We are in the middle of Winter and there is no sign of everyday life returning for most people. Mid-Winter can feel bleak for people anyway. The heat of the sun is absent; light levels are low; and January is financially harsh as we face paying for Christmas.
This year has hit harder than ever and I have been repeatedly struck in my work by how the effects of the pandemic have exposed the weaknesses of the core structures in our lives. Freud said that love and work are what matter to people. Get those right in your life and you are as good as sorted. What he meant more broadly is that meaningful connection to people through a sense of belonging and shared enterprise are critical to wellbeing. Also, we need to feel useful, whether that be through paid employment, having satisfying hobbies, or from the appreciation others have of our talents and efforts.
Fracture lines have appeared in close relationships as we discover our own limits under stress and the limits of those around us. The burden for some of worrying and caring about others shows little sign of lifting yet. The experience of forced retirement with no opportunity to say goodbye or finish on your own terms has shown how devastating change and loss of control can be for us. In truth, many of us have believed that our lives have been ours to do with as and when we please. We have been used to determining our days, safe in the knowledge that we have the means to continue. Now we find our lives are an unpleasant mix of monotony and unpredictability.
Exposed too have been our inner difficulties such as the struggle to be with our selves, the loneliness of a social life that is only online, and the failure of trying to self-regulate our emotions and consumption habits without external structures to help us. Many people are over-consuming food and alcohol due to loneliness, boredom, guilt and stress.
Is there anything we can do to ease our own distress? Winter is naturally a time for both rest and reflection. There is nothing much any of us can do to hurry things along, so we might as well use the time to nourish our minds and bodies.
We can also begin to take a critical look at the psychological damage that the pandemic has caused us so far. The advantage of Winter is that we can clearly see the structures around us- trees are bare of leaf, clearly exposing all their branches. We cannot change the outcome of events but we can change our responses. For example, we could see our difficulties with over-consumption as an opportunity to find a deeper, more meaningful remedy such as sourcing new friends or seriously looking for a relationship rather than just wishing for one. Likewise, losing a job can be a chance to reappraise our goals or change our focus. There can be blessings in disguise if we look for them.
Human evolution is all about flexible adaptation to the environment whilst continuing to meet our essential needs. Success depends on creative response to challenge and the reassurance of knowing that we have used our talents or developed new talents to meet the challenge. This pandemic is a personal and collective evolutionary challenge. We are given to believe that all hope rests on the evolution of science and vaccine development and, there is no doubt that vaccines will allow us all out again, but for this pandemic to be worthwhile, for us to know we have made gains, we need to know that we have changed ourselves too, that we can be better psychologically inoculated to cope with future catastrophe, and we can do this by setting up structures in our lives that really support us well in the future.