Fighting Against a Pandemic of Dread | Hacker Noon

Jacques Legault, C.Psych. Hacker Noon profile picture

The psychological toll of this global pandemic is multi-layered, pointing us towards a reckoning with deeper layers of our psyche, obscured with distraction during normal pre-pandemic times. The lockdown measures have cut us all off from most sources of joy, engagement, meaningful pursuits, and distraction, leaving us to confront the rumblings of disowned parts of ourselves.

The increased prevalence of depression and anxiety amongst all age groups are the check engine lights flashing on the dashboards of our bodies, revealing our struggles to adapt to this new and ever-changing inescapable pandemic. We humans function according to cognitive-emotional templates to help guide us through life, and this global pandemic is revealing how fragile these templates are, and how fragile we humans are in the face of these new uncontrollable and ever-changing circumstances.

Family, friendships, community, and collective rituals have helped us throughout the ages appease the challenges of adaptation. Under lockdown conditions, we have been cut off from these sources of both soothing and reassurance, the grounding power of being with others in moments of fear and trembling. 

So we are left alone to confront the rumblings of self, thrown into this new reality without our accustomed buffers, naked before the dragon with nowhere to run.

Hell isn’t other people. Hell is yourself. (Ludwig Wittgenstein)

In our clinical work, my colleagues and I have observed that the surface noise of anxiety and depression are pointing to something deeper and more arcane. That here in the West, among the worried well of first-world comfort, there is a crisis of inner dialogue, of deep dialogue with the self, which engages with disowned parts of ourselves that some have referred to as the shadow.

In the absence of incessant distractions through obsessive performance, be it professional, academic, social, economic, etc., and the illusions of safety and invulnerability, the groundings of individual identity begin to fragment.

Also, our modern zeitgeist pulls for a retreat into dehumanizing solipsistic obsessions with our curated images of self, wholly disconnected from authentic encounters with real others.

Sadly, such vacuous ways of being is abandoning us all alone on the ocean of meaning, as we paddle in isolation with but our thumbs and Iphones, floating on the currents of our individual lives, miles above the fibre optic cables we were promised would connect, and not divide us.

Like a boat without a rudder or sail, we are spinning in circles, clinging desperately to old templates, afraid to open ourselves up to confronting the ghosts in the closet of our lives. Bombarded by daily statistics of illness and death unheard of and deemed impossible in our modern technological age, we feel betrayed and abandoned by the new gods of technology to secure our smooth sailing. With death and suffering everywhere around us, we cannot escape the existential dread of our own death, and in tandem, our own unfinished lives. 

And this dread is everywhere in the air, at the core of the mental health crisis that will linger long after herd immunity is achieved. Alone and isolated, cut off and abandoned, we vacillate between despair, terror, rage and optimism. But there is no escaping the rumblings of the alienated self, banging on the doors of consciousness with its arsenal of anxiety and depression. No new-age spiritual awakening nor simplistic formulaic rules for life seem to provide the antidote for this current state of collective dread.

Like children walking at night in the forest, we imagine bears and wolves when we hear rumblings in the leaves, when in normal times there are only squirrels rummaging through the forest.

Whereas now, the bear and wolves are real.

With this virus, the other is a real threat. No longer can we walk peacefully down the street smiling innocently at a passerby, because our dread map plots ways of avoiding getting to close to the menacing other. This dread-induced paranoia erodes the fabric of our communities, rendering us vulnerable to primitive us vs. them assessments, opening the door to more systemic forms of racism and community disconnection.

Even close family members who live apart become tainted with this dread dynamic, putting knots in our stomach as we approach our aging parents or university bounds children as we attempt to connect with masks and social distancing walks in the park. This dance of distance and caution among loved ones living apart frays the basic fabric of our evolutionary tendency to connect through touch, the soothing balm that calms our anxious nervous systems in times of uncertainty.

All of these disruptive adaptions uproot us and cut us off from the grounding rituals of connection leaving us alone and isolated to confront the shit scared small kid feeling we all carry inside of us. And the helpless child, powerless and alone, vulnerable and unsure, left unchecked can transform its powerlessness into anger and rage at invisible forces that we imagine created this pandemic.

To imagine real others pulling the strings, be it big tech, the Soros and Gates of the world, or targeting racial scapegoats, puts a temporary face on an impersonal menace that we can mobilize and focus our anger on. But this regressive process only gives us the illusion of power and control, and among other lost helpless children, we can find an artificial community in which to seek illusory belonging and short-lived solace in our collective stance against our imagined enemy. And like all primary processes they are destined to fail, further compounding disillusionment, disconnection and despair. 

Also, this pandemic is revealing greater inequities between the rich and the poor fuelling our sense of powerless rage at the fallout of the structures we humans have created. Economic distress is real and is tearing at the seams of our social contract implicit in our neo-capitalist system. The realization that we can’t take anything for granted, including how we are to put food on the table to feed our families, is tearing families apart. With domestic and family violence cases rising to disturbing levels, alongside a haemorrhaging social service sector that has long been neglected and utterly ill-equipped to deal with this crisis, are leaving the most vulnerable even more isolated in their distress.

For the first time since WWII, all of humanity is viscerally experiencing trauma, loss, fear, and dread as it struggles to make sacrifices to ward off this faceless enemy.

Unfortunately, this time around, these sacrifices are lacking the grand narrative arc of good vs evil, of democracy vs. demagoguery, leaving us afloat on an unfinished narrative in which there is no redemption, in which there are no winners and no losers. Old ideologies need not apply to this current context, for they fail miserably at providing the antidote to the collective dread that this pandemic awakens.

The only antidote to dread is risk.

To risk stepping out into the unknown of our unfinished lives and reclaiming our humanity with compassion by reimagining our collective journey as fragile and interconnected. By transforming our individual and collective solipsistic pain and sacrifices into something greater than ourselves is how we can weave meaning into this historic moment. And by risking to courageously write a new narrative in which everyone has a stake in the post-pandemic story may be our only hope for redemption.

Jacques Legault, C.Psych. Hacker Noon profile picture

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