Thoughts of a psychologist in the time of Corona
Loss of perspective:
One of the central roles of the psychologist is to help the client create a more balanced life of soul. Balance and perspective are the foundation of mental health. In the therapy room, perspective is fostered through the art of listening to ourselves and our deepest needs. We learn to approach our fears, to experience them in their right context and not to run away from them. Michael Ende, in one of his stories, writes about a giant who the more you run away from him, the bigger he becomes and the closer you approach him, the more he takes on his proper size.
Anxiety is a good example of loss of perspective. The word anxiety is related to the word eng in German meaning narrow. In the anxiety experience, there is a feeling of deep unease, shortness of breath, the experience becomes “narrow” and limited and the wider perspective disappears. Someone experiencing anxiety loses perspective and the proper sense of reality.
Children and adults are losing perspective in this current crisis. The relentless media reports of tragedies – for example, reports of a pregnant woman who has died or a young man who died suddenly, give rise to loss of perspective and to anxiety. Especially in this period, we must foster the ability to exercise perspective – not in order to convince the other but in order to bring balance to our soul life. We can practice thoughts such as: the current crisis is not an unprecedented crisis, to remember that 2020 is not the only year in which tragedies occurred, that in previous years people also died suddenly and unexpectedly, and that we were able to carry on…with perspective (often because we did not hear about these tragedies, we should remember that around 134 children died in accidents in the last 5 years meaning the chances of a child dying of Corona in the whole 2020 are much less than of a child dying in an accident in the summer holidays, that there are 7 seriously ill patients under the age of 20 (as of 26.2 in Israel) compared to 2019 where there were 8 times more seriously ill children due to influenza. We need perspective, not in order to convince but in order to foster our mental health.
The fear of the immeasurable
In this period, I feel that many of us are experiencing reality as mediated solely through the physical body and the soul has been abolished or forgotten. The experience is mainly of people preoccupied with their physical survival. Many talk about a vaccine but few talk about soul resilience. Many talk about the importance of social distancing and avoiding gatherings, but there is little talk on the healing forces of soul warmth, physical touch, real conversations and looking into the eyes of another human being. Numerous studies validate this connection of body and soul to mental and physical health.
One of the reasons for this almost nonexistent discourse is the fact that soul experiences such as joy and sadness are not measurable in quantitative terms. In this respect, the soul does not lend itself to be measured. And this often frightens us. In an era in which measurement is the dominant element, the importance of the soul has been pushed to one side. The soul cannot be put into a mathematical equation, and in an age in which everything needs to be certain, there is no place for an immeasurable experience such as the soul. We could call this age the age of “need for certainty” or the age of measurements or the age of convenience. Lockdowns give us some sense of security, a vaccination gives us some feeling of security, the mask gives us some form of protection and certainty, the main thing is that we do something – at least then we will not experience uncertainty.
Who is able today to sit on a bus or train and remain present and calm while refraining from looking at one’s phone even for just a few minutes, to refrain from “doing” and to not feel uncomfortable? I meet many clients who come to therapy with a wish to experience something beyond this constant doing, something that will grant them an experience of rest.
The wish for rest is not a desire for a holiday or a desire to lie on the couch. It is a longing to transition from doing to being. When we are living in a relentless busy-ness (Fromm) that includes constant thoughts racing through our head, we have no real possibility to experience ourselves. One must help the individual to slow down and to begin to connect with his soul experiences. But this experience involves listening to something that one cannot measure and thus the experience is accompanied by uncertainty and often anxiety. Many of us prefer a relentless doing and consuming of information because after all, we are living in an era of needing to know everything constantly.
Uncertainty often comes to the fore in the experience of play. In play we experience uncertainty that allows us also to experience joy and fulfillment. There is a chance I may lose and there is uncertainty over what my opponent will do next. Playfulness is an experience of uncertainty within which there is creativity and healing. In therapy it is possible to reacquaint oneself with this playfulness through what we could call the art of conversation. In a conversation founded on playfulness, trust and acceptance are fostered, allowing moments of silence and listening, and the need to be in control, to dominate, and to be opinionated dissipates. Instead of a conversation that is experienced as my opinion versus yours, there is an experience that takes place in a space of play between two people. In this process, the client learns about the healing forces of uncertainty.
I feel that we have no desire or patience anymore for this playfulness. What often remains is the motivation to be right at all costs while refusing to play. Where is the fun in that? Many children today experience anxiety. In my opinion, many of these anxieties stem from the child’s experience of the adult world as requiring constant certainty. The child experiences the adult as knowing everything, the adult as having an opinion on everything. When an adult pretends to know everything, this can be very annoying for a child but also very scary. If an adult feels the need to know everything, then the child also feels a compulsive need to know everything. If the adult tries to always create certainty, then the child feels even more the need to create certainty. The child experiences an adult who cannot tolerate uncertainty – and in this manner the child learns that it is apparently very dangerous and unhealthy not to “know everything”.
What is the child asking of the adult today? The child is asking of the adult to sometimes show him that he can be at ease with uncertainty, the child is asking the adult to show him that failure can be a legitimate experience, that the adult will be at ease with not knowing everything, that the adult can sometimes be spontaneous and creative without relying on certainty all the time. The child will feel that ”here is an adult who is showing me that it is alright to live with uncertainty and imperfection, here is an adult who accepts this”. Do we want to bring up a generation of children who will pretend that they know everything? Is this not also a kind of mental illness?
Jessica Benjamin describes a child who is playing with a doll’s house. The girl doesn’t want to allow the “mother” to enter the doll’s house. The therapist says to her: “that’s fine but let’s continue playing.”. There is the “no” of the child and the “yes” of the therapist and the play itself is the activity that allows one to go beyond the polarities of yes and no and to thus facilitate healing. Are we able as a society to find this healing space in conversations among ourselves? Is there a place in us beyond the barricades of being in favor or against something? I meet many clients who are persecuted because of their wish to not vaccinate, teenagers afraid that they will be asked to do 2 corona tests a week in order to be allowed to enter school, clients ostracized by friends because of their decision to not vaccinate. I also meet clients who are very scared of the virus and want everyone to vaccinate. Can we find the playfulness that can help us overcome these contrasting fears?
Balancing cold and warmth
In the therapy room, we can foster our ability to live in uncertainty also through connecting to our feelings. The client can begin to slowly experience his soul forces that include this feeling life and to experience them concretely. The client can learn that the things that cannot be measured are the experiences that can bring the greatest healing. These are the immeasurable things. These immeasurable experiences generate the warmth of soul.
In contrast, the world of measurement is a cold and calculating world. In order to measure something accurately, one must remain at a certain distance and remain objective. I have never seen a calculator or computer that gives one a feeling of warmth or that can give one a hug. We can measure many things. We can measure our body temperature, we can measure 2 metres from one another, we can measure who has been infected and who has not, we can measure how many have died and how many have recovered. Our attention is on what we can measure. What we can measure we can “solve” because these solutions can be measured. What cannot be measured is pushed aside. There is no place for warmth or the experience of losing control or of play. There is simply a need to know everything about everything and everyone, how healthy and sick each of us are, and that all this is registered somewhere. The world of bureaucracy resides in the cold. The world of measurements fosters alienation, loss of perspective, and leads us ultimately to the inhuman. This world is one in which an unvaccinated teenager may be forced to do two Corona tests a week to enter school. In contrast, in the world of hugs and physical contact, in the world of uncertainty, of risk and creativity, in the place in which we can reside without always knowing, in that place resides the warmth and immeasurable experiences such as happiness, fear, hope, contentment, feeling of presence, courage, intimacy self-awareness etc. Is the correct solution really a solution originating in the world of measurements in which for example we will be convinced that only if everyone vaccinates, we can go back to normal life? This world is cold and leads to the inhuman. Human life is a balance between cold and warmth, between the scientific precision and the human side of uncertainty. How can we find a healthy balance between facts and uncertainty?
Once upon a time, we would meet around a bonfire and converse into the night, we would look each other in the eye, get a bit dirty sitting on the ground, we would smell of smoke, maybe we would get up and find another spot around the fire (practicing perspective). Today, we often sit in front of another kind of bonfire, the bonfire of the news and media. In front of this cold fire, we remain clean and secure, but with all the sitting we also remain cold, and in front of this cold fire we do not truly meet the other. Instead, we fill ourselves up with information and facts that gives us the illusion of knowing. I wish for all of us that we all can meet once more around the warmth of a bonfire, a bonfire of soul warmth created in the meeting that involves uncertainty but also acceptance of the unknown. Around this bonfire of the soul, we do not feel the need to force certainty on others in order to satisfy our own need for certainty. This is a place where we can all learn to sit together again, no matter what our personal decision was regarding certain medical procedures, and where we remember and reacquaint ourselves once more with the infinite healing powers of the human soul.
And for the sake of our children, do we want them to grow up into a world in which the human being is regarded as sick until proven otherwise? Prof. Jonathan Haidt asks whether we want to bring up our children in a world where they are like small candles covered by a glass container, protected from any slight breeze that threatens to blow them out? Or do we want to bring up our children like small candles that are exposed to the wind, a wind that makes the fire of the candle grow stronger and mightier, so that the small flame, in meeting the wind, becomes a big roaring fire around which maybe other people will want to meet. I say: Let us stop measuring the warmth. I say, let us be strengthened by the wind!