Our personal and societal experience of the pandemic raise many collective questions, questions which affect all of us. Will there be long-term changes to our society? Or will the lessons of this troubled hour be forgotten quickly in the rush to “normalize” and move back into a world of distractions? Of course, it is the nature of our nature to prefer order to disorder, predictability, and demand a measure of control. This pandemic flies in the face of all that. An organism one thousand times smaller than a grain of sand is more powerful than the masters of the earth? Go figure…. Yet, the rush to get back to “normal” has revealed an immaturity, a flaw in our character. Our narcissistic self-interests demand the resumption of our previous life-style even in the face of reason, knowledge, and the lethality of making the wrong choice. Not since WWII has there been such a threat to each American, a phenomenon that touches all of us, invades our homes, our jobs, our minds. Yes, there have been many other national events: walking on the moon, the murder of a President, the Challenger explosion, 911, but they were all “out there,” “over there,” touching many directly, but most not directly and immediately as a threat.
We all have made adjustments, but it is also clear that complexes rise to the surface in the face of such threats. Who would have imagined that medical facts would be denied in a nation that prides itself on its sciences? Who would have imagined the moral bankruptcy of national leadership which chose political expediency over lives? Who would have imagined that wearing a simple face mask could be a political issue? It reminds one of H. L. Menckin’s remark that you can’t go broke underestimating the intelligence of the American people. Heretofore, I might have contended with his remark, but not today.
The toll of lives lost, families destroyed, jobs disappeared is staggering and their consequences will go on for many years. The oppression of the disease and its sequelae certainly beget depression, and often impulsive actions ranging from violence to increased self-medication, to relational animosities. All of these are expected, and lamentable, and all are keeping therapists, bar tenders, and delivery services busy--for those who can afford them.
What are some of the possible changes that we may be noting in our cultural perspectives:
1. No doubt, there will be greater respect for telecommunications, teletherapy, in-home schooling, and the like. For just one example, hitherto professional societies and insurance corporations frowned on tele-therapy. But, as we know, necessity is the mother of invention, and that shibboleth is probably broken forever. As a result, less car pollution, less time wasted looking for parking places, less office rent, and more opportunity for those in distant places to avail themselves of resources once denied them by geography.
2. I would like to believe--but certain politicians may still be around--that we might evolve as a society with a greater respect for expertise in all fields. The denigration of “science,” and professionalism has proved very costly in blood and treasure. In the face of wide-spread ignorance, superstition, gullibility in the face of internet trolls, there is such a thing as knowledge, and knowledge may in fact free us.
3. The incredible disparity of access to saving resources has again revealed the egregious separation of haves and have-nots in terms of access to health care, computers, internet, and so on, even in a country that prides itself on its democratic vision. This horrible discrepancy between our professed values may lead to some greater sharing of our wealth.
But I won’t bet against the self-interest of the haves prevailing, as they have so many times before.
4. We seem now to have greater appreciation of so many who were so imperiled on the front lines of our society…not only the physicians and nurses, but those delivering goods, working in grocery stores, all essential workers. Possibly some reduction in our stratified educational and economic snobbery will erode a bit. Again, I may be expecting too much. All I know is those folks have been keeping us alive, feeding us, bringing us more junk to fill our homes, and in general dying far more often than the likely readers of this essay.
5. We all recall American philosopher Ronald Reagan saying that the scariest sentence was: “Hi, I’m from the government and I’m here to help.” But attitudes change when the hurricane has leveled your city, when the virus is rampant, and incompetence and ignorance prevail at local levels. Now we know that only a government of the people and on behalf of the people large enough, and expert enough to tackle really large problems, is necessary. The hodge-podge and contradictions of local authorities has led to many more dead. Assuredly, there is blood on the hands of those who chose politics over the health of their constituents.
6. I recently saw a political cartoon where a person said, “I wish Covid would leave so I could get back to worrying about global warming.” When we come to on-going problems such as racism, economic disparities, global warming, we instantly hear that we do not have the resources, either of people or cash to address these issues. Would that economic distribution of resources, and national will could be mobilized to address these problems which will survive long after the virus is gone.
7. Hopefully, some people, forced out of routine, deprived of their usual distractions, found some new interests, rediscovered old ones left behind, such as reading and conversing, and that some folks made better friends with themselves simply because they had to. Human resourcefulness, a sense of humor, imagination, and sheer pragmatism are impressive when they appear.
I do expect, however, for a least a generation or two, that those going through this great time of uncertainty and threat, will take fewer things for granted, won’t casually assume that systems will always work, that food, health, and entertainments streams will flow uninterruptedly, and we will have a more realistic view of the contingencies and fragility of human life. We can readily identify problems that require our mature responses; it is something else to shift resources and commitment in those directions once the heat is off. Above all, we cannot afford complacency and naiveté because in difficult times they will kill us.
In these difficult hours, I am grateful for the work of Jung and depth psychology for helping many find a source of personal guidance when the outer structures are shaken and compromised. The gifts of Jung and others will abide for us the rest of our ways.
James Hollis, Ph.D. is Jungian Analyst in Washington and author, most recently of Living Between Worlds: Finding Personal Resilience in Changing Times.