By Dr. Joe Luciani
Our nation has become bitterly divided about how and when to resume “normal” activities due to the effects of COVID. Are you on the err-on-the-side-of-caution side of the debate, or on the optimistic (some might say reckless) side? For me, I find myself somewhere in the murky middle. I suspect many of us would love to see the new cases totally bottom out, to hear the wonderful news that no one died today, to be able to heave a sigh of relief and perhaps even get a haircut. Wherever you find yourself on the continuum, the goals are the same. It’s the “how” that’s currently in play.
One way or another, we are a far cry from being done with this cursed virus. Sure, we’re impatient — none more so than those who, day-by-day, are losing their jobs, businesses, and livelihood. Most of us have never known or even imagined such challenges and restrictions to our personal liberties. It seems to go against our sensibilities to have the government dictating terms such as sheltering-in-place, social distancing, or locking up your business “until further notice.” Until now, we’ve been mostly cooperative and compliant — until now!
Like so many things that require patience and endurance, at some point, we begin to run out of psychological gas. When this happens, determination begins to wane and we begin to get restless as our thoughts become hijacked by nagging doubt, fear, and negativity. Paradoxically, as things begin to improve, we begin to feel more and more anxious, wondering when will this be over?
A bit of history might add some perspective as we struggle to handle our growing divide on opening up the country. Before allowing ourselves to feel victimized, let’s pause and recognize that we aren’t the first to endure such sacrifice and restrictions to our liberties.
In 1941 after Pearl Harbor, our country mobilized for war. By the spring of 1942, a rationing program was instituted, giving every American a series of ration books for items like sugar, meat, cooking oil, fat, butter, vegetables, fruit, gas, tires, clothing, and fuel (3 gallons a week). Blackouts were enforced by ARP (air raid protection) wardens who had the authority to demand that people stay home at night, put out lights in rooms not blacked out and turn off outdoor lights. Production of durable goods, like new housing, vacuum cleaners and kitchen appliances, was banned.
Was there grumbling? No doubt, but the majority of Americans demonstrated a willingness to sacrifice and do whatever it took for the war effort. The restrictions of World War II lasted for five years (!), with sugar the last rationed item to become available in 1947.
By comparison, after only a few months of stay at home requirements, we’re already beginning to show fissures in our patience and our willingness to endure. Of course, it’s not a fair comparison — there are no threats from foreign nations, there’s no esprit de corps to defeat Hitler or Tojo. But who will deny the scourge that continues to devastate our friends and families across the nation?
Are we less tolerant than our WWII parents and grandparents? Less patriotic? More selfish? Americans during WWII had just emerged from the Great Depression, so perhaps they were prepared to tolerate and endure better than we are. Or is the answer somewhere in our differing perceptions of what we’re fighting?
Can we ignore the fact that many go on suffering and dying in our hospitals and not feel a sense of commitment to seeing this to its end? It’s rational end. And yet, many blithely allow impulse rather than reason to dictate. Why is that?
Psychologists call it derealization — an alteration in our perceptions so that we separate and detach from external circumstances. The number of deaths becomes just that, a number. Perhaps it’s this derealization that enables those who haven’t been directly affected by COVID sickness or death but are feeling COVID’s crippling economic stranglehold, to have a much different perception from those who’ve been devastated by this virus. Or, in some cases, perhaps it’s merely panic. Like having someone holding your head underwater — you feel you have to do something, anything, to survive. This is a reaction of the fight-flight part of our brain, which demands action.
While some are gung-ho to open things up, others are terror-stricken to think of moving too quickly. Who’s right, who’s wrong? I hope that as a nation we can proceed with due caution, intelligence and a grounded optimism. I hope we can all meet in the middle and solve this horrible problem once and for all.
About The Author
Dr. Joe Luciani has been a practicing clinical psychologist for more than 40 years. He’s the internationally bestselling author of the Self-Coaching series of books, now published in 10 languages. His latest book is, Unlearning Anxiety & Depression: The 4-Step Self-Coaching Program to Reclaim Your Life (Goodman Beck, April 28, 2020). He appears frequently on national TV, radio and online, and has been featured in numerous national media sites. Learn more at self-coaching.net.