer refusal to take such risks is wise, and under no circumstances am I overreacting, catastrophizing, or being a big ol’ scaredypants.

Now we have a pandemic, and we are fighting (to the death, in some instances) over caution, or rather, precautions. The arguments are slippery because none of us really knows what is safe, what is wise. Even the now-standard catchphrase, “an abundance of caution,” plays both ends, exaggerating the response with a wink instead of taking it for granted as a necessary baseline.

I have been so guilty of mocking caution. Raised by a mother who overworrried, I find it exhilarating to zip around people tootling along at two miles under the speed limit. I make a hobby of breaking stupid rules if it will do no damage. I smirk at a friend who insists on being prepared for every eventuality and packs various medicaments, paper products, and clothing layers (what, no galoshes?). Travel light, I urge her—right before I develop blisters and am forced to beg for one of those Band-aids and an extra pair of socks.

Now, though, no one can bail me out if I fail to take precautions. And believe me, I am taking them. This is my monastic year, my year deep in the jungle studying wildlife, my year marooned at McMurdo Station while my husband studies penguins in Antarctica—I pretend to cheer myself up. And I wonder what people who thought they knew me better will make of my retreat from risk.

There is a perfectly good way to fix our harassment of one another: For “cautious,” think “careful.” Full of care. Taking care of others and oneself. Care looks to the future with concern, but it also tends to the present, doing all that is possible right now. It greenlights action, as long as it is done conscientiously. Caution feels more existential: It tiptoes into the future with a fair amount of dread but has not necessarily done anything. More of an attitude than a prescription, it does not warrant that someone has taken real care. The word “caution” stems from the Latin past participle stem of cavere, meaning “to be on one’s guard.” To move from this vigilance to action, you would have to jump back a step and take pre-cautions. A precaution is defined as “a safeguarding,” because you are guarding against something in advance, in “an act of foresight.”

Take the right precautions, and you are acting out of an abundance of care. You need not remain cautious, your steps slowing as you peer nervously ahead. You can move ahead with relative confidence.

Nonetheless, you will still be mocked.

Making fun of precautions is the easiest game of all, because precautions are so often physically obvious. Unsexy. Uncool. They remind the people who are not taking precautions that this is a dire time and behavior has consequences—you, too, could suffer illness. Viscerally, that causes fear, and what is the most powerful way to deal with fear? By transmuting it into anger. Outright fury, in many cases, at those who are wearing masks or keeping their distance or asking others to do so, because those precautions testify to something it would be far more comforting not to believe.

There are gradations of this reactionary little cycle: We all choose our own place on the continuum of precaution. I still grocery shop, so I roll my eyes at my friend who has used Instacart for seven months. Hey, look at me, still alive and I have sniffed my own canteloupes. That zing of triumph over the odds flushes me with pleasure, and I roll a tiny taste of immortality on my tongue. And then someone invites me to dinner and I admit, sadly, that I have not been inside anyone’s house in months. They look at me with incredulity—you are going to continue this absurd asceticism all winter?—and I nod and feel defensive, point out the joys of friluftsliv, a hearty social life conducted out of doors. The chilliest temperatures become tolerable in the proper clothing; a fever does not.

How prim and insufferable I sound.

I would wail, “Why do we do this to each other?” except that I know the answer. In this instance, at least. Before, mocking caution was just a hangover from grade school, a desire to be the one taking risks (yet stop short of getting killed or pregnant). Now, the presence or absence or type of precautions taken affects everyone else’s odds. Beyond that preachy truth, though, is another very real concern: We worry that if we are too careful, take too many precautions, it will affect our friendships, what people think of us, who will continue to love us.

It is this worry, this excess of caution about taking precautions, that is uncool. Fearing social consequences for our choices is an overreaction, a scaredypants bit of catastrophizing that deserves to be mocked.


Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.