Covid And Its Discontents


A few months ago, reflecting on the problem we polarized Americans were having communicating with each other, I had the thought that it would take an attack by aliens from another planet to bring us together. While I’d had that  thought before (and felt guilty), this time I was thinking it wasn’t such a bad idea. When the attack came from a small piece of RNA, I had the same hope that the small differences that tear us apart might be erased by a renewed appreciation that, in the words that have become a kind of mantra, we are all in this together.

Alas, that’s not the way it works. The questions of when and how to “open up” our city, our state and our nation have become become  the latest battleground in  between  those who see “shelter-in-place”  restrictions as an attack on the freedom from government control that we all hold dear, and those who see freedom without limits as a threat, literally, to the viability of our nation.

The stakes could not be higher. This virus kills lots of people, and the only effective way to stop it for now is to deprive it of a human home by keeping ourselves apart from one another. But by keeping ourselves apart from each other and depriving many of the freedom to make a living,  we risk destruction of our economy and sacrificing individual livelihoods to “the greater good.”

In 1930, Sigmund Freud observed in “Civilization and It’s Discontents”  that “The liberty of the individual is no gift of civilization. It was greatest before there was any civilization….. A good part of the struggles of mankind centre round the single task of finding an expedient accommodation—one, that is, that will bring happiness—between this claim of the individual and the cultural claims of the group; and one of the problems that touches the fate of humanity is whether such an accommodation can be reached by means of some particular form of civilization or whether this conflict is irreconcilable.”

The quintessential American question has always been whether government of the people, by the people and for the people is a pipedream or possibility. Covid has put that question front and center, and the way we respond to the health and economic challenges it presents us will be our way of answering it.  Can a country of our size, a collective of individually and democratically governed states,  find an accommodation between the pursuit of individual liberty and what is often referred to as “the greater good?”

As a psychoanalyst and psychiatrist, I am very familiar with the way that individuals struggle between the wish for personal freedom and the demands of authority. It starts when we’re children whose freedom to act collides with the rules and regulations provided by our parents.  One task along the path to becoming a functioning adult is that of learning to reconcile these seeming opposites and coming to appreciate that they are really two sides of a coin. Control without freedom kills the soul. Freedom without control threatens the social order that benefits us as individuals. Growing up means learning to apply controls from within.

I wish that the vaccine we’ve all been waiting for had arrived yesterday,  but it’s clear that for the forseeable future we’re going to be juggling the health risks posed by the virus and the damage done by preventing people from making a living. Up to this point most of this juggling has been done by those we’ve elected to govern us.

But in the not too distant future, I think it is most likely that l this balancing act will be a matter of individual decisions, not external restrictions that will be impossible to maintain in a society like our own, “conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”  We will have to decide for ourselves when we feel safe to go about our business and return to our businesses, how to connect to others and how much distance to maintain to permit that connection. These are going to be hard decisions.

In “Civilization and It’s Discontents,”  Freud suggests that our development as individuals may carry useful implications for our thinking about the way we come together and manage ourselves as a society.  Societies, too, have the task of growing up. Psychological maturity is a prerequisite to being a successful democracy. But for some time now, well before covid, we’ve been living in a dysfunctional, polarized political environment where the qualities of maturity, self restraint and reflection have been undervalued.  Covid has given America a new and pressing incentive to grow up, and I hope we can rise to the occasion.


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