When the extreme contagion is over, when we have a vaccine or an effective treatment, when we can safely emerge from our individual cocoons, there will be another pandemic waiting for us. As with the rampant physical illness currently ravaging our individual and community health, this new pandemic will affect everyone in ways that can be more debilitating and longlasting than the physical danger of the virus. And it is also contagious in many cases.
The next epidemic will involve mental health and will have to be managed by psychologists. Those of us who are psychologists or in related fields are trying to prepare in advance and learn some lessons from the vast unpreparedness for the COVID2 pandemic. We will not leave you alone or unprotected this time.
The first and perhaps most important of the lessons learned in the past weeks and months is that denial and magical thinking, political incantations and gaslighting will not make threats to our safety and well-being disappear. On the contrary, all of these primitive and failed strategies are what are contributing to the intensity of the coming crisis.
Actually the next epidemic has already begun, somewhat quietly since we are all trapped in our own physical and psychological bubbles. Those who can are beginning to access psychotherapeutic services being offered online. At best, these services reach a small number of people and are offered mainly in cultures that already value modern psychology. Of course, not everyone is among this group in any society. These forms of trauma therapy are largely designed to treat symptoms and not causes.
What the current pandemic has done so abruptly is to draw back the veil that allows most of us to function on a daily basis. That veil provides a sense of safety and a denial of the eventual death of each and every one of us. If this veil did not offer us partial unconsciousness, we would all no doubt choke on our fears on a daily basis.
I reject the metaphor of a war that is so favored by modern industrial nations in dealing with this virus. Seen through the eyes of this metaphor, the virus must be fought and conquered, overcome and defeated. This approach is too violent and perpetuates, rather than eliminates, our current traumatic responses.
While there is not one simple cause of an epidemic, I believe that it can be more productively understood as the result of abuse. Abuse of Mother Nature. Abuse of the very planet that sustains life. Abuse of animals who are prepared for human consumption in horrifying conditions, as if they actually were no more than pieces of meat. Extreme overpopulation by the human species. And last but not least, abuse and commodification of women and girls in all the countries of the planet. Often invisible to the general population, this problem is no more apparent than it is currently in the non-United States, where the current occupant of the White House repeatedly performs his contempt for women as leaders or even followers. Along with his delight for those who are sexualized, objectified and prostituted. His cabal of colleagues are all complicit in this evil and criminal preference.
Taking a long hard look at the international abuse that we call war, the environmental abuse that we call modernity and the personal abuse that we call domestic violence, we are in a lot of trouble.
Now we have a brief opportunity, when the veil is drawn, to see the light, to see that “There is a crack in everything. That’s where the light gets in”, as Leonard Cohen has so poetically and poignantly put it. We can momentarily allow ourselves to see the real problems and some real solutions rather than waging yet another war against each other and against yet another illness. We can all see too clearly how the previous metaphorical “wars” on cancer and on drugs have turned out. The United States, in particular, is on a long losing streak in both the metaphorical and real wars, culminating in the last presidential election.
The coming psychological crisis must not be labeled a war. Instead it will be an existential crisis, a dealing with the loss of safety and security, of the seemed predictability of life and a serious loss of faith. These will, for many of us, be replaced by enormous grief. We will choke on our own fear. And we will get mired in this grief and fear, unable to move on as it grabs us and pulls us back into it like a vortex of psychological quicksand. Psychologists call this reaction Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Most of all, we will confront a loss of meaning or what I name “mattering” to include the inescapably intertwined minds and hearts of us all. As one prominent example, physical contact is not just a luxury or a pleasant pastime, it is absolutely necessary for our healthy survival. Failure to thrive studies long ago demonstrated that babies who are not touched literally do not survive. Other studies have more recently shown that older people who live alone and do not have access to physical contact also die prematurely.
We are social animals, meant to be in tribes that survive within ecosystems and to be in physical contact with each other, animals and the earth. Our physical contact during the virus pandemic has been significantly replaced by screen time. While this is a connection of sorts, it is also a disconnection of another sort from which we will be suffering for a long time as screen time inserts itself into our daily lives.
The politicians and others who lie and gaslight, who cheat and steal, distort reality and make our suffering that much worse. It is reality, long out of fashion, that heals. The symptoms that we are about to experience in enormous numbers, the nightmares, panic attacks and even suicidality are not so much an illness as they are the result of severe injury to us all. While psychotherapy may be useful in controlling or even obliterating some of the more obvious symptoms, a clear focus on mattering is a deeper and longlasting solution. Many studies have demonstrated that those who survive severe illness, injury or trauma are able to make meaning. They begin to live on a mattering map and that is where they find safety and life satisfaction.
So consider deeply what really matters to you and what your purpose is to be in your life going forward. Commit to it and live it. Mattering is a force stronger than and prior to matter. It is a force that binds us together as a species just as gravity binds us to the planet. That force is genetic, biological, psychological and interpersonal and transnational. As gravity keeps us on this earth, so mattering is the force that keeps us together in life.
We need our scientists and our priests, our nurses and our doctors, but we need to embed them in a frame of meaning. What is life about for each of us and all of us? Knowing why we are here helps us to stay here and to commit to the life each of us wants. It is the closest we can come to a cure.