Covid, our teacher
Author: James Krantz
COVID, Our Teacher
A recent newscast about ‘COVID’ panic brought to mind an article that impressed me as an undergraduate 50 years ago. It said that, during the Great Depression, people loved each other more because they had to rely upon one another. My comments here attempt to unpack this as it pertains to our current situation. On reflection, it seems the show was mistitled. Instead of panic, I would say fear, which is, of course, as vital an emotion for survival as love. The instinctual impulse of self-preservation is built into our nervous systems. Not the neurotic fears that we work to resolve, but the fear that alerts us to real danger and mobilizes us to flee or fight. It is survival through self-preservation; love, on the other hand, is survival through embrace of the other.
Fear and Love – an essential tension
I see fear and love as polar opposites, inescapably harnessed to one another. The dance of fear and love is the interdependence of self and other, of the individual and the collective, of self-interest and public interest. Neither exists without the other. It’s an interdependence that holds the (potentially creative) tension of opposites. Idealizing or debasing either denies the complexity of the human condition. Through holding the tension, and tolerating the resulting anxiety, we can engage the world as whole people. Holding the complexity allows us to fully inhabit our roles as citizens.
COVID is both a mirror of who we are and a portal to a new unknown. It reveals hard truths and reshapes social reality. How we handle the reciprocal dynamic of fear and love will have a lot to say about how we ultimately cross the threshold on which we now stand. As T.S. Eliot said: “Everyone gets the experience. Some get the lesson.” How we handle it will have a lot to say about whether we emerge on a path toward democratic principles or head further toward the politics of inequality and tribalism.
Democracy requires us to think about our roles as citizens much like our roles as parents, caring both for ourselves and for the other. Citizenship involves recognizing the difference, tending to our own needs as well as those of society. Whether we will learn something about embracing both the importance of self-preservation and community wellbeing is an important COVID question. The stakes are very high.
The role of leadership
Leadership enters the equation as an essential “third” that helps us contain the dread and anxiety that colors our world today. Leadership that provides emotional containment by treating others as adults - telling the truth, putting experience into perspective, acknowledging heartbreak and sad tradeoffs, and helping people embrace the necessity of both fear and love.
Effective leadership helps us transform the experience into the lesson and it supports our ability to think rather than panic. True leaders invite us into reflective space, a crucible for the sort of engagement that enables ethical choice and mature action. Leaders help us remain in what Bion (1970) called negative capability, referring to a state of mind that enables us to stay alive, open minded and reflective in the face of doubt and uncertainty. By tolerating the emotional distress, we avoid hasty reactions, premature responses, or the siren song of the latest “answer” or “certainty.”
Absent leadership, pathological expressions of fear and love will likely fill the void, as we see in many arenas. Without it we are more easily drawn to narratives that seal over the shame and grief that COVID has brought us - narratives that simplify and scapegoat. Without the generativity of reflective space, the residue of trauma and unresolved mourning will linger as corrosive, repressed memories.
Our particular moment
While pandemics have universal qualities, they are also particular to their own historical moment. Paradoxically, now we are together by being apart. We affirm solidarity through distance; togetherness through separateness. All of which casts the fear-love dialectic in an unusual light.
I believe we can thank social media for helping us keep the need for both in mind by enabling us to connect in our isolation. While we rightfully worry about the detachment created by relating through screens in ordinary times, for the moment we can see something containing about how technology helps communities come together in the midst of the pandemic and keeping hope alive.
Hope, as with fear and love, is essential to our ability to find redemptive solutions. When Pandora opened her box (often claimed out of curiosity, not malice) she inflicted pandemics, disease, death and all manner of evil on humankind. When she closed the vessel, only Hope remained: “within her unbreakable house.” It’s on the topic of hope that I will conclude.
There is much to worry about in terms of the post-COVID world. The bleaker realities of human nature may very well hold sway. To a great degree, baser motives are propelling action rather than higher ideals. Nevertheless, I have some hope that we will emerge with a deeper awareness of our connectedness.
As individuals, it may leave us with a bit more humility and a greater awareness of our vulnerability. If so, we will be more receptive to each other and more careful as citizens. And as a result, we will be more resilient. Perhaps less eager to reach for simplistic narratives that see people only for their flaws or their virtues.
Let’s hope the vivid exposure of social inequality will find its way into policy. As perhaps will be appreciation of how much we depend on those who are often discounted and how much we depend on those who care for others on our behalf. We will be stronger if we develop a new appreciation of the importance of robust institutions, especially now seeing how degraded they have become. It is important to note that while people didn’t create the virus, we did create the systems and networks giving this pandemic its unique quality. COVID has exposed how traditional approaches to control and management are ill-suited for today’s realities. Addressing the problems arising from the pandemic requires new levels of global cooperation.
At the societal level, we urgently need to learn from COVID about the dynamics arising in our globalized, densely interconnected world. About how complexity, creativity and community coalesce to shape our increasingly networked world. Learning to approach our world with a systems mindset, one that recognizes how limited our control actually is, and learning to live with the realities of global interdependence, may be the most important lesson that the virus offers us. If we don’t learn about these unpredictable and precarious dynamics from COVID, then we will most certainly confront them at far greater scale and with far greater tragedy with climate change.
Our most intractable problems are rooted in multiple interacting systems. I look forward to the upcoming Group Relations Australia conference to help me better understand both the conscious and unconscious aspects of these forces.
First published November 2021 at nioda.org.au