On Covid-19: A Therapist's Perspective on the Pandemic
When the Student is Ready, the Teacher Arrives
How Covid-19 is Prepping Us for Lessons We Need to Learn
By Lauren Gonzalez, LMFT-Psychotherapist
Covid-19 is humanity’s new guru, and its lessons are not kind.
Recently I walked through the woods behind our home during a light snowstorm, replaying a mental reel of several trips I’d taken in the past—Istanbul, the Emirates, Scotland. I dove into each memory with my complement of senses: the colors, textures, scents of the spice market, the Aegean Sea in summer, the Highlands in January, woolies against my skin, a dram of Scotch on a snowy evening, the scent of Ras-el-hanout, rugs, camels, bagpipes, the turquoise sea stretched out before me from my canvas lounge chair—a swirl of memories that formed in a way a multi-layered vacation in my head, one that could only exist in imagination, fleeting from one exotic location to the next in a matter of seconds.
Many people I talk with feel robbed of such experiences by Covid, and in defiance, might travel anyway despite the risks. Likewise, others feel bereft of meaningful things, and yet sit with the melancholy, the longing, the absence of a particular way of life that we once called “normal.” Regardless upon which pole you find yourself, or perhaps you are somewhere in the middle, the virus shows us exactly where we are. It spotlights precisely what motivates us: our desire for travel, to socialize, to fall in love, raise families—to have external experiences in spite of the fact that doing so might endanger ourselves and others. Covid holds a mirror, much like the Hindu goddess Kali, that shows us what’s inside. These aren’t fun lessons; they don’t come by way of good news or an unexpected win. They come by way of sickness and death to ourselves or loved ones. They are tough lessons. And this is just practice. If we can’t learn what Covid has to teach, how can we even hope to meet the demands of climate change?
Covid-19 is about our health, global health, and cooperation. It’s at once personal and societal. As living creatures we have bodies that require care and vitality to function and stay healthy. We’ve all been sick at some point, and most of us fear death or at least the process of dying painfully. We view climate change as remote, outside of us, a problem out there. A dangerous shift in our climate is in many ways beyond our capacity to comprehend. The environment, nature, is so much bigger than us. And yet it is us, and we are a part of it.
In my deepest worries, I fear this disconnect is magnified by our collective inability to prioritize healing and well-being over another dinner out, another New Year’s Eve party, or simply an unencumbered trip to a grocery store without a mask—the very activities that have become the stand-in measure for the “freedoms” we once enjoyed, the social liberties that divide the world into the free and un-free.
Covid offers us a magnifying glass to more clearly see the urges and desires that control us, all too often unconsciously. When we hurt, when we’re scared, we want those feelings out of us, naturally. There is too much confusion, change, and danger all at once in our world, and Covid and climate are just two of the sources. Perhaps we’ve been living under the illusion that we are more in control of this thing we call nature, climate, life. So we banish our fears, we disown them. We stubbornly grasp onto the past and declare our worlds safe, unchanged. And we take a stand by refusing the very cooperation that might actually get us out of our collective mess. There’s a logic to this. When existence is threatened, survival and retaining control takes precedent. The fantasy of returning to an idealized past where such threats do not exist is enticing, if only temporary. We might take solace in watching television shows from another time, or by listening to music from another era, when things were safer, easier. Nostalgia works because we survived those prior eras intact, so we can now view them as a survival success.
When we collectively cast away the unwanted emotions within by launching them outward, this act can take the form of blaming others. Leaders might arise who would capitalize on that. Alternatively, we might avoid tough emotions by stirring the outer experience into a frenzy of entertainment, activity, and noise loud enough to drown out the inner pain, fear, or loneliness.
The pandemic has placed an exclamation point behind loneliness, which as psychotherapists we know stems from great personal pain, a disconnection from self and longing for the Beloved. This Covid guru shows us the state of our interior worlds, like it or not, and it doesn’t lie. The urgency we might feel to “get back to normal” or to reengage the external stimuli makes sense. Without those outer rhythms— the parties, the dinners, the conferences, the concerts, museums, travel, sports, and shopping, the cacophony that keeps our lives swirling and the pain at bay—the emptiness creeps in all too quickly. With our world changing around us, perhaps we are all grasping for whatever seems still in our environment, fixed, unchanged, like reaching for a railing when you lose your footing on the subway stairs.
Covid has a message for us, ready or not. Growth and personal development now is not outside of us. What if we heed the call of this messenger and examine the possibility that we are no longer living in a time of drowning out our inner knowledge with noise. Our guru is inviting us to look inside, to see what is out of balance and to grow there, to stretch into that empty or darkened space and bring life to it. What I see inside is in ways unsatisfying, incomplete, imperfect. I wish my inner landscape was different, idealized and full. And yet oddly, when I look closely, curiously, my inner terrain strangely mirrors our own physical climate so in dire need of attention, understanding, health.
If we can learn from Covid—and I don’t mean how to simply beat the virus and get back to normal life—we stand a chance of developing the ability to sit with change, chaos, emptiness, the imbalances within. And with those skills we might just develop the insight and abilities to both endure and change the chaos without—in the environment. Which, of course, mirrors us.