This short essay is an attempt to explicate the human damage this ravaging ‘battle’ against a virus is causing. The piece explores possible causes and maintaining factors from a psychological angle and inquires adherent questions philosophically. In short: how did we get caught in a spiral of sameness? What makes this crisis seem perpetual? And to what degree does this relate to depression?
His eyes are endless. The emptiness within, boundless. Somber, with an indifferent countenance, he stares down a muddy pond, behind which a busy highway is rushing. Above the old, unshaven man hovers an impenetrable grey sky, reflecting his inner state seamlessly. He throws in his fishing line and remarks: ‘this is the only thing I still look forward to’. Some ten other men alike are lined up along the shoreline, staring at the still water, having something in common: they suffer from depression. Fishing is their therapy. For some, it is the only reason to keep on living.
In current modern society, depression is widely prevalent and growing. Suicides have multiplied. Amongst the elderly, the youngsters and even children, it spreads rapidly. It may be closely entwined with the increase of loneliness in recent years and the dissolution of the traditional community without an adequate replacement. One thing is evident nonetheless; that inasmuch as we are better at expanding and extending our lifetime, we became worse in actually spending that lifetime. The excess of free time even became an enemy. Insofar that some, more tragically, decide to end life themselves, for they cannot believe any change is at hand.
Psychologically, depression is a way of dealing with peril that goes awry; a personal strategy to remain mentally healthy that leads to its very opposite. It usually begins as a reaction to life’s turmoil, such as a lockdown or social isolation. By cognitively presuming that these events will continue eternally, by mentally painting life black, one may anticipate more dark times ahead. A form of self protection, you might say.
There’s another good reason for this. People are in dire need of control, to have a grip on their life and oversee things, in order to feel well. And indeed, by picturing life as a bitter sequence of problems and darkness (based on past events), one may be one step ahead of misery. Continually bracing yourself for incoming gloom. This strategy makes life, despite the misery, appear at least manageable.
But after a while of doing so, this grim attitude will become the new mental default setting. It will surpass its own goal and become clinical; emotions are less bright, moods are bitter, nightmares recur. Especially those with a more negative temper are prone to this, but it can happen to anyone who is exposed long enough to hopelessness and social deprivation. The depressed picture their life as a perpetual repetition of sameness. The time ahead becomes predictable and presumable, with no relief in sight. Like a tunnel without the light at its end.
Life On Repeat
An effect of the fight against the physical pandemic is that it makes life appear like a repetition. At first, persistent lockdowns, regulations, social distancing, polarization, alienation and the virus itself entice severe, returning stress reactions. Then, in headlines, on TV and on social media, at bus stops or in planes, even in the outer corners of the world, in Fiji or Phoenix or Indonesia, for two years already, one is reminded of the pandemic. From minute to minute, day in, day out, algorithms flow into each other almost seamlessly, stringing together the news into a constant stream of misery, arresting its audience in a lethal routine.
Symbols, visualizations, sounds, talks, masks, announcements are consistently recurring, restraining mental experience. We have narrowed down our vision into a tiny keyhole through which we look at the ‘world’. The expansiveness of human imagination, is cut off by a grand reduction of reality. In great fear of letting the virus escape our attention, we have relabeled a crisis into the crisis. This crisis functions like a super-heavy black hole, drawing all other light from the horizon, making it incomprehensible to see beyond. Even climate change, a catastrophe of apocalyptic proportions, became obliterated under the corona twilight.
Particularly empowered by (social) media, it maintains the idea that the world is almost exclusively composed of the pandemic. And beyond that, there is merely nothingness. The perfect ingredients for mass depression. It painfully shows our inability to zoom out and place things into perspective. The corona routine has dramatically narrowed the scope through which the world is viewed. Swaying from wave to wave, lockdown to lockdown, it dictates our perception of time and space. For many, this monotony may be extrapolated or biased towards other domains of life, sometimes leading to severe depression and even suicide. This is the reason for many to go astray, exiting their country or life itself. Not to ignore the rules, but to try and escape what is almost inescapable.
‘The’ Crisis Doesn’t Habituate
After some decades of relative inertia, humanity was given a striking reminder of its own natural mortality. This painful realization has -perhaps- enticed a sense of helplessness, which is a key element for depression. Indeed, the inconceivable truth of having no or limited control over the situation plunged many countries into a deep collective depression. Subsequently, the assumed way of restoring that control is by becoming obsessed with the subject; continuously testing, checking, analysing and monitoring even its tiniest change; becoming pragmatic instead of visionary; introducing rigid rituals to maintain the idea of having a grip on something uncontrollable.
Ironically, the more humanity gets obsessed with one particular subject, the more it fails to see beyond and place it into perspective, which intensifies the depression once more. Gradually and very subtly, we become imprisoned in the penitentiary we’ve built around ourselves. And life’s colors slip away from us, while we’re busy chasing and hunting the subject of our obsession.
So why can’t we get used to the pandemic, so that it doesn’t dominate mental experience as much? The modern citizen is unfortunately not granted a breakaway from stubborn pandemic updates; he or she is encircled by screens that disturb serenity with real time crisis reminders from across the planet, all the time. The commandment to stay home and the reduced social circumstances empower the time spent checking the news and live blogs, because of which, again, one repeats the same cycle: scrutinizing the same subject. The current individual has got caught in a treadmill of over-analyzing, over-thinking, and over-worrying.
One-sided information in such abundance contributes to deceiving and distorted thinking patterns that barely reflect reality. Paradoxically, the information source we use to estimate the remaining duration till the end of the crisis, is also responsible for prolonging that (psychological) duration. Possessing modern streaming and communication technologies, the defining trait of this crisis is its power to continuously justify and refresh its own existence. By constant refreshment and renewal through worldwide media updates, it stays forever young, and doing so, keeps us forever engaged.
Another effect of overly fixating on the pandemic is that complex humans have been stripped down to potential virus carriers: simplified to hollow, soulless shells with throats for swab tests and arms for jabbing and faces for covering. The rest became obsolete. When all is seen as a virological testing subject, the value of everything and everyone is therefore measured by its usefulness in relation to the virus; whether the presence of a thing or person is legitimate fully depends on its infection risk. Social gatherings, for instance, pose a bigger infection threat than no gatherings, thus are restricted. Affection and closeness? Dangers that should be avoided. Simple as that. Psychological, cultural, spiritual, social, religious, and even economic factors are left out. Crude, like an entire chicken farm that needs to be annihilated after one case of bird flu, has been located.
This orthodox corona moral was widely endorsed at the promise of physical safety. Indeed, physical safety is a fundamental human need. Therefore, a strict set of enforced or unspoken social rules were adopted, rules that relabelled human touch, proximity and sociability as hazards. It’s a normative standard that identifies our fellow beings as a direct (and only) risk for dying. Ignoring objectivity, other essential psychological needs have become taboo, for they now imply only hazard and fear. And, death. There has been an astonishing willingness to accept a pale life of misery, of social distance and coldness, just to decrease the chance of infection by decimals, if at all. Opposing these stringent norms means asking to die, is the consensus. And, a reason to be called an idiot. The orthodox vision cannot accept that there are different perspectives on what can be called ‘a healthy life’. It diligently states that simply being virus-free equals health, period, at the costly expense of other essential needs.
A Look Forward
After two years of ‘reduced circumstances’, it’s inevitably time to welcome life’s lush complexity again; we need to let go of the virus. Primarily, the installed taboos need to be breached to restore human bonds. Scary as it may sound, people need to learn to embrace each other again without compunction. Nonetheless, wounds in human connection, and in mutual faith run deep, and they might take years to heal. In order to furthermore delay an epidemic of depression, a common hopefulness should replace the collective hopelessness.
The pandemic should settle down as one shade, perhaps a darker color, on an overarching palette that represents life as a vivid, inconceivable colorized spectrum. The hollow shell that we’ve become, needs to be inhabited once again. Humanity never progresses without risk, or by being obedient to the rules. It progressed because it left behind old dogma and replenished itself. At this point, this is the task we’re confronted with, are we to prevent an enormous wave of depression.
Nevertheless, outside the boundaries of depression, outside those dispiriting headlines, graphs and numbers, still lies that lucid world in all its splendor. In all its wonder and amazement. Unchanged, impatiently waiting to be rediscovered.
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