– Claire Haggard.
In an article recently published on the World Economic Forum, the writer Dr Van Hoof asserts that with “an estimated 2.6 billion people – two thirds of the world’s population – …living under some kind of lockdown or quarantine” (2020), lockdown is quite possibly the largest global, psychological experiment ever conducted. Her interpretation of this so-called experiment is that there will be a significant price to pay: in the scramble to mobilise emergency medical support and intervention, little, if any attention has been paid to the mobilisation of psychological support – an oversight that she feels will result in a significant deficit (i.e., a secondary epidemic of burnout and stress-related work-place absenteeism in the latter half of 2020).
In late February 2020, The Lancet published a review of 24 studies documenting the psychological impact of quarantine and, unsurprisingly, people reported a wide range of psychological distress (Van Hoof, 2020). Low mood, anxiety, irritability and anger were highlighted as especially common. Presently, recent studies and anecdotal data about the current world-wide lockdown indicate that the high-pressure environment of confinement, combined with the financial stress and burden brought about by a COVID-19 economy, have led to a rise in marital and interpersonal conflict. The stresses of quarantine/lockdown (financial stress, boredom, lack of escape, lack of exercise, increased conflict over burden of care – e.g., homeschooling, the division of house labour, conflict over child care), mean that couples, families and individuals alike are facing more challenges and have less resources and “low bandwidth” to manage adaptively. Studies also indicate that, in more extreme cases, relational conflict arising during lockdown has resulted in a surge of domestic violence. “In Hubei province, the heart of the initial outbreak, reported cases of domestic violence increased threefold since the pandemic started. A similar increase has also been reported in many other countries across Europe where lockdowns have been implemented.” (Liu, June 2020).
In less extreme cases, it is quite possible that as families and couples navigate new problems specific to the current context, existing tensions and issues are unearthed or aggravated. In the loss of balance of the essential combination of separate and together spaces, individuals are being rudely awoken to their more deeply entrenched issues pertaining to their most intimate attachments. “The lack of freedom and day-to-day struggles, coupled with the emotional and financial fallout, will probably take their toll on marriages.” (Newman, April 2020). And whilst it certainly captures one’s imagination to refer to the state of lockdown as the largest global experiment of all time, the notion of this being an experiment belies the very real consequences and emotional distress inherent in critically evaluating one’s relationships (whether that be to oneself, to one’s romantic partner and one’s relationships within broader contexts). I am struck that even within the containing space of the therapeutic hour and a trusted, secure therapeutic relationship, these kinds of conflict typically precipitate some of our most overwhelming emotional states – shame, fear and anger – and typically require a neutral, impartial space in which to process and make meaningful links and change.
On a broader level, the notion of a grand experiment also seems to create a clinical distance from that which feels inflammatory and “hot to the touch”. It is quite possible to argue that the protests against systemic racism and police violence sweeping the globe, highlight the manners in which COVID 19 has revealed how unequal and unfree people still are, and how structural inequality still forms an integral part of the fabric of our global society.
Whilst slogans like #weareallinthistogether perhaps provide comfort as we navigate these strange and complex times, they tend to overlook the deeply personal and historically entrenched nature of that which precipitates significant internal/external conflict, as well as the collective rage/trauma expressed by particular groupings of individuals world-over (e.g., people of colour and marginalised groups). COVID-19 is having a greater impact on the aforementioned groups: specific to our country, millions of South Africans are still trapped by poverty. In an article in the Mail and Guardian, Nico Koopman argues that this number is growing because of COVID-19: “Although work does not determine our worth, being without work, income and the ability to care for myself, my dear ones and broader society, does affect people’s sense of dignity and value. Unemployment intensifies poverty.” (April, 2020).
And of course, homelessness, hunger and the inability to practise social distancing because of overcrowded housing and poor living conditions, draws individuals back to deeply entrenched, oppressive wounds (and unfulfilled basic human rights) informed by our traumatic history. In this regard, we are not all in this together in the same way: some of us have greater freedoms and more accessibility than others.
COVID-19 is painfully exposing the existing and persisting inequalities in our societies. What COVID-19 is showing us, is that not all lives matter; “…that some lives matter more than others, that some lives matter so much that they need to be protected at all costs, and that other lives matter less, or not at all. And when that becomes the situation, then the lives that do not matter so much, or do not matter at all, can be killed or lost, can be exposed to conditions of destitution, and there is no concern, or even worse, [these conditions are…] regarded as the way it is supposed to be,” (Butler, 2015).
Similarly, COVID-19 is evoking a number of primordial feelings and responses that highlight the aggressive and oftentimes violent impact of suppressed, unprocessed experience. In turn, the intensity of emotion – and the accompanying absence of distraction from this emotion during lockdown, has catapulted individuals and communities (especially those that have been historically marginalised) into confronting their deepest wounds (e.g., a loss or imbalance of agency and power, a loss of identity or legitimacy as a subjective being, the loss of one’s voice and sense of self, and ultimately a sense of alienation or displacement within one’s life world).
What is perhaps most uncomfortable for us to recognise and acknowledge, is that the personal is political and that the political (in the form of social unrest and protests centred on inequality and an absence of social justice) is not so far removed from our personal, subjective experiences as individuals. We are constantly navigating the dynamics and interpersonal dances (“the state of affairs”) that characterise our familial and interpersonal attachments (e.g., who has authority? Who has the right to assert expectations and needs? Who doesn’t? Who remains invisible? Who has more privilege within the family? Who colludes with this privilege? Who is consistently silenced despite their attempts to express legitimate needs?).
When we reach for slogans like #alllivesmatter, we are in fact attempting to equalise human suffering. Of course, the phrase seems well intentioned, implying that all lives should be viewed equally, and that all lives already matter. However, it is quite possible that what we are doing when we are reaching for such slogans, is defensively refusing to be curious about the particularities that inform the status quo (whether that be in our personal relationships or in the broader structures that inform whether or not we are able to act as agents in our life worlds).
It is notable that within our personal lives, if someone had to respond to our disclosure that “my father has just died” with “everyone’s father dies” – the response, although truthful, would be experienced as hurtful and cruel. As a rebuttal to the phrase #blacklivesmatter, #alllivesmatter diminishes and suppresses the voices of those challenging the status quo; and thus silences a very particular, legitimate and acute sense of suffering.
Arguably, equalising statements embody an expression of fear, discomfort and resistance on the part of those occupying a more privileged position: there is something uncomfortable about expansive, systemic pain that requests that the other be accountable. It requires an acknowledgement that at a deeply unconscious (and even conscious) level, particular groupings of individuals have colluded with (and continue to benefit from) deeply sedimented, and ultimately unchallenged, structural dynamics that have positioned some lives, and some classes, as inferior to others. Truthfully, not having been born during the apartheid era, for example, is not a legitimate explanation for why movements agitating for systemic change are not relevant to one’s subjective positioning in the world.
Transgenerational transmission means, that if one currently occupies a privileged position, one is in fact an expression of the manners in which one has benefited from structural racism/prejudice (and this has very little to do with your philosophical, intellectual and personal sentiments about human rights, democracy and oppression). This is about the very subtle and insidious ways in which we unconsciously internalise dominant discourses/tropes – even if we, as individuals, are consciously in opposition to discourses of supremacy or privilege.
Developing practices of social justice require that we develop the capacity to care more about others than we care about our own egos – and this is typically hardest for us to do when the other is demanding that we account for the part that one has played (whether intentionally or not) in maintaining the status quo. The invitation and will to change is often accompanied with the fear of change. “We all move back and forth between our desire to learn, risk, experiment, and grow – and our anxiety about doing so. Change brings loss in its wake even when it’s a change we truly and deeply [need] to make…. To avoid the anxiety inherent in change and growth we may doggedly cling to the familiar. By clutching tightly to the safety of sameness, we may try to keep everyone and everything as sure as sunrise and as fixed as the stars.” (Lerner, 2001, p. 73 -77).
In both the personal and the political realms, anxiety and fear has the capacity to lock us into a subjectively charged narrow, rigid, simplistic, and “good guys vs bad guys” mentality. Anxiety “erodes the essential human capacity to think about our thinking” (Lerner, 2001, p. 60) and takes us right into ego defence (which by its very nature is an exceptionally individualised mechanism designed to shut the other out, to shame them in our guilt or fear, and withdraw from intimate connection). By definition, historical structures of inequality have been designed around the premise of compassion failure and protection of the ego at the expense of others. Thus, “[t]he higher the anxiety in any system, the less tolerance people have for inclusiveness, complexity, and difference. When you live in a culture of fear, you will likely want to huddle in a little family or village where everyone is just like you” (Lerner, p. 135).
“To erase people is a terrible thing. We can do it – or have it done to us – without anybody intending harm.” (Lerner, 2001, p. 134). To invalidate another’s experience (whether individual or group); to fail to respond; to diminish, silence or defensively employ the ego defence of “… but I am a good person, I don’t oppress other people, I am not racist”, is in fact a statement of one’s struggle to acknowledge that even within our personal spaces we have the capacity to unwittingly collude with particular power dynamics because they favour us or protect us (e.g., the sibling who doesn’t challenge glaring discrepancies between how they and their sibling are treated by a particular parent, so as to remain in favour with that parent).
The act on the part of the favoured sibling is not an expression of inherent badness, it is an expression of how ego survival is often driven towards ensuring one’s continued membership in a particular group (even if that act of survival requires a shaming/silencing of the other and perhaps even accompanying, crippling guilt). The difficulty is that whatever is denied or silenced in a larger system, will be internalised by an individual or othered group as personal or collective shame. “Shame breeds more shame as it locks a person, or a whole group of people into silence…” (Lerner, p, 133).
It is obviously painful, risky and exhausting to assert a truth in a family, workplace or community that offers very little that validates the experience of those positioned as other. If one is wanting to adopt a position of advocacy, there is a hurdle that one has to overcome: one has to make the distinction between survival pain (I feel wounded when challenged on my internalised bias) and expansive pain: i.e., the pain of truly seeing and hearing other people in a manner that requires an opening out towards positions that might unsettle the familiar landscape, and might perturb an immense amount of emotional and psychological discomfort. Expansive pain is informed by the desire to protect someone else’s interests over your own, and thus the awareness that one may have to lean into the discomfort.
Audre Lorde asserts that “[w]ithout community, there is no liberation… but community must not mean a shedding of our differences, nor the pathetic pretence that these differences do not exist”. It is arguable that true, compassionate engagement (true community) requires our having to shift beyond a position of privilege, and “dig deep and really believe, not intellectually, in the premise of equality, but … decide – against your initial inclination – … that in the moment of being called out, my ego is not superior. What I want or need is not superior. In this moment I am going to decide that the person [or group] in front of me is sharing something that I am desperately in need of. Because, I am not superior” (Brown, June, 2020). From this position, we can begin to interrogate whether our equalisers (e.g., “I don’t see colour”; #alllivesmatter) are assisting others in the plight to feel valued and acknowledged in their difference, or whether they further the agenda of the status quo (invisibility and exclusion). In doing so, we facilitate greater visibility to those positioned as other. We create space in which other bodies can show up as legitimate (this acquires gravity when one considers that for decades in South Africa, black bodies were quite literally not allowed to occupy or take up space) – and in so doing, provide a mirror with which individuals begin to reconstitute positions of silence and shame with positions of agency and unashamed visibility.
If one is struggling to engage the political or social justice aspect of what COVID-19 is highlighting, it can be useful to return back to the personal and the extent to which COVID-19 is certainly prompting and inviting humans to look more closely at the dynamics and patterns that maintain feelings of helplessness, powerlessness, paralysis and a reduced quality of life. Whilst not all of us will choose to become social activists, “…each of us can do our part to create the conditions of safety for others to show up and be real. We can do this in small, everyday ways, by cultivating an attitude of respect, welcome and open-hearted curiosity about those who differ from us…” (Lerner, 2001, p. 137).