Something Out of Place by Eimear McBride review – a satisfying feminist polemics
Something Out of Place by Eimear McBride review – a satisfying feminist polemics
EXPeditions brings the world’s leading intellectuals to video
The Hidden Spring – Mark Solms in conversation with Susie Orbach
Rather than counting calories and stigmatising fat, we need to take on the food and weight-loss industries
‘Children’s early relationships with eating are integral to the patterns they later develop as adults.’
Photograph: Andrew Olney/Getty Images
Published onTue 28 Jul 2020 10.00 BST The Guardian
Being overweight has never just been about the amount of calories you consume. The government’s new obesity strategy, which includes mandating calorie displays on menus, banning junk food adverts before 9pm, offering Weight Watchers discounts and ending discount deals on “unhealthy” foods, reflects the widely held misconception that weight loss can be achieved by restricting calories and fat. The reality is that tackling obesity requires a far greater rethink of our fraught relationship with eating – starting with the food and diet industry.
From keto to paleo, superfoods to juice cleanses, clean eating and raw diets, we’ve been confronted with a dizzying array of dieting advice in recent years. But, as with the widespread belief that calorie intake is directly proportional to weight gain, most of this information is completely useless. Indeed, the rate of recidivism with all diets is an estimated 97%. That figure should give the government pause for thought. Of every 100 people who diet, an estimated three will manage to keep the weight off in the long term. Why is the government ignoring this evidence?
Rather than mandating calorie labelling, the government should be worrying about what goes into many processed foods and ready meals. Mucking around with food has unintended consequences. The extra ingredients and chemical enhancers that make food tastier have none of the nutritional value found in normal food groups. These additives are directed at “bliss points”, the manufacturing name given to the amount of sugar, salt and fat that optimises flavour in a product. Nutrient low and additive rich, these foods encourage us to override our natural sense of when we’re full, manipulating our appetites and leading us to eat more.Advertisement
In the 1980s, when low-fat products and desserts flavoured with sugarand artificial sweeteners first entered the market, they were deemed healthier than their full-fat alternatives. But what first appeared helpful caused confusion: evidence showed that the body didn’t metabolise these products in the same way as full-fat alternatives, and people who consumed low-fat foods were likely to replace the lost fat with calories from carbohydrates.
People trying to lose weight for aesthetic reasons found that by restricting their calorie consumption with low-fat alternatives, they were interfering with their body’s delicate “set point”, the weight range that our bodies are genetically and biologically predisposed to maintain. And some have found that continual calorie restriction can paradoxically lower your metabolic “thermostat”, meaning your body works harder to decrease the rate at which you burn calories. Restricting the number of calories you consume often means the pounds go on, not off.
Preventing obesity and encouraging the population to be healthier will require far more than banning two-for-one offers on sugary snacks or junk food adverts before 9pm. We’ll need to completely overhaul our troubled relationship with eating. Talk of “good” and “bad” foods has contributed to an obsession with size and weight loss. The food industry has stoked these anxieties, stigmatising fat and calories while selling us low-fat alternatives without the same nutritional value. It’s no surprise that disordered eating is rampant. What’s needed is a more holistic approach to food, where people are encouraged to eat food groups in balance and nutritious food is available to everyone.‘Eat Out to Help Out’ risks undermining obesity campaign, say expertsRead more
Food is the medium of our first relationship. As we are welcomed into the world, we are held, cuddled and fed. We first associate food with safety and love. Babies turn their heads away from their mother’s breast or bottle when they’ve consumed enough. They show when they’re next hungry. With luck, their physical prompts are met with food, creating the feeling of bodily security. Children’s early relationships with eating are integral to the patterns they later develop as adults. At school, talk of food and fat can imbibe confusion about eating, while stories of nurseries banning birthday cakes sends a message that some foods are dangerous. Now, the pressures of social media, with children posing for selfies and plastic surgery apps targeting young girls, have amplified anxieties about size and appearance and distorted people’s eating patterns and relationships with food.
We should be encouraging people to be healthy and fit. But a better and more viable place to start would be to help people understand what food means to them, both individually and culturally. We need messaging that encourages people to eat when they are hungry and to savour every mouthful so they can stop when they are full. We should stop stigmatising fat and calories, and encourage people to recognise that their body has a naturally predisposed weight. Understanding what we’re wanting and feeling if we’re drawn to eating when we aren’t physically hungry is the key to eating happily. We know this approach works considerably better and more permanently than dieting, enabling people to stay healthier over the longer term, but it gets little airtime compared with dieting fixes.
Eating sustainably for our bodies, our emotions and the planet requires serious political will. It begins by taking on the huge food and diet industries and curbing the production of foods that that are designed to override our body’s needs and signals. Only then can our relationship with food become a healthier one.
I’ve always been intrigued by young women on the morning commute putting on their make-up. It’s not just the steady hand I admire, or the number of products that astound me. It’s the matter-of-factness of the artifice being exposed. The recognition that this is what you need to do before you get to work. The dual face, the one you awake with and the one you make.
I seem to be the only one intrigued. Perhaps it so commonplace as to become unremarkable. I wonder whether, we, in time will adjust to the Asian custom of wearing masks to protect oneself and others from illness.
For sure, it is odd right now. But on Thursday, Transport Secretary Grant Shapps announced that wearing a face covering will be mandatory on public transport in England from June 15.
Before Covid-19, we liked to see as much of the face as possible. Growing up, I’d be told to take the hair out of my face. We used to tell groups of people to remove their hoodies or burkahs and niqabs. They were designated as menacing, as a conscious act of concealing, almost as though they are an assault on the onlooker rather than cultural or religious expression.
The full face is how we recognise one another and we aren’t yet practised in reading the other just from their eyes. We will learn to focus on eyes certainly as more of us wear masks, but faces haven’t been just the sculpted dermis around our eyes, nose, mouth and jaws. Faces interest us so because they reveal something about the inside too; the experience of living, from ageing, to our activities, to our emotional temperature. We know that if a smile is a carapace for not quite being comfortable with what one feels, that face can reveal what it endeavours to hide.
Faces are transparent. We see anger, confusion, hurt flit across the face of a lover or a child when we get something wrong for them. We register when we are being listened to and when our listeners attention has drifted. We show our disapproval or interest in and to others and they pick that up just as we too pick up their facial expression and interpret it within milliseconds, without either of us being conscious of doing so.
In recent weeks, some of the most recognisable faces in the world – from Gwyneth Paltrow and Naomi Campbell to Meghan Markle and Donald Trump – have all been photographed in their masks. So how much more difficult will it be to manage faces concealed behind a protective covering?
The masks we are encouraged to wear to prevent the spread of coronavirus have none of the pleasure of concealment of the carnival or fancy dress mask, where our ersatz menace or our sexiness is tantalising. Masks for fun are explicitly designed to invite pleasure and intrigue. They do. In exaggerating the look, whether clown, ghost, prince, Cinderella, Hallowe’en or Disney character, we can be charmed and only a kind of pretend scared.
Ritualised masquerades, though, are no preparation for a mask on the Underground or street or at work. The mask today signifies fear and illness and protection. We are already suffering from flattened faces and bodies on Zoom calls; now we are to accustom ourselves to faces mostly blanked out.
The psychological thing to get one’s head around is that we were told initially we are wearing a mask primarily to protect the other person, and that they are wearing their mask to protect us. When New Yorkers get het up about people who are out in full face, they have well understood that. There are handwritten signs in street level apartment windows saying: “Wear your mask. Respect the right of others to be protected.”
But, when one puts a mask on, it paradoxically seems like an act of self-protection.
The physical strangeness and discomfort of doing so feels as though we are putting ourselves in a psychological twist, turning an impulse of disagreeable self-care into a statement of altruism. What’s interesting is that the current guidance seems to blur the message by stating how the mask will protect the wearer. In a discussion on the merits of masks for the general public on BBC Radio 4’s Inside Science last month, the evidence for personal masks was shown to be scanty, just like the actual suggestion for the common-sense evidence for handwashing. We intuitively bought into handwashing. We know the sanitising properties of soap and water and we were schooled in learning about public health initiatives from the 19th century to provide clean water and do away with sewage in the streets.
But masks are something different. When we are in the street, we are not being bombarded with the likes of the serious viral load occurring in hospitals and for carers and supermarket workers who all need PPE. Obviously close up, in public transport or in a factory or office, viral load is a considerable factor and so it makes obvious sense and the discomfort lessens. The craving for a personal boundary in a crowded train or bus has long been familiar, and the mask maybe a way of gently protecting us in those environments.
It was fascinating that the Government underestimated our capacity for obedience when it ordered the lockdown. Wondering why this was, beyond the hackneyed notions of our exceptionalism and eccentricity, I thought how very far from consideration by behavioural sciences are understandings from psychoanalysis, depth psychology and attachment theory. These theories show how the human psyche is at once complex and extremely simple.
When we are excluded, misunderstood, deprived, unhappy, disregarded, insulted, isolated, discriminated against and so on, we develop (both as groups and as individuals) a range of unpleasant behaviours. We can be mean, aggressive, withdrawn, uncooperative, viciously competitive, belligerent. We can be anti-social and ever more so if disregard continues. But, if and when we feel included, when we feel we belong, our attachment system kicks in and expresses altruistic caring behaviours.
The society lockdown was successful because we were, for a while, in it together. Selflessness and considerable hardship for many were tolerated because people felt valued as individuals able to contribute to the public good. The fractures in society temporarily abated. Psychological and behavioural is both personal and social.
Now, in being encouraged to wear a mask, we are asked to do something off-putting and potentially divisive because of its intrinsic difficulties. Will we witness the divide that is sweeping the United States, where the mask can be a symbol of one’s politics? Alt-Right folk refuse to ‘mask’, while democrats mask up. Last month, when Donald Trump finally agreed to appear in public in a mask, under duress while touring the Ford car plant in Michigan where it is now strict company policy. Pointedly, he removed it before addressing the awaiting media.
The psychotherapist is trained to see the masked persona in the consulting room. Not in a “gotcha!” way, but by understanding the necessity of protecting the private selves that we inhabit. As we find a way to adapt to the reality of masks, it will remind us that the world we have created is not one that can be sanitised. Like our personal selves, it is complicated.
It is wonderful to experience parks and streets with reduced pollution, to see spring in its especial glory this year, but this sits aside the anguishing knowledge that to really yield respite from the poison we have wrought, we will need to unmask ourselves and not shy away from what needs doing to make a sustainable home planet for all of us.
© Susie Orbach 2020. Susie Orbach is author of Bodies (Profile, £9.99)
By Susie Orbach
When lockdown started, I was confused by bodies on television. Why weren’t they socially distancing? Didn’t they know not to be so close? The injunction to be separate was unfamiliar and irregular, and for me, self-isolating alone, following this government directive was peculiar. It made watching dramas and programmes produced under normal filming conditions feel jarring.
Seven weeks in, the disjuncture has passed. I, like all of us, am accommodating to multiple corporeal realities: bodies alone, bodies distant, bodies in the park to be avoided, bodies of disobedient youths hanging out in groups, bodies in lines outside shops, bodies and voices flattened on screens and above all, bodies of dead health workers and carers. Black bodies, brown bodies. Working-class bodies. Bodies not normally praised, now being celebrated.
We are learning a whole new etiquette of bodies. We swerve around each other, hop into the near-empty street, calculate distances at entrances to parks, avoid body contact, even eye contact, and keep a look out for those obliviously glued to their phones, whose lack of attention threatens to breach the two-metre rule. It’s odd and disconcerting and isn’t quite second nature.
Until the pandemic arrived, many of us were finding texting, email and Whatsapp more suitable to our speeded-up lives. But now we are coming to reuse the telephone, and to enjoy the sounds in our ears and the rhythm of conversation, instead of feeling rushed and interrupted. A few of my sessions as a psychoanalyst are now conducted on the phone but, for the most part, I am spending my time looking into a screen, and seeing faces rather than whole bodies. Until I learned to turn off the view of myself, I, like others, was disconcerted by the oddness of catching sight of myself – a view I don’t think we are meant to see.
Conversations in therapy defy many of the customs of social intercourse. There are silences, repetitions, reframings, links across time, reminiscences of fragments, rushes of emotion, shards of dreams, things told and then disavowed. There can be fidgeting or absolute stillness. These form the idiosyncratic and personal ambience between each therapeutic couple. As a therapist, I am also alert to how the dilemmas that beset the person or the couple I am seeing are brought to our relationship.
The conundrums that brought the person to seek therapy in the first place can be replayed right here. For example, a person fearful of intimacy can experience the therapy relationship or the therapist as too close. Someone else who worries they are too needy may be reluctant to show their longings directly to the therapist, although well able to talk about how things go wrong for them in other relationships. The therapy relationship and the sessions are our petri dish. The field of study is the human subject (and her, his or their ways of being able to develop and change).
The therapist works to understand an individual’s personal psychological grammar – to help the person take the risk of unlearning and then learning anew, finding ways to not be in so much hurt. So too with the body. Those with troubled bodies bring them to the session. They may sit too close, for example, or seem to be concave, or dress incongruously, as though presenting a different persona in each session. In the course of therapy, such an abject body experience can be addressed, and, in unlearning and then learning anew, the person finds a more comfortable way to sit in their body.
How is the dematerialisation of bodies affecting us and going to affect us? Me, my patients, you – all of us? For some of my patients, their screen or home is a prison. Their experience is full of woe and worry. Therapy keeps them just about on the border of sane, but it’s a sanity that hurts: isolation can maraud all of us as we miss the interactions, intimate or casual, that confirm our sense of our value, our place in our community, our work and the world.
Some of my clinical preoccupations centre on how we acquire a physical, corporeal sense of self. Although psychoanalysis is a theory of mind and body, its main emphasis has drifted to the development of the mind and its structures: what we call defences, and the relationship patterns we have absorbed. Bodies have been very much the bit player to the main drama of the mind, even when mental processes or disturbance have resulted in bodily symptoms such as eczema or a non-biologically induced paralysis. As therapists, we traditionally read back into the mind the troubles visited on the body, seeing them as the result of mental conflicts. And of course, they often are, but I have long been keen to understand body troubles and body difficulties in their own terms, and to build a theory about the development of the body.
Bodies have always been bound and marked by social rules. Different societies make different sense out of similar bodily actions or gestures. The variety of body adornment and transformations around the world, from rings around the neck to the recent upsurge in labial reductions and penis enlargements, has made it ever more apparent that the body is not simply the product of DNA. The body we inhabit develops within relationships to other bodies. Usually it is within the maternal orbit where, to take an obvious example, we first apprehend gender-based forms of comportment. When I grew up, being told to sit like a girl and not to climb trees were some of the ways we were treated differently to boys. Research across many cultures show that baby girls are weaned and potty-trained earlier, fed less at each feed, and held less, than boys. There may be no biological basis to this, but rather a social, unconscious basis that then informs how we personally experience our particular embodiment.
We have very few verified reports of humans growing up outside of human culture but the feral child Victor of Aveyron, who was discovered living wild in the woods of southern France in 1800, did not have body movements that were recognisably human. The body-to-body relationship that was foundational for him was with the bodies of the wolves he apparently grew up among. He seemingly mimicked their gait and moves, their posture and their vocalisations. Of course, we know this more familiarly, and less dramatically, from when youngsters develop their group identities by adopting the mannerisms of film actors or musicians.
Through screens, billboards and photoshopped images, we reduce the wide variety of bodily expression. It’s as though we are losing body diversity just as we are losing languages. The digitised, westernised body image predominates, and in the last two decades has spawned a cosmetic surgery industry worldwide – from leg-lengthening surgery using steel rods in China (now banned), to rhinoplasty in Iran (which has the highest rate of nose surgery per capita in the world) to double-eyelid surgery and jawbone reduction in South Korea. In the west, surgeons resculpt cheekbones, breasts and calves, and offer day procedures for facial ‘thread lifts’. Cosmetic surgery tourism hubs in Hungary, South Korea and Singapore were thriving until the lockdown.
One Chinese smartphone app allows the selfie-taker to adjust their portrait to bring it closer to a very specific standard of beauty known as wang hon lian, or “internet celebrity face”. It’s very popular: billions of wang hon lian images are uploaded every month.
The richest Europeans are not in tech, but in the business of beautifying bodies – the owners of fashion, luxury and cosmetics brands such as LVMH, L’Oreal and Zara. Increasing automation has led us to move from using our bodies to make things to turning our bodies the site and the product of our labour, through diet and exercise regimes, clothing and cosmetics. The surface body is meant to be on display.
Paradoxically, the sweating, smelling, holding, stroking body of the other becomes, for those socially distancing, too distant – while for others, such as those sharing a house with teenage boys, it’s all too present. All is on show for families and housemates, while all is hidden for those living alone during lockdown.
The experience of the body on FaceTime or Zoom contrasts with the pulsing, breathing, weeping, sighing, tired, achy or indeed springy and enthusiastic bodies we inhabit. We no longer have social communion in the flesh, the handshake or the hug, the pleasure of eating in a restaurant with a friend or lover while seated near strangers. Afraid of infection, for our protection, we collapse our social space.
During the second world war, the psychiatrist René Spitz studied orphan babies in care. He discovered that those closest to the nurses’ station thrived, while those at the end of the ward did not do so well. The difference was touch: the nurses would casually touch and interact with those closest to them, and this gave those infants the essential food for physical and psychological development. They absorbed the will to live. A decade later – in research now considered controversial for the way in which he removed baby monkeys from their mothers – the American psychologist Harry Harlow discovered that baby monkeys given ersatz mothers in the form of basic cloth puppets would find some crucial security and comfort even in this simulation of maternal touch; those baby monkeys deprived of any kind of maternal touch at all became highly disturbed, and many died.
Touch, feel and proximity are central to survival. Consider the genius of premature infants’ capacity to regulate their own and, extraordinarily, their parent’s body temperature, if they are held skin-to-skin in a pouch. The gaze – the search to be seen, to recognise and to influence the other – is also crucial to human subjectivity. In a fascinating video made by the developmental psychologist Edward Tronick, he instructs a mother playing with her baby to keep a still face and refrain from interacting with her infant for a minute or two. We observe as the infant girl seeks to engage the mother. When she is unable to, the baby collapses psychologically and physically until contact is restored. What is so shocking is how fast the collapse is.
I’ve been thinking of how impossibly difficult and challenging our quasi-dematerialised life through the Zoom screen is, whether chatting with friends or being in a meeting. Conflict and harmony become cartoonish as subtle gestures collapse and the conversations we have with our eyes are shut down.
Reading each other well enough is a new skill in the therapy room, too, for both people. By now we are used to the screens and the telephone, and the occasional technical blips. We are seeing a physical interior – a study, bedroom, shed or kitchen, and being surprised by an occasional child that floats in. We hear the suddenly hushed voice of someone not wanting their partner to get a drift of the conversation we are having. It illuminates aspects we didn’t see before. Is it better? No. Is it worse? Marginally. I miss noticing how people enter the therapy room – the subtle difference from the session before, or the way they may hold their face and body; above all, the animate body in the room. I suspect that I am more animated to make up for the loss of that precious physicality.
Former hostages Terry Waite, John McCarthy and Brian Keenan have all written and spoken eloquently about solitary confinement and their struggles to find a way through and back – or should I say forward – to familial and social life. It was tough. And although many of us are not self-isolating alone, unless one is able to do interesting or valued work during this period, or have enough people to hang out with, we can expect considerable psychological difficulties to follow as we come out of lockdown. How will we re-establish social interaction with other bodies? What kind of rhythms will we want and be able to have going forward?
Many have been ultra-busy with home schooling, working from home, managing three generations and so on. Time has bent and contracted in perplexing ways. Busyness has increased for some, while others, for whom slowing down is a foreign concept, have had idleness forced on them. Empty time feels alien – or at least did at the beginning. For many it has been an unexpected pleasure. No need to rush to social occasions. No need to dress. No need to get everything done and more. Being wanted, being needed, being in demand have been psychological supports that have melted away. Finding new ways to nourish one’s needs in this new reality – especially in the absence of touch and gaze, which we unknowingly rely upon to recognise ourselves – can be tricky.
Today, there is a frightened, wary, social body. A body that is tense, in which avoidance is the watchword. The covered face, whether by a hoodie or a veil, which formerly some found challenging, now offers reassurance. Indeed, many public places – from Eurostar trains to the streets of New York, Prague, Dubai, Havana and many more – now demand it. Meanwhile, much of society is now paying attention to bodies that had been scandalously overlooked. The bodies of working women, the carers who go in and out of the houses and homes of the people they look after. The faces of vast numbers of black, Asian and minority-ethnic bodies, particularly in the health service, who are finally being recognised for their value, and the shockingly disproportionate number of their losses.
Before Covid-19, the ruling party were happy to slash social and health funding, to put money into management in the NHS, and not into professional carers, doctors and nurses. Now society is waking up to the value of care and medical expertise that comes from the hospital floor – that is to say, from the doctors and nurses who are reorganising what occurs there. The people keeping society going in every sector – transport workers, small shopkeepers, workers in food production and delivery – are often first-generation immigrants. More people are seeing a more nuanced social landscape. The opportunity is here for reframing how we represent the social body. It is of necessity differently hued, and that needs acknowledging, as does the shame of our previous marginalising. Covid-19 is cleaning the lens, so we can see more clearly.
From the individual to the social body, and how it is being challenged by the pandemic, we turn to the corporate body – the body of state – and what we have been learning about how it has functioned. On 17 April, Prof Anthony Costello, a former director of the Institute for Global Health at UCL, told the select committee on health and social care that he feared Britain might have the highest number of deaths in Europe, which has now been confirmed. Costello had estimated 40,000 deaths; on 5 May the official UK death toll was just over 32,000, but the Financial Times reported the same day that the true figure had likely already surpassed Costello’s estimate. London and the north-west of England are showing higher rates of death than other regions, while according to the ONS, people in the most deprived areas of England and Wales are dying at twice the rate of the most affluent areas.
Costello argued for this figure because we were slow off the mark to take precautionary moves early on. He spoke to the chair of the committee, Jeremy Hunt, who has spent this period appearing to stress about the lack of testing, ventilators and PPE equipment. This is the same Hunt who, as the longest serving health secretary in British history, also had social care in his portfolio, and the pay of doctors, nurses and social care workers. Even more damningly, he was the minister in charge during Exercise Cygnus, the UK government’s drill to test our preparedness for a pandemic, carried out in 2016.
The full review of Exercise Cygnus has never been officially published, but leaks have revealed that it showed the UK’s health system and local authorities were woefully unprepared for such an eventuality. The exercise showed hospitals and mortuaries being quickly overwhelmed, and shortages of critical care beds, ventilators and personal protective equipment for hospital staff.
Cygnus, and other such exercises, are meant to show the government what they need to do to be prepared – which was not, as Hunt was doing, cutting beds. On 28 March of this year, when the Cygnus debacle came to light, we were told that the projections were not remedied because of worries that beds, ventilators and PPE would become outmoded or obsolete and that the government had worked on securing reliable supply chains. (As we have seen, in a pandemic, reliable supply chains become very quickly overwhelmed.) A 2018 Red Cross conference report on Cygnus and infectious diseases stated: “The financial and human cost of an outbreak can be staggering and early response reduces the cost.” Our government chose not to act.
The Fund for Peace, the Washington-based NGO that publishes the annual Fragile States Index, lists criteria for a failed state. I think we have come dangerously close to fulfilling two of their criteria: the inability to provide public services for the poor, and the inability to interact with other states as a full member of the international community.
As these last months’ farcical developments show – the question about the independence of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), the alleged missing communications with the EU on PPE, the political decision not to cooperate with the EU, the posting out of tests without return envelopes, and the expired dates on PPE equipment – the government is in Fawlty Towers territory.
Plans for British companies to design new ventilator machines, detailed by the Financial Times, went belly up. Our government chose to source new ideas rather build to the existing plan under licence. Why, one must ask? Could it be Brexit hubris?
I don’t want to contrast the UK’s response with that of the EU, because the latter has not always covered itself in glory during the pandemic. The ethics of cooperation in Europe and the ethics of transparency and honesty have been mightily tested in the past months. Perhaps now though we can be encouraged by the joint project of the European Investment Banks and WHO to bolster global healthcare systems. Will the UK state be contributing? I think not. So much depends on the actions of citizens now to move things forward. In this light, it is encouraging to see the formation of a new independent panel of experts – a “rival” to Sage – led by the former UK government chief scientific adviser David King, whose deliberations are on YouTube for us to watch.
I am not sure how we characterise the following failure of the state, because it is in part the expression of public good: of the 750,000 people who signed up to volunteer to help the NHS, invited by the government, fewer than 100,000 have been deployed. As citizens, we want to contribute. This squandering of people’s generosity is disturbing. Fortunately, people such as Capt Tom Moore or the many making masks and contributing 3D printers keep on going. And the programme Feed NHS, in which the restaurant chain Leon and other chefs are prepping to feed patients, doctors, nurses, hospital porters and ambulance workers, is now in train. This voluntary work, in which groups of people self-organise, is outstanding, and yet it is in contrast to the inability of our state to mobilise those who wanted to help.
The Gates Foundation’s contributions to seven different vaccine programmes, and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey’s donation of $1bn, are impressive. Will hedge funds in the UK such as Ruffer investment, which pocketed £2.4bn in March, or Somerset Capital (the fund Jacob Rees Mogg used to run) who see Covid-19 as a “once or twice in a generation” opportunity for investment, make a contribution, too?
There are several dozen UK-based hedge funds managing assets worth £1bn or more. Could the mood of the country be such that hedge fund investors and managers might be persuaded to donate some of their obscene profits to the coronavirus response or to sponsor migrants from beyond Europe (who work here as cleaners, carers, drivers), who do not earn the £30,000 currently demandedfor a work permit?
Covid is a sad story. It is also a story of resilience. The body of state has failed us. We need to grow up and recognise that. Covid-19 has exposed unforgivable systemic failure. In the years leading up to this, we’ve seen a reduction in the status of civil servants and a downgrading of health workers. We have seen teachers, doctors and academics hidebound in a managerial economy. At least it seems that micromanagement has been temporarily overturned in hospitals, thank goodness, because right now doctors and nurses need to be running the show.
And to return to our bodies – the live ones, so many devoid of touch and gaze, facing a long period of isolation, and frightened. How can I conclude?
In a way, I can’t. We are far from the other side of this crisis. Psychological therapies are going to have a huge part to play in the remaking of body and soul. I don’t much like the word trauma, because it has become so overused, but we are a society that is in trauma. A societal trauma gives opportunities for people to go through things together, rather than suffer alone, as long as we don’t bury or make light of what we have experienced and continue to experience. We will have to find new ways to live with our fears and discomforts, to overcome Covid-minted social phobias, with what we project on to other people’s bodies and the fears we have about our own vulnerabilities. We will need all the help we can get in reshaping our relationship to our own and each other’s bodies, to find a way to build bonds of attachment and respect.
What started with the dematerialisation of the individual body has now morphed into the dematerialisation of the body of state. The economist Joseph Stiglitz reminds us that, with the stripping back of the state under Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, we lost capacity. This needs to be addressed.
There is a lively debate from a range of economists on how to get to a more equitable economy. Moneyweek editor-in-chief Merryn Somerset Webb’s call for a sovereign wealth fund, with the government owning shares in bailed-out companies, is interesting, as is political economist Will Hutton’s idea of expanding the British Business Bank and the Future Fund. UCL economics professor Mariana Mazzucato insists that the state must invest in innovation.
We began trying to make a different kind of society after the second world war. We will have to do that again. Principally, we will need to recognise the contributions and the losses of the UK’s minority and working-class people, above all. Our governments have shamed themselves through creating divisions in society, particularly since austerity was imposed under David Cameron’s government. Now we have an unexpected chance to redress the divisive fallout of Brexit.
The impact of remote working and the need to balance domestic and work life, allied with dire warnings on mass unemployment, gives us an opportunity to write a social contract in which we divide work more fairly. At both ends of the pay scale, people overwork. The evidence for a more balanced relationship between work and home is compelling.
Since the crisis began, the outpourings of artists, musicians, programmers, cultural and scientific workers at all levels has been outstanding. The talent, the will, the desire is there to remake our world. The urgency is not in question. Globalism can’t simply be a celebration of “just-in-time” deliveries. It will need to be recast as mutuality – local and global mutuality – so that we learn from each other, including those who’ve been in lockdown in war zones.
Our institutions will need to be rebuilt with transparency, with heart and by learning from the people who have been staffing them, not just the managers and owners. Doctors, nurses, carers and delivery people have things to say about how their institutions could be better run. The body politic and the politics of the bodies that make up our world must be reconfigured, and we need to start thinking about that now.
I conclude with Freud: “The aim of psychoanalysis is to turn hysteria into ordinary human unhappiness.” That is an accomplishment for an individual and for a society. We cannot escape unhappiness. It is constitutive of being human, just as are creativity, courage, ambition, attachment and love. Let’s embrace the complexity of what it means to be human in this time of sorrow as we think and feel our way to come out of this, wiser, humbler and more connected.
This article is adapted from the John Donne lecture at Hertford College, Oxford, which was delivered on 24 April 2020
Co-authored by members of the international group relations community
Shared by Dr Sarah Wynick
Final stitch: Friday 5th June 2020
This is a second set of reflections about how Group Relations thinking can assist people and systems to explore the COVID-19 pandemic. It is not intended to be complete, but is a snapshot of a moment in time from a group of systems-psychoanalytically informed people.
The contributors are members of a group which has been meeting on Zoom following on from a tri-annual meeting that took place in Belgirate, Italy in November 2018. The Group has been exploring the hypothesis “Are we Better Together?” – can we as group relations practitioners, theorists and advocates live and work through, the dynamics that we invite members to encounter in a Group Relations Conference. As a result of COVID- 19 the question of being “better together” is now one for us all, as we “Social Distance”.
As we prepare to re-enter “physical closeness” perhaps our fear and anger will also emerge closer to our experience.
The Patchwork that follows, invites you to engage with the eye of an artist. The offerings are rooted in institutions and geographies but are the vistas of the authors.
We will produce another patchwork in the Autumn.
CREATING A SECOND PATCHWORK
These latest patches have been written just as countries are starting to come out of quarantine; the previous one having being done as quarantine was beginning. The brief for every member of the group was, as before, 250 words on COVID-19 in their context and what a group relations perspective could add. The patchwork of contributions which follows has been somewhat edited for clarity. Our job as one Londoner and one Russian was then to attempt to synthesize and create an overview.
We thought of the pandemic as an earthquake: the first shock has passed, the fear of death is reduced; people are striving for belonging and are returning home to rebuild their lives. There is hope: organizations are rescheduling their events. But there could be aftershocks.
We noticed that more representatives participated this time (18 to 12 previously). May be there is more clarity now, both about the task and the situation with COVID. The contributions seemed more hopeful and lively, with less talk of trauma in comparison with the first patchwork.
Statistics have again been largely removed, although there were noticeably far fewer this time round. There also seems less variation in the balance of Personal vs Organizational vs National viewpoints, this time, with much more emphasis on organizational ideas and very little about the individuals who wrote them. Connections with and support by other organizations and people were highlighted. And curiosity as a part of anthropological way of seeing things: first experiences with on-line events – moving from shock to acceptance of a new reality, to trying new experiences and curiosity.
Depression, melancholia and loss were touched on- perhaps the buzz of initial action in a crisis was a manic defense which has worn off.
Anger seemed to be missing – might it be hidden somewhere? Inner and outer protests were described; about rules and regulations long work shifts, not wanting restrictions anymore.
More questions were asked than in the previous patchwork and the majority were about the future, as if it is easier to look forward than backwards: recent experience is perhaps too traumatic to refer to. What’s next? What is the meaning of life? What does it mean to be human? Valuing having less opportunity to do, and much more to be. Is it a privilege to be privileged? Or is it an illusion. What is the risk taken by those who are among the most privileged eg Sweden?
Again the patches convey tribal competition, othering, looking for scapegoats, so as not to be one. But race and the interaction of ethnicity with the virus, once again seemed less in focus than one might perhaps expect, and its relative absence, seems worth commenting on. Linked to this, ‘losing 3D thinking’ and ‘the 3D globe made into a flat 2D drawing’ convey a loss of complexity and critical approach, a reductive process of moving towards simplicity and polarity.
Body: From personal need for humanity, to touch and be touched in return, to organizational – how are organizations embodied?
Control: less (trust replaces control) or more (control and segmentation, “blind democracy”)?
Role of the government and authority: dependency and the search for a father and mother.
Disappointment in authority on the one hand and dependency and realization how much we rely on social systems (government, social and health care) on the other hand. Hence protests against rules and regulations. Basic Assumption Oneness was frequently described – despite or because of leadership?
There must be envy of those countries that are more open, who managed the situation better, with fewer deaths. We wish not to be in the ‘bad’ group. We all want to be ‘good’ and be on the winning team, to do well, get a gold star and come out of lockdown quicker. Is this a version of the search for the Holy Grail?
National characteristics were again highlighted as affecting response to the crisis – restlessness and rebellion particularly in the States vs defensive retreat to isolation, such as the Finnish response. This can raise issues of being self-centered or even selfish, with one’s moral compass switched off. Does this link with feeling orphaned?
Like the authors of the patches, we seemed to be left with more questions and less answers than before.
GROUP RELATIONS TAIWAN: TAIWAN
It has been 28 days since we last had someone who caught the virus within Taiwan. As a result, people are less and less compliant with the Taiwanese CDC guidelines (e.g., wearing masks, washing hands, social distancing). Still, people are required to wear masks while taking public transportation and in banks…etc. Many businesses affected by the pandemic are gradually recovering although international travels are still almost closed.
As the result of the pandemic, Group Relations Taiwan had canceled the 2020 Taiwan GRC, originally scheduled to occur this July. We are hoping to reschedule the conference to April 2021. As we are in the infancy stage in our organizational development, we rely on international colleagues for most of our consulting staff support. We are fully aware of the fact that we need our international colleagues; just like that Taiwan needs our international allies to support our survival and growth.
We are very grateful for OFEK and GRA for their support in our organizational development. Even though Taiwan is an orphan in the global community (not recognized by the United Nations due to the objection of China), we are aware of the fact that we have something to contribute to the world and we hope to foster connections with more and more like-minded organizations over time.
TAVISTOCK INSTITUTE CHINA: CHINA
Experiences of being a Scapegoat.
At present, the Covid-19 situation in China is slowing down, new challenges of economic and the crisis of mass unemployment and bankruptcy looms. During this period of time, China has been assisting other countries with its own successful anti-epidemic measures, and there have been reports of confrontation. A large amount of masks donated by China to other countries have been returned due to substandard quality. In some countries, it has been launched a crusade to China, requiring huge reparations. Although it is clear in our hearts that the top priority is to do our best to contain the spread of the epidemic and save lives, we are now faced with a complex and cruel situation in which accusations, abuses, cover-up of mistakes, failure of the plane, shirking responsibility… China has become a scapegoat in the global system of panic, division, paranoia and mutual harm.
The Chinese nation is troubled! But anyway, we have to carry on! The United States is too domineering, we struggle with it for a long time, we must prepare and plan for a long-term battle!!
China is now a scapegoat in the world system; China is also a country that specializes in making scapegoats. If there is any problem in history, one or a number of scapegoats will always be introduced, and then turn over the page, people rarely reflecting on the substantive issues; This makes the cycle of evil repeat itself. Why does a nation that prides itself on 5,000 years of culture never reflect on its mistakes and foolishly repeat them over and over again?
There is a God in the Bible who pardons all transgressions as long as people are honest with themselves and confess their SINS honestly and he will forgive sinners with grace. But for the Chinese, we don’t have grace and forgiveness in our culture and those who have committed sins will never be able to repair, so no one dare to confess, dare to face their own, only with all the strength to cover up, to whitewash.
The Chinese are people with unbounded affection, but history and trauma have done great damage to humanity, and this is a nation in need of healing. The courage to look at ourselves and the ability to reflect on ourselves determine our future.
The East is the other of the West and it is another aspect, different from the West. “De-Chinese” (get rid off Chinese) will bring both suffering to Chinese and retrogression to the West, which is a common failure of the world.
CHINA-AMERICA SOCIETY FOR THE STUDY OF GROUPS AND ORGANIZATIONS (CASSGO): CHINA
I talked of my panic and death anxiety previously. And we began an online support group during the pandemic time, to provide a space to hold the emotions and to support each other, so as to contain the emotions and help persons to face the uncertainty, helplessness, and regain control. During this process, I, myself, also became more and more calm and under control.
With the decrease of the pandemic, I became depressed for several days, lying on the bed, nothing interesting, lost direction with the enemy disappearing. Later, I got up and resumed normal daily life.
One day, I went out to buy breakfast without a mask, when I found out, no time for me to go back home to wear it. I decided to buy breakfast without a mask; it is the end of the April already. I quickly found that I hesitate to come close to the person who sell the breakfast, and the people around me keep distant from me, I felt shamed, all the people around me wore masks, I stood just like a wild beast, feeling myself like a source of infection, awkward. I suddenly realized that there exists a panic about touch, lack of interpersonal trust, and that these will last for a long time.
I need a container to rebuild my security again, I know our government did a great job during this process, from the very beginning, many people questioned some officials, governmental organizations, and to the end, many people began to show confidence and gratitude to Chinese government, and felt luck and happiness living in China.
I know the Chinese government began to build a social service system, hoping to provide a better container for Chinese people to regain security. I can sense there does exist some competition and cooperation at the same time. Some people sacrificed to alert us to something, some people got punished for setting up some rules, some people still question the Chinese government, some people struggle to survive after the pandemic, some people reach out to help small and medium-sized enterprises, some people work hard to contribute to the future innovative life.
I know the whole structure of the world is changing, COVID-19 intruded on the world, destroying boundaries; the whole world lost its normal structure, and has to begin a new structure to rebuild security. Take the world as a big family, just like siblings, love and hate, competition and cooperation, without parents. What the hell, we are brothers and sisters, and have to figure out our position in the big family, but for what?
We are adjusting to the “new normal.” Personally, I have conducted twenty virtual groups every week, including psychotherapy groups, consultation groups, process groups and mutual support groups. Our Chinese colleagues report emerging from the plateau of morbidity and mortality of the pandemic to greater mobility and return to face to face contact with others in a carefully managed loosening of restrictions. The cautious nature of this return is underscored by the decision of the directorate of the Guangzhou Large Study Group Consultation Training Program to hold this program virtually this August. Similarly, the directorate of the Shenyang Group Relations Conference decided to hold this conference virtually this December.
This immersion by CASSGO into virtual group relations mirrors my own surrender to the “new normal.” Having learned that the annual leadership conference for psychiatric chief residents in the US has been cancelled due to the pandemic, I am organizing a virtual group relations conference in August for forty psychiatric chief residents to be staffed entirely by psychiatrists trained in group relations methods. I anticipate that this conference will help prepare me for directing the Shenyang conference in December, and I have been invited to direct a virtual group relations conference in March 2021 for a Russian colleague who runs the Institute of Psychodynamic Coaching in Moscow.
I note with gratitude that a community of group relations practitioners who are supportive of working in the virtual environment is developing in tandem with the pandemic. As I write this report, I am preparing for a meeting with a subset of the global leadership council to discuss our interest in virtual group relations, and after that for a community meeting with the A. K. Rice Institute where a breakout group will be addressing the same topic. With deepest sympathy for those who continue to suffer in this pandemic, I see our willingness to adapt our work to the needs of the community as a sign of hope.
In response to the Covid-19 crisis, AKRI has shared many of the experiences common across the global Group Relations community—the cancellations of conferences and other events; anxieties about the health and well-being of our members; and curiosity about the possibility of virtual conference life. As in the rest of the world, we’ve felt our inter-connectedness, in both its power and its hazards; and we’ve also been reminded of our differences, especially vis-a-vis vulnerability, both to the virus and to the accompanying political and economic turmoil.
One special thing worth noting in the AKRI community has been our online membership meetings. Prior to March, the AKRI community had never gathered online. Since then, we’ve held four meetings (with another scheduled, and the expectations that they’ll continue once every two weeks for the foreseeable future).
These meetings have been remarkable for several reasons. First, they’ve been extremely well attended (with 20%-35% of AKRI’s entire membership attending) and they’ve offered deep, substantive engagement with our experience of this crisis. Second, they’ve offered a tangible experience of being a membership organization; rather than the membership being in-the-mind, the membership is visible on Zoom screens— more than 60 faces you can see at once: old friends, colleagues and strangers, young and old, from far and near, together on your monitor. Finally, tangible organizational desires have emerged from these meetings. Among them, desires 1) to help and support front line healthcare workers; 2) to learn more about how we study organizational life online and offer group relations learning in a virtual environment; and 3) to explore how what we know about authority can help negotiate our experience of irrational governments and authoritarianism in places like the US and China. My sense is that these organizational desires can help guide our organizational work and link our mission to what our membership wants.
GROUP RELATIONS INTERNATIONAL: USA
What is real? Who can we trust? How should I relate? Who takes leadership and in what way? Who am I? What has priority: health, life, economy, jobs, climate, collaboration? Who and what and where is privileged? Giving or withholding? What does it all mean? Where do we go from here?
Because of the pandemic we notice familiar but exacerbated patterns: Black, LatinX communities are disproportionally affected. Older people die in their “care homes” disconnected. The most vulnerable youth drop out of education because they don’t have access to the internet let alone suitable electronics to do homework. People seem to be even more set in their political ideologies.
People are getting restless and antsy. Protests pop up more and more: against the stay at home order, masks, gatherings, new rules and regulations. Resilience is wearing off, anxiety is increasing. Restlessness. Uncertainty. Irrationality is rampant: science seems to be used willy-nilly. ‘Othering’ and ‘if only’ dynamics are prevalent. Staying in the moment remains the most difficult place to be.
Desire for connection – touch and ‘being touched’ – with each other, with the earth, with something More? Virtual gatherings: living life in Zoom boxes – escape, necessity, new reality?
Pause. Do I do what I want to do? Do I live the way I want to live? What choices am I making? What is the meaning of life? Where is the Spirit?
GRI held its first gathering ever – online.
In Finland we have historically defended ourselves from our enemies by retreating to the wilderness far from everybody. Sometimes we have fled Vikings some times Cossacks. Modern hideaway places in Finland are summer cottages. In many places those escaping form crowded cities have doubled local population. Those who cannot go to their summer cottages have curled up in their home nests. We are known for keeping social distance and now this ability is put to good use. No touching or kissing and staying far from each other. The situation has created polarity. One part of Fins is scared and strongly dependent authority and collective instructions given by government. Has Prime Minister Sanna given permission? Yes, we are calling our prime minister by surname and making her into a mythic war mother taking care of us and fighting for us. At the same time others are frustrated, maybe aggressive and grown numb about all restrictions.
Right now we are little by little opening society. Students are going back to schools, restaurants are about to open their doors, gatherings less than 50 people shall be permitted etc.. Still many people are as scared as those hiding from Cossacks centuries ago. Is enemy still here? What if covid-19 will catch us? How do we survive economically when many things are closed down?
This hide-away strategy has divided us into those who can remote work in hide-away places and those who are working in less educated jobs and are either working in the front line of the pandemic or being suspended. Still remote work has created lots of creativity and feelings of freedom. Many of those, who could not have dreamed of working away from their offices, have found lot of joy and peace when working from home or summer cottage. Surprisingly a lot of the control there has been in work is missing and it seems that trust has replaced control.
It is possible that safeguarding and social isolation raises in many a feeling of me and mine first, which makes it impossible to plan the bright future. At the same time there is still lot of hope and collective care of others.
The Finnish group relation movement is now active in video conferencing and social media. Social Dreaming has gathered lots of interest and we going to organize a virtual conference, and a Listening post. We are also taking part in on going dialogues organized by other agents.
TAVISTOCK CLINIC: UK
I am going to stay with 250 words because one of the most significant features of life at the moment is growing flood of information, guidance, offers of help, commentary and spin. There is a huge sense of uncertainty, and a rush to action that is a temporary relief but when the buzz stops, the uncertainty is compounded by a recognition that the action hasn’t, materially, changed anything, and we are still in a world that looks the same in some ways but feels totally different.
Inequalities and inequities are raw and more vivid than ever, in the proportion of those ill and dying, in the Catch-22 expectations about who will now be expected to take risks in going back to work on public transport (if you have the kind of job you can’t do from home there’s a high probability that you won’t have any option to get there other than by overcrowded public transport). And people are tired, and flagging, tired of all the change and adaptation, tired of ‘zoom’, tired of Covid.
Group Relations thinking seems helpful in recognising the state of a system struggling to connect and potentially in freefall, but without the boundaries that might at least say: this will be over, this can’t happen in this space, this is what we need to do. But trying to join up, having some confidence that the system is in the individual is helpful, valuing the small connections that can get made.
TAVISTOCK INSTITUTE OF HUMAN RELATIONS: UK
I have become obsessed with maps of the world and how they represent what is real from the 3D globe onto a flat 2D drawing. France is 5 times the size of England, and the whole of the UK should fit into the USA State of Texas – there are other anomalies, I invite others to take a look. Perhaps it is the spread of the virus that is bringing these questions of territory to mind?
If the picture in the mind bears no relation to the external reality, what foundation do we have for our relations? What sense can we make of our history? What does it mean to be human or part of humanity?
COVID-19 is shifting our social order. States and nations are reaffirming old borders. I have re-read Freud’s Moses and Monotheism and re-discovered his skill in saying difficult things to ideologues. What are we finding difficult to say to each other? Are the issues of representation and authority relations too painful to be worked through? Perhaps the flight into loyalty is more comfortable than the struggle required to sustain commitment?
Staff across a range of industries are facing issues during “furlough” – being paid not to work in order to safeguard their jobs and organisations.
The Institute has made a smooth shift into its digital existence. Staff are on furlough in a rotation pattern, a new deepening creative practice course has started, preparations are on the way for its first ever AGM online. There is a creative energy flowing through the system.
Where is home? Our bodies/ jobs/houses/workplaces/nations/identities? How do we face the political realities of the bodies we inhabit without literal and metaphorical masks?
GROUP RELATIONS INDIA: INDIA
Will the focus shift from the virus of entitlement and narcissism to the vaccine of compassion and sustainability? That is how a group of associates in GRI ended our earlier reflective piece on 26th of March. We were at that point just 2 days into a national and total lockdown announced with exactly 4 hours’ notice to a nation of 1.3 billion people, 80% of who are poor, informal – daily wagers or subsistence agricultural workers/artisans. Today, the 52nd day, and the lockdown is sure to be extended to its version 4.0 as the graphs of infected cases and deaths only rise.
Heightened persecutory anxieties – because everyone is a suspect, a possible COVID infector a threat to my survival. The more privileged you are, more the anxiety about infection and personal safeguards. Feeding on this fear is the projection of blame on Muslims via fake news and persecution. The sensitization shown towards health and sanitation workers seems mostly about ensuring I won’t get infected.
The nation is gripped by the impacts of another more devastating virus. The rise of blatant authoritarianism, and the use of fear and power to enforce and control, is visible in a series of moves by the government and its pairing with corporates. The callous and inhuman abandonment of millions of its migrant workers with no work, no food, no money and no means to go back to their homes – leading them in state of acute distress. Heartrending images of thousands just walking, walking, hundreds even thousands of miles, enduring massive trauma and risk – just to get home. This will be the shameful and lasting image of corona virus time for any sensitive Indian. Shockingly, at this juncture several state governments have decided to abrogate the already precarious and flimsy protection of workers via labour rights and laws, in order to favour capitalists and the accumulation of private capital. This throws us into the era of slave or bonded labour, instead of being one of the world’s largest democracies. Other institutions of democracy – the judiciary, the police, the administration, the mainstream media seem to be blind, invisible, apathetic, or they are sold out. A moral deficit of humaneness plagues us, perhaps the outcome of a pervasive culture of Ba M, and it has shown up in relative terms the novel corona a more ‘ethical’ virus to reckon with.
Uncertainty leading to chaos
A fragmented cacophony of different voices of self-interest Ba M, Ba Fight/Flight is evident in an increasingly uncontrollable and undisciplined nation – who will take care of me? The prime minister’s addresses to the nation reinforce the image of the single powerful man who takes the weight of the nation’s woes on his broad shoulders. His speeches are simplistic – to continue to promote an infantalisation, with big promises of deliverance, but no accountability or back up as to how this will all be implemented. His latest clarion call to be a self-reliant nation is perhaps a decisive attack on the idea of an open system and its interconnectedness – which is what covid 19 teaches us the world is in reality.
Locked into our choices?
The talk of the new normal is often experienced as being locked in to our choices – how do we get out of them? The difficulty in accepting the new without the familiar, especially when the new may indicate shifts in power and privilege. This results in decision-making that is unilateral, manipulative and authoritarian, rather than dialogue as a lever of change, for small transformations in systems. From the viewpoint of systems the questions loom: What could have been prevented? What is my role and how much of what happens systemically is a consequence of my stances and actions? Grief, and guilt over privileges seems to be a ready defence to disable more radical action.
The ray of hope: While the state suffers from deficit of compassion and accountability and abandoned its primary task, civil society activists, some sections of the media, and common people demonstrate that a responsible use of personal authority and leadership towards collective – connecting action is our best, even if frail, hope.
Whither Group Relations?
For us from a GR lens – why is the overwhelming focus on individuals and their emotions – fear, anxiety, lack of my normal life, and how little we think about systems and institutions. How helpless, apathetic and even unthinking we are when these institutions that we have set up and delegated authority and mandate to, don’t do what they are supposed to do. Is it because most institutions we build favour the privileged in any case? How much is GR going to risk in order to understand and work with these trends? Will it see all of society as its terrain or choose to stay in familiar and safe agendas? What does the rush of online offerings mean? Is it a creative outburst – pilots of different kinds, is it to contain and comfort? Or are there elements of colonising markets on the World Wide Web – where, like the corona virus, there are no boundaries or barriers to entry.
Israel is coming out of the health crisis, revealing the tension between society and individuals.
After the dominant climate of oneness during the last two months, we can see that individuals are different in the way the financial crisis meets their personal life.
The protest of young physicians against having to work very long shifts. During Covid 19 health care staff were our heroes. In these days when there is an improvement in the public health condition, the intern physicians are beginning to feel the pain of working too many hours. It might be the beginning of a social protest. The feeling of ‘togetherness’ seems to give them a hope that their voice would be heard.
The Education System-is being challenged. There are tensions between the education system and the treasury in managing the crisis routine. The treasury expected the teachers to donate some of their time. Schools are partially going back to routine; most classes will be divided into subgroups and will attend only part of the week.
Covid 19 meets Israel in a political, moral crisis. We have been struggling for more than 15 months to create a government. The leader, Prime Minister Netanyahu has to fight to prove his innocence in court. The pandemic reinforced his political power. COVID 19 has helped him to be the next prime minister in Israel.
The pandemic brought up a shared sense of losing control. The need for dependency on leaders was reinforced. Leaders seem to use this and these times for their personal needs.
It seems to be difficult to return to routine.
Mourning- Until recently Families that lost their loved ones couldn’t be comforted. According to the social distancing regulations, instead of sitting Shiva in an open house many grieving individuals and families received short text messages.
At a time when we all withdrew into our homes, many initiatives sprung up from OFEK members: Zoom meetings for OFEK members; international social dreaming matrices; developing an online GR Conference, and more. At the same time the board found it difficult to work during this time that things were urgent. It seems as though there was more room for special initiatives rather than official, routine activity.
Looking back it seems that Israel did well in containing the pandemic. For some, yet unknown reason, the whole Middle East seems to have done well with varied degrees of governmental control. Now facts are remembered, but the anxiety and fear attached to them are hard to retrieve. So fast!
From one day to the next the whole psychoanalytic and psychotherapeutic community moved to work “remotely”- by phone, WhatsApp and Zoom. Time went in a different way than the usual. Endless meetings led to “Zoom fatigue”. Many conferences, including PCCA conference in August, were postponed.
Questions waiting to find answers:
Did we learn from Covid-19? If so, then what did we learn?
Was it a trauma? If so, then in what way was it so?
Did we at least learn to be more modest, or will our hubris get the upper hand again?
The Israeli specific situation was that Covid-19 broke out in the midst of a political crisis and was used politically. Leadership decisions were not trusted by half of the country. Daily broadcasts told of catastrophic forecasts: “end of humanity”, “worse since the Black Plague”, “10s of thousands will die”, “we will be like Italy”. Despite the mistrust, the fear-mongering led to a collective submission to authorities. What ensued was a collective regression to dependency, paranoia and loss of personal authority. On the positive side, the anxiety and fear of a shared catastrophe bred solidarity. Neighbours went out of their way to help those who had to stay in. This regression may be the collective trauma, even more than the danger of the disease. Nature-made calamity combined with man-made calamity. During this period “Mathematical models”, a language unknown before, became the authority. Pessimism became the political tool of control.
Under these circumstances a new political coalition was formed, and highly suspected. The “economical virus” – the aftermath of the health virus – is in the making and is now the source of anxiety and deep concerns.
From my GR perspective I participated in an unusual WhatsApp group of 150 psychoanalysts: a leaderless Large Group for which the daily summaries provided containment and interpretations. This large group became a “good mother”, a container and healer. We also organized for the psychoanalytic community 3 weekly sessions of Social Dreaming Matrix.
Some of the emergent themes:
Catastrophic dreams full of danger, imagery of death and malaise. Phantoms and Holocaust. Children as well as adults are in danger. Isolation and social distancing.
Wish for a father figure to know exactly what to do, ready to take risks and save the day. Flooded. Lost in familiar place. Longing for parents, feeling of being orphans. Cemetery and wedding. Generational tensions.
My first report ended with the sentence: “I try to keep the situation as an uncanny reality against the temptation of adapting too fast”. Now I can finish by saying that I hope the uncanny situation will not evaporate too fast in the rush to get hold of the previous life.
IGO (INDIVIDU, GROUPE, ORGANISATION): SWITZERLAND
Switzerland was in a semi-confined state with non-essential businesses and schools closed and priority for health care (COVID-19 healthcare) at the center of the society. Now businesses, and most schools are reopening, social/physical distancing is still there, healthcare systems are trying to reorganize themselves without focusing only on COVID-19.
Looking in the past weeks we see: Fear, sorrow, hope, exhaustion, grief, losing track, losing 3D thinking, trying to get preconscious back, where is “rêverie” …what is the task, what is the meaning…Why?
They are heroes…what heroes? Men vs. women leaders? What is the truth? Do we need to do all that? Can they take our liberty like that? Are we responsible? Is it all a conspiracy…for what? For who? The US? CHINA? WHO? GAVI? ID2020? Gates foundation?
Ethical dilemmas, health vs. economy? Young vs. old? Fit vs. obese? Poor vs. rich? School vs. no school, who can we treat? Millennials vs. boomers? COVID-19 as a “boomer remover”…?
Why is the weather so nice and the sky so blue? Is it true? Look at this landscape so calm…the air so fresh, the smell…the smell of the flowers and the trees…
The world is going to change?…tomorrow will be different?…more cooperative?…with profound transformation?…an opportunity for autocratic leaders to control?…resiliency?
What about philosophers? Artists? Trying to make sense? Not too fast…
Dreaming? Social-dreaming? Rêverie!
Our 8th Geneva conference in May was canceled, as was our yearly group dynamic training (first time in 26 years). Isn’t this crisis an opportunity also for us? Rethink the task? Our role?
Yes, the fear has transformed. It is tinged with depression now. The young people greet each other with “Hi, how´s the ‘dep’?”
We´re out of the initial shock, confusion and incredulity. We have moved into the next, or the next in plural, stage/s. We are confronted with existential questions for the future. When will this pandemic be over? When will we touch each other (physically) again? What will we feel then? Another kind of fear? All we wanted to do! All we had planned to do!
Winnicott wrote about the psychologically so important relationship between mother and baby. He spoke about to do – and to be. In our society, so much depends on to do. Our self-esteem, our social status are closely linked to what we do, and how we promote our actions. And here we are, with much less opportunity to do, and much more to be…Winnicott emphasized the importance of to be, and not always do.
So, here we are, on the threshold of the next phase, which we hope will be “it´s over.” Patience, endurance. It is humbling.
On the doing side, Arifana is working on a virtual conference. The work is slow, and the ambivalence is alive. Maybe the biggest obstacle is the longing for a “real life” conference, where we touch and smell each other. Where our laughter rings in one and the same room.
Oh, and yes. We are privileged. Our society is still not in a lock-down. Schools are milling with kids, hospitals are working overtime with heroic effort, shops, cafés and restaurants are open, albeit empty, but still.
GROUP RELATIONS AUSTRALIA: AUSTRALIA
Australia and Australians’ responses are generally characterised by a compliant acceptance of expert medical advice, social distancing, business closure, significant government support and other Covid19 regulations and policies. A few fatal or at least life-threatening mistakes leading to infection clusters have largely been accepted as unfortunate errors in a novel crisis rather than an opportunity for blame or scapegoating. Some less generous areas of government support have been met with volunteer, philanthropic and community assistance.
There has been an ongoing attempt at political bipartisanship; sometimes interrupted by outbursts from less mature politicians or media commentators but these have been the exception. This shared leadership has pleasantly surprised everyone. Jacinda Ardern’s example as Prime Minister in neighbouring New Zealand – of decisive action, genuine engagement and empathy – has been widely admired and praised. There has also been sadness at the catastrophic impacts elsewhere in the world – where many Australians trace their heritage – and public bewilderment at the social policy and leadership failures.
It does seem to be understood that this crisis response in Australia of trust and reliance on authority is in our shared interest, despite the real costs. This can be characterised as a depressive position response. The alternative, much less accepted narrative – that these government and communal actions are a reckless over-reaction that is destroying lives and businesses, seems to be explicitly or intuitively seen as denial or distortion, as personal counter-dependency or worse, a wilful attempt to make others fearful. This does seem to represent an ongoing shift and flow between depressive position and paranoid schizoid responses. It is, for now, unclear how or why the largely depressive position state of social mind in Australia has come about and predominated at this time.
We have conducted the first two of three Listening Posts, initiated a ‘Dynamics of Racism and Covid19’ blog and will soon commence a ‘Working Mothers and Leadership blog’ and a series of ‘Trust and Mistrust in Organisations’ online workshops. All are intended as offering a space for members and the general community to reflect on our shared experiences of the Covid19 times; these have been welcomed by members, who seem eager to connect and engage.
IL NODO GROUP: ITALY
This is to share the experience of being in Italy, before and during Covid19 as it has emerged during monthly social dreaming matrices. In January, when the virus belonged to the distant China and Italy was far from recognizing the threat of the contagion in its own territory, dreams were talking of:
– an invisible enemy
– the complete loss of control
– the urgent need of containment and of somebody who could take care and responsibility for us
-genetically modified insects.
In February, when the contagion had just landed in Italy, but there was still much disbelief about its extension and future consequences, the dreams narrative spoke of:
– being unprepared and anxious
– loss of bearings
– facing an event like 9/11, which would change the perception of the world
– confronted by a deep sociocultural identity crisis (who is on the boat now and kept at the borders?)
– searching for safety
On the optimistic side one dream spoke of the possibility to reassemble and give meaning to something from the past that needed to move on and let go.
In March Italy was in lockdown, ahead of the rest of Europe; the SDM took place via zoom and it was flooded by people who wanted to join, expressing the need for connecting and sense making.
– fragmentation of body parts. Legs, denied; eyes, hypertrophic; the eyes of science and technology, drones and apps to control us;
– Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde science, which saves, science that controls and goes out of control producing androids, disquieting beings.
– what is left out, denied, hidden, cannot be spoken of. Death of the elders, in particular men; the eyes of who is left to dye alone; selected to die in order to leave space for a younger person. Guilt, how does one feel, locked at home, hiding, while doctors in the front line have to make choices, unprepared and unprotected?
– children of the fairy tales, unprotected by careless parents, betrayed by them: like Hansel and Gretel and Tom Thumb. As in the previous matrix, one sign of optimism appears: children are intelligent and know how to survive.
With the virus we have been put in front of a mirror, which reveals more than we were ready to acknowledge. Covid19 has interfered with our culture of denial. We are exhausted and traumatized; the future is confused and hazy.
The image of rubbles left by the war or by the earthquakes that shake Italy every few years, has come to our mind; as well as the awareness that what we are dealing with now is an invisible, untouchable, boundaryless danger.
Photo of the 2016 earthquake in Italy
LITHUANIAN GROUP RELATIONS SOCIETY: LITHUANIA
The loss of privilege of physical contact and doing what you want, frustration, having to keep silent. Wanting to be more active, not wanting restrictions anymore. Missing fighting and flirting. Longing to travel, but having to stay at home, a nice home, but it is starting to feel like a nice prison.
Divisions in the society. One group is used to and loved IT before the virus, so they feel comfortable working from distance. The other group is tired, flooded, overwhelmed, and confused by blurred boundaries between work, family, parental tasks and roles, and longing for coming back to ‘normal’ mode of living and working. The third group is trying to adapt to changes, feeling “back on track”, exploring on-line work possibilities, recognizing the need to get used to the thoughts of restrictions lasting through the end of the year or maybe even longer.
Quarantine and restrictions created conditions for living laboratory to experiment with technologies. Tech companies promise a better future, but it isn’t for all. IT skills adds up to the sources of inequality.
How life will be after two years of zooming? Political and social changes? Some won’t come back to “normal” as it will be proved as cost effective. Some businesses will die, others will survive and maybe some new to be created? COVID-19 changes forever our ideas of what an organization is, who is in and out. Boundaries are changing in companies, breaking rules, authority taken away, changed.
Evolution? Natural selection? Who dies in evolution? Inequality. In the last news from Lithuania, the hospices, old people houses, almost all inhabitants affected by COVID-19. Harsh target group. Hospitals became centres of virus infection, patients with chronic diseases or other conditions are not admitted, they might die not from virus but because of virus. It is a risk of seeing the virus everywhere.
The need for self-sustaining, survival, some national economies cannot sustain themselves, are dependent from products produced in China, or international market for export. There may not be food in the shop if we can’t work in the lands. Farmers may not harvest.
Tenseness of constantly being watched by cameras connects to data gathering. Is there liberation through technology or more control and segmentation? To protect you against corona they can trick you, and your data can be used against you. Are those on-line communication platforms secure? Or do they just feed The Big Data?
GROUP RELATIONS RUSSIA: RUSSIA
Creating the narrative: is it going to be a new one or a repetition of the past?
The mood in Russia is like a swing – from fear of death in some people (fear of going out even to buy food, hysterical quarrels in shops about social distance, aggression, etc.) to the notorious Russian “to hell with the rules” that stems from history (historical mistrust of the officials and official news: “they lie to us”, “they make money from us”, “it’s all fake”etc).
No or very little financial support to small businesses and people. There is high anxiety about the future individual well-being, fear of not being able to survive the consequences. People do not trust the government; the psychological burden of being left alone in this crisis is unbearable.
Enforced confinement at home brings out the genetic memory of the Soviet times – jails, fear of being punished for nothing, fear of being detained in the street. Many Russians live in very small apartments with no individual space, so the combination of high anxiety, fear and physical discomfort causes a lot of problems in families. Russians have an inferiority complex about having to get a visa (often with difficulties) for travel abroad. This complex has become much bigger in this situation. There are a lot of rumours and speculations that the borders will be open only to the rich and privileged, that we are back to the “iron curtain” times, that even if the borders open people will not be able to afford travel due to expensive flights and stricter rules. Russian Internet is full of articles about how beautiful Russia is and there is no need to go to other countries.
Role of the leaders in both organisations and government becoming more significant: who will lead and where? Employees and people are hoping to be led by strong figure as it was in the past. Corporates set up the new plans, they call it ‘Reaching the Space, Going beyond Achievements’ to mobilize employees for actions and planning, not really leaving much space for reflections and discussions.
Having official long holidays for around 4 weeks, where in a way some people stopped looking for a job, considering it to be a real holiday, being locked at home and separated with others, loosing energy slowly – all this takes people away from critical thinking and gives others more power. We could observe here the appearance of new laws and rules, which limit the rights of citizens.
People are following the rules but one can feel more fear and aggression in the air.
Would we be strong and honest enough to look at our own hearts and values or will we be influenced by the power? There is a space now, as there was in the empty Red Square, on Victory Day: to have a deeper look. There is still a choice to lead or be led (or both) and maybe the most important – how and what will be driving this leadership?
Co-authored by members of the international group relations community
Shared by Dr Sarah Wynick
This is a set of reflections about how Group Relations thinking can assist people and
systems to explore the COVID-19 pandemic. It is not intended to be complete, but is a
snapshot of a moment in time from a group of systems-psychoanalytically informed
The contributors are members of a group which has been meeting on Zoom following on
from a tri-annual meeting that took place in Belgirate, Italy in November 2018. The
Group has been exploring the hypothesis “Are we Better Together?” – can we as group
relations practitioners, theorists and advocates live and work through, the dynamics that
we invite members to encounter in a Group Relations Conference. As a result of COVID-
19 the question of being “better together” is now one for us all, as we “Social Distance”.
We hope that this set of reflections may assist in your own sense-making of the impact
of the COVID-19 in your part of the world.
How we hold the whole in mind, whilst living in our “part”, as a fractal of the whole, is
an element of the gift of the Group Relations learning modality.
The Patchwork that follows, invites you to engage with the eye of an artist. The offerings
are rooted in institutions and geographies but are the vistas of the authors.
There will be another set of reflections to share in approximately 6 weeks.
STICHING UP THE PATCHWORK
The process of making this patchwork quilt has been interesting. The brief for every member of the group was 250 words on COVID-19 in their context and what a group relations perspective could add. Our job was then to (attempt to) sew it together, to metabolise. Quilting is a very traditional technique, and uses scraps, which can be very disparate, but still work together to create something interesting. Quilting is also about being frugal, ‘make do and mend’; in this time of quarantine people are taking up hobbies untouched since childhood, baking bread, growing vegetables.
One might ask on reading this, which countries are missing from our GR collective? There are many. And who out of this group didn’t manage to contribute – the members from Germany, Taiwan, Spain and Switzerland. Of course the members of our collective do not really ‘represent’ the countries themselves, though in our minds/in phantasy, they may do.
This starts with thoughts on reading all the contributions…though that privileges one response to the source material…. but in a sense this can’t really be an overview, we each can only speak from our place in the patchwork, in this case as a Londoner, who works in the NHS. I did discuss these ideas with other London GRC colleagues, but all of us were I think looking through quite a similar lens.
The patchwork of contributions which then follows has been somewhat edited, at times for clarity, but also the pace of change meant that statistics seemed pointless and out of date already. There is a notable variation in the balance of Personal vs Organizational vs National viewpoints. There is also a degree of similarity in experience, some issues may ebb and flow more, for example trauma seems more pronounced in Israel and Russia, but also there is so much shared experience.
SOME IDEAS AND THEMES
One could say there has been a collapse of omnipotence. In the West particularly we have previously felt our place on this planet is unassailable, even in the face of a threat like global warming.
Societal fault lines have deepened in all cultures:
Privilege vs poverty, Basic assumption Fight Flight vs Basic assumption Dependency.
Several people spoke to a difficulty with appropriate dependency on leadership, due to ‘fake news’ and distrust or suspicion.
We notice in the news a relative inattention to issues of privilege and bias and how that interplays with Covid-19. It was mentioned in the patchwork; interestingly India was where it was particularly located. We are seeing that class, ethnicity, gender have significant relationships with mortality and morbidity, but it seems hard for this to be talked about and then attended to. Attempts to bring this up by people of ethnic minorities have not gained traction. Who has the authority and right to speak and be listened to?
Past trauma seems like another underlying factor – the Holocaust, communist regimes, 9/11. This now is also a shared global trauma, how will we respond post C19, what will be needed for national healthy psychological functioning and how do we care, or not, for the traumatised ‘heroes’? What going forward, will they symbolise? History suggests they are often forgotten or neglected.
So many unknowns are causing fear. We can’t really assess risk, so we can’t be reassured. The global nature of the threat means there is no safe place. This creates primal infantile fears and means that splitting and projection don’t work as mechanisms to locate the problems elsewhere. If there’s ‘no safe shore’ then there can be no effective boundaries. There is a difficulty in thinking, at a personal level, which was owned in some of the accounts, but also what we are witnessing in the seemingly mindless activity of individuals and leaders/governments. The USA health system may be collapsing in plain sight. Doctors are doing things that should work, but don’t.
At the same time people seem to be seeking comfort in tribalism and judgemental, competitive defences…some countries are labelled ‘bad’ or ‘incompetent’, even our friends and neighbours can be ‘othered’ and reported to the police for minor infringements. Othering seems a shared significant issue: countries and individuals, from China to the sweaty jogger! What will be the implications for individual and global relationships the other side of the pandemic?
The issue of ‘othering’ seems very important, and maybe where this wasn’t mentioned was significant. The US leadership in particular, but not exclusively, has really been hammering home a xenophobic narrative – in an attempt to deflect blame, and bring the in-group together more?
Is there a more generalised failure of authority or leadership? Like an Inter-group event – leaderless groups in search of authority but unable to find it even where it should be, eg WHO. Thinking about authority and the paranoia that we see in GRC events when members don’t feel contained by leadership, also feels very pertinent. The idealisation and vilification that occurs in an attempt to manage anxiety; and those splits are really apparent.
There seems to be a wish for purity or cleanliness or uncontaminatedness. This may link also to a longed for oceanic feeling, (a feeling of “being one with the external world as a whole). Freud deemed this a fragmentary vestige of a kind of consciousness possessed by an infant who has not yet differentiated himself or herself from other people and things.
The above patchwork stitching was authored on behalf of the group by TAVISTOCK & PORTMAN NHS TRUST: UK
IL NODO: ITALY
Here in Italy, a deep social fear of death, the contagion of fear, people are used to doing what they want in this wonderful country and world, now they’re in closed in houses.
We tend to think of the human species as having conquered nature, and even the universe. The helplessness in the face of a contagion like this is, in part, a collapse of omnipotence that may be exacerbated by the problem of the planet warming up which we think is due to us…It seems like a time when humans have to be aware we are a part of nature and not the conqueror of it and that we’ve got limits.
Pascal says “ our nature consists in motion; complete rest is death” we live with the impossibility to move now, we’re in house arrest and there is abundance of restlessness: it seems impossible to rest and now we’re forced to rest and hopefully to reflect on what’s going on and learn from this traumatic experience.
The title of our next GRC is an antenna of what’s happening: subjection and subjectivity: crisis of institutional containers and identity despair.
We’ve need to reimagine human relations taking time to pause, sense, and connect and then act better together.
Since our Zoom meeting the world has further changed, what was here at the beginning of looming threat, became an unfolding lived reality.
Our whereabouts, location, work situation, family situation, habits – much of what defines us is being challenged as the number of sick and dead people is climbing, Societal fault lines have deepened.
Specificities of Covid-19 in Israel:
1. Alert button: The Israeli society has an “alert button”, mobilized in response to wars or threat of wars. Leading to a state of being with specific societal rituals, a switch to survival mode. In this sense the Israeli society may be more resilient than countries that were not threatened since WW2. Convid-19 has pushed this button.
2. Democracy at risk: In parallel to the Covid-19 pandemic a political crisis is unfolding as a result to a post-election bind. The pandemic is used as a shield/weapon to introduce political changes. Under the pretext of caring for the population civil rights are compromised. Policy decisions of the leadership are suspicious of being political self-serving.
3. Politics and societal divide: due to political considerations (minister of health being an ultra-religious person) restrictions were postponed for the religious community. The contagion is the highest in these communities.
4. Holocaust and the pandemic: Holocaust associations are very close to the surface in Israeli collective mentality, the situation in which doctors will have to select whom to let die is terrifying everywhere, but has an unbearable feeling here. The image of “Selection” has an echo to the “there and then” of the Holocaust, tragically so when some of the “disposable” older generation are Holocaust survivors.
5. The similar but different event in our life time is the “Gulf war” (1990). Israel was under threat of a nerve agent missiles attack. Gas masks and other kind of protection, discovered later as fake protection, was the order of the day. The terror was similar, the main difference was that the enemy was outside, “Social closeness” was the comfort. Now the Other may be the source of danger. “Social isolation” is the guiding principle. The Israeli culture is one of social coherence and reaching out to help, this is unfolding now in many forms, as the situation is worsening.
More similar than different
6. The flood of virtual meetings: family, professional, social. To counteract the “social isolation”. Social defense at work.
7. The generational divide: “high risk” older population becoming the sacrificial lamb to the wrath of Nature carried by Covid-19.
I try to keep the situation as an uncanny reality against the temptation of adapting too fast.
Like all over the Globe, very quickly we found ourselves gathering in small zoom windows: large groups, small groups, trying hard to think, to make sense of our experiences. It is so difficult to think, to make sense, to plan the upcoming future. Everything is vague. Like there is no view from the zoom window… but we are all together trying hard to keep being in contact with each other, to be in contact with our past, with our future, in order to be.
GROUP RELATIONS INDIA: INDIA
There hasn’t been a time since World War II where globally citizens wake up with the thought of impending danger to life. COVID 19 is not just about the spread of the virus. Equally potent is the spread of fear; of a sense of vulnerability from the familiar being, perhaps irrevocably, disrupted.
It is true that COVID 19 does not discriminate. But that it has primarily spread to the rest of the world via international travellers, disproportionately affecting celebrities & politicians; and impacted and locked down many countries in the global north, has had a huge role to play in how the media and elite-middle class nexus has chosen to report and respond to this.
While in other countries COVID 19 has exacerbated feelings of xenophobia and the dangerous other, in India it has primarily deepened the well-entrenched fault lines of hierarchies and privileges. Social distancing is not new to Indians, with caste being a marker of it for centuries! The disruption COVID has caused in the minds of people is because it does not recognise or respect the known boundaries set by the powerful (in the hierarchy of caste, class, gender, or religion) to determine the privilege of who’s safe and unsafe, thus leading to a sense of confusion, anxiety, unease, and even anomie. Now that the rules they set are in disarray, the elite and middle classes have taken recourse to the privilege of claiming victimhood, instead of being also rooted in the reality of the devastating and disproportionate economic and social impact on the poor and the marginalised. There is much evidence of baM at play.
The biggest threat that COVID 19 poses is to our notion of self-sufficiency, built on the edifice of privilege. To sustain the baM culture that has lured us for the last 50 years, we’re falling back on baD: our fantasy being that an omnipotent leader / government that will somehow restore life to what we knew as.
This is evident from public narratives in mainstream and social media, as well as in statements and choices of those in leadership1. What is pandered to is the craving in us for The Strongman, who exhorts us to sacrifice for the nation, who reassures us that if only we listen to him, all will be well, instead of preparing citizens, the political establishment, and industry to face reality and take timely, bold and appropriate measures.
The more pervasive virus of entitlement and narcissism has been around for centuries. It has been nurtured more in the recent past by unfettered capitalism and the idealizing of consumerism. Its vaccine: a moral compass based on spirituality, ethics, compassion, generosity, equity, and sustainability, has been out of fashion for long. COVID 19 is an opportunity to focus on the vaccine instead of the virus; a moment of time in history that behoves us to find the courage to let go of our sense of entitlement to privilege.
GROUP RELATIONS AUSTRALIA: AUSTRALIA
‘We are not hoarding, but I know people who are’
As Australians, we like to think of themselves as self-reliant and self-directed. Likeable mavericks. Not particularly worried about formal authority. But we do like to be able to trust each other for support and honesty in times of need. This was genuinely evident during the recent bushfires and floods. It is under stress now as an emergent tension between the common good and self-interest.
National identity, if there is such a thing in Australia, is in flux. Many people are now making their own plans for self-protective isolation. This, of course, increases fear and mistrust in the community as whole. It becomes a positive feedback loop.
Fear + mistrust + ‘Australian’ self-reliance = ‘Fight- flight’ / withdrawal and self-interest This seems to be leading to a panicked splitting of who is being responsible and socially distant in everyone’s interest and who is not and regarded by the former as stupid, or irresponsible.
‘We are all in this together’ vs Mistrust of Government
There are many instances of people looking out for each other; offering common courtesy, practical support and establishing new virtual relationships. Many employers are continuing to employ staff even though the organisation has little work. Many landlords are waiving rent. This is very heart warming.
But the impact of the virus has also exposed the weaknesses in health, welfare and housing programs after 20 years of progressive defunding of public programs under a conservative / ideological push for ‘smaller government’, lower taxes and self-reliance. Health systems in particular are fearful of not being able to cope when the full strength of the pandemic hits Australia – as we have seen in Italy and expecting in the UK and the USA.
So we are all in this together, but that means ‘flattening the curve’ of the infection rate so that our health system can cope and that sick people don’t die needlessly. This requires that we all consider other people we will never meet. This shared understanding and humanity is being driven by the general population and many health experts and some commentators, despite confused messaging from government. So the ‘we’ is seen as separate or ‘split off’ from government. Appropriate dependency on Government now seems very difficult.
GRA has initiated a Listening Post for members. Members and their guests fully subscribed this event within 72 hours of it being advertised. This clearly reflects a wish / need for a shared, thoughtful, hopefully less panicked discourse.
Personal fears and moral dilemmas Crises like this are a once in a lifetime experiences. I find that trying to marshal my own capabilities in this set of circumstances is very difficult. All sorts of decisions present new and ‘wicked’ practical, intellectual and personal ethical problems. How do we feel about sharing our house with friends, with grown, adult family – for example. Umm? Arghh. And today, for the first time I felt frightened.
In the Nordic culture, there is a high value laid on control and self-control. We have an image of ourselves as good organizers, inherited from the Vikings.
The Vikings were boat builders, which made it possible to travel far away to plunder and conquer, but, on the way, also to learn from others and import things and customs to our country. To be able to row a longboat, you must be able to adapt to one rhythm and one force, otherwise there will be chaos and the boat will only turn around its own axis; hence the need for control, consensus and adaptation.
So, when the Corona virus hit us, the foremost fear was of losing control. Since we stand in front of the unknown, our ordinary means and ways to control have disappeared. Sweden is one of the few countries that is hit hard by the virus, and that has not yet closed the schools. Denial or a sense of being reasonable, of not overreacting?
This ‘being better together’ movement is a strong support in these strange times. The GRC/Institutional Transformation world can help counteract panic, through our connection and interest in the invisible processes in groups, organizations and institutions.
A here-and-now snapshot:
Our yearly Conference on the theme of creativity, “Transformation: Organization, Leadership and Creativity 2020 ” was hit by bad news; the Conference hotel had gone bankrupt, because of Corona virus cancellations. The future needs to be invented, and is unclear…
GROUP RELATIONS RUSSIA: RUSSIA
The main process we are experiencing in society is the lack and inconsistency of information and uncertainty, anxiety, fears. It is clear from what people are saying that the virus was in Russia since December as some people were experiencing the same symptoms as corona virus, so there is also a disappointment and distrust with the information flow (again).
Also at some level the virus is considered to be a relief from the pre-revolution/ political crisis mood, which was in the air the last few months or the year. So the tension is channeled into the fears and survival actions now.
It is a reminder of the previous “soviet“ dynamics – basic goods disappearing from the shops, there are some restrictions, police coming with doctors to homes, etc. We are back to the Regime, which probably we never really left.
And also some fantasies people are creating about the present, based on the past. For example you are allowed now to come out to shop for food, for short walk etc, but people are sitting at homes being afraid to be stopped by police and put in the jail.
The oldest generation has a connection to WW2, Stalin’s repressions, genocide of Jews, the mid generation – to the socialist bloom and cold war, the youngest to ethnic conflicts (with massive murders) and post Soviet union territory wars (eg Chechen conflict) and 90s gangsterism and corruption. The last two (but not only) also influenced the psychological systems and behaviors of current Russian leaders. Unmentioned cross-generational traumas like the 1905 and 1917 revolutions, total nationalization of land, property, estate, art etc. All these memories and (unconscious) associations are popping up now on all levels.
Also the financial crisis we were already having here (drop of local currency, massive bankruptcy of local, small and midsize businesses) is influencing people. We experience instability and a lot of anxiety and loss. The topic of privilege comes to the surface again. Those who have more money or connections have more chance of surviving or even being tested for corona virus. That causes envy, anger, frustration and weakness in society.
From a group relations perspective the main thoughts/processes we have now are:
Bringing the awareness in society of inner psychological processes such a frustration, loss of control, other losses (usual way of life, connections, lives), weakness (or impotency), narcissism (we are not that grandiose), sexual energy, importance of physical (body), massive regression both individual and collective (“good” as it is easier to explore the roots of behavior, “not that good” as it should be worked out and contained somehow) , meeting inner self.
Looking for tools and instruments to work with that: both maternal (embracing, nurturing, healing) and paternal (structured, straight forward, with clear boundaries).
We are organising zoom meetings with consultants, psychoanalysts, GRC professionals, to continue to explore our thoughts, feelings and unconscious processes to inside society. Because it looks like it will be changing with weeks. So – creating the space to express and explore. And create something new.
PS: Moscow is under the snow since day before yesterday. People are joking that finally we got classical Russian Christmas (which we missed due to absence of snow in Dec and Jan).
That makes me think again about the connection between deep inner traditional purity (the white and untouched snowy empty streets) and, somewhere around, the shadows.
GROUP RELATIONS INTERNATIONAL: UNITED STATES
From my perspective the prevailing and somewhat competitive narratives in the US news are:
How can we keep the economy going and how can we take care of the sick and prevent the spread of the virus? Both seem to be very much about numbers and predictions, statistics, but also about comparison and competition. In this narrative division become more obvious: president versus medical expert, country to country, state to state, old versus young, rich versus poor, the sick and the healthy, the compliant versus the non-compliant, the digital divide etc.
It seems to me that many are focused on “solutions” that fix the presenting problem (seen as health and economy) and very few are focused on the underlying dynamic that got us here.
I believe we are invited to not just live with but become intimate with “not-knowing” (including death) and not being in control. It appears people are terrified of it. Can we hold the not-knowing as creative and fertile space from which new things will emerge? Are we invited to think about the relationship between globalization and localization, perhaps also particularly relevant to GGRLC? Can we allow an economy of love and kindness to flourish more than an economy of money (and there are some hopeful signs in this emergency situation)?
Inspired by our conversation GRI launched a virtual Facebook event: “Making sense of what is going on in the world.” We are writing about the experience and we are offering “Spiritual Path Explorations.”
CHINA-AMERICAN SOCIETY FOR THE STUDY OF GROUPS AND SYSTEMS: CHINA
When it burst out at the end of 2019, I could not believe it at the beginning, or I think it will disappear soon.
Then I heard lots of news, and saw lots of videos, some I believe, some I thought untrue, some I thought were politically manipulated.
Later, one of my friend phoned me to buy food at least for two weeks, I still could not believe, I thought it won’t be so terrible. But I went downstairs and bought some food.
Later, I fell into strong anxiety, and began to do something, so began the program of “Anti-COVID-19 Group Service Program”.
I can still remember the death, anxiety and loneliness during those days, I wanted to talk with my friends everyday, I spent lots of time talking with others. I felt lonely, very lonely, and scared by COVID-19. The connections with other people helped me at that moment.
Now, COVID-19 is under control, people in China begin to work and still wear masks. I noticed myself begin to feel the depression, lack of motivation, lack of happiness, and still worry that I will get sick.
TAVISTOCK INSTITUTE CHINA: CHINA
Everything has made me lose my language. When I saw Denmark put the image of the virus on the five yellow stars of the Chinese flag, it was clear to me that this was not anti-chinese people, but an authoritarian party system with privileges. This is what the Chinese people are up against too, and we know it.
However, with the development of the epidemic, almost all countries are in emergency. The dictatorial party and the system were in line, and won the first round in a strict and rigid defence in China. At this moment, I can’t make my voice heard. It harmed people? It seemed yes. It saved people? It seemed yes.
The daily rising death toll was painful to me, and I didn’t know whether the hand of nature was punishing human arrogance, or whether it was a leak of human biological weapons developed in the laboratory, a technical error. What is the truth, and who has the final proof, or is there only an indefinite uncertainty? These make me not know what to say; my heart is heavy.
We have a hypothesis that “it’s better to be together,” as if it were the only certainty; When we came together, we didn’t know what our mission was, and when we asked, there was an outbreak, city after city, country after country; We cut each other off to quarantine to stop the spread of the virus, we pause our busy bodies in all kinds of flying stories, in all kinds of fear mongering… I hope, my mind can be quiet, and in the heartache of the cold, that I can see clearly the truth: this is my prayer from the bottom of my heart.
CHINA-AMERICAN SOCIETY FOR THE STUDY OF GROUPS AND SYSTEMS: USA
I sit at the intersection between China and the US in my role as a co-director of the China-America Society for the Study of Groups and Organizations (CASSGO). In addition to being a director of group relations conferences in Chicago and China, I am also an addiction psychiatrist and group psychotherapist; these roles have also affected my experience of the epidemic.
I have consulted to a group of Chinese group psychotherapists, whom I met through our work in group relations conferences, for two years every week using Zoom. We had a break in our meetings for two weeks prior to the Chinese New Year, and when we met again the epidemic had become visible in China. One member of the group who works as an academic in Beijing was visiting his family for the New Year celebration in Hubei province, where Wuhan is the capital. He has been in quarantine there since that time, so I had first hand reports from both the epicenter of the epidemic as well as from areas distant from Wuhan, including Beijing and Yunnan.
A central piece of my learning from conference work in the US and China relates to the tension between maintaining the autonomy of the individual while protecting the safety of the community. While my Chinese colleagues were initially disturbed both by the delay in their government’s response to the epidemic and simultaneously by the restrictions imposed by the quarantine and sheltering in place, I believe that we now have enough information from the experience of other countries that the model in China of protecting the safety of the community, has much to recommend it. Our Western attitudes and behaviors, including my own, may have contributed to life-threatening denial that we have not seen the end of.
Our American Group Psychotherapy Association went blissfully into New York City with more than one thousand members from March 2-8 just as the virus was beginning its exponential contagion there. While we bemoaned the inability of our Chinese colleagues to attend our conference because of our governments blocking their entry into the US, we fancied ourselves invulnerable to infection. Our denial broke in the weeks following the conference, as our organization’s list serve multiplied exponentially with hundreds of messages daily including new cases of infection among those in attendance at the conference.
As I went into sheltering in place, I contacted my patients to let them know I would be working virtually for the foreseeable future until the crisis resolves. I also opened myself to a more radical dive into the work of online relationships including meetings with colleagues and mutual support meetings, in addition to meetings with my patients. My experience of our western means of protecting the safety of the community has been enhanced by my exposure to the Traditions of Alcoholics Anonymous. Their first tradition states: “Our common welfare should come first; personal progress depends upon AA unity.” I have been awestruck at the rapidity with which the Twelve Step fellowships have moved from face to face to virtual meetings to offer seamless support to its many members.
I maintain hope that our colleagues invested in group relations conference work may learn a lesson that I believe that this epidemic offers to teach us. Not only may we be better by cooperating and working with each other; our very survival may depend on it. This cooperation may entail physical distance among us; this physical distance need not impair our ability to maintain a strong commitment to an ongoing working relationship.
1. Polarisation: As reactions toward corona virus we seem to create “either or ” solutions, but missing “both and” solutions.
2. Panic and omnipotence: People are dividing themselves to those who are scared and those who don’t seem to care. This is creating splits and anger between people. One kind of split is between those who don’t want work in any possible danger and those who believe in duty and want to be heroes at work.
3. Female and male leadership: Since Finland has a strong young female cabinet with five parties all having a woman chair; it creates male opposition from the Right. For some people it’s almost unbearable that women are capable of creating safe, strong and clear leadership. Corona virus is also calling out some yearning toward more authoritarian leadership. This creates tension with constitutional basic rights and more liberal views.
Consistency with decisions, versus ongoing changes. Some people have great difficulties to put up with fast changes needed to adapt with corona. Ongoing transitions seem to create mistrust.
4. Tensions in working life: People are worried about their personal economy, which is impacting to overall economy. Our social security takes care of most of people up to two years, but those who are employing them self can be in trouble.
5. Digital jump: In Finland we have had discussion about digital jump especially in education but also in working life. Now the digital jump was made in two days after government declared standby laws. There has been much more hidden capacity than expected.
6. Shaping up primary task: As ways to work are fast changing, there is a need to shape the primary task. New methods, new tools and changing enviroment create new meanings to work and unaccepted consequences.
7. Uneven workload and envy: Since some are able to work in home and some hate meet danger of corona there is some difficulties to organize workloads. There is also envy between those who earn money by being heroes of work or those who can be in safe at remote work.
8. Asocial habits and need for connections. Fins do have reputation as unsocial and lonely people. Corona virus and remote work has created new social habits, need for contacts and responsibility for neighbours. Since gyms etc are closed and city centres are empty, fins have been found walking in nature, as they would have found again long lost relation.
9. Saturation about Corona discussion: There are many who are tired of news about corona. This ilinks with the ongoing fight with official information and rumours and false news in social media.
10. Fear for other countries and areas. To some extent there is fear of places like Italy, US, Spain, German etc, where corona virus seems to be loose. I am personally worried the fear also comes between the Helsinki area (at the moment 60% of corona infections) and the rest of the country.
TAVISTOCK INSTITUTE OF HUMAN RELATIONS: UK
The Leicester Conference 2020 Task Authority Organisation has the sub theme: 4C’s C-Change.
The world has been brought to a complete stop: planes are not flying, people are advised to stay at home, governments are preparing for 1000’s of deaths, and “social distancing” is a global slogan to prevent the spread of the virus.
Cancellation and postponement of everything from sport to work are changing the social order, and simultaneously virtual communications are bringing us closer together. Can we deliver a whole GRC online?
If COVID-19 were a member of a group relations conference, we would be curious about how and when it shows up, where it goes. We would try and explore what that might tell us about the state of the conference as a system in its context.
We might ask:
• what does COVID-19 represent and why does it appear now, and why in these locations?
• How are the social systems responding to the virus? What do their reactions tell us about possible fantasies they are holding?
• What does it mean to be infected? Where are we contaminated in our thinking and behaviour?
• What role is the media playing on behalf of us all in mobilising fear – is it laying the ground for compliance and conformity OR creativity and connection?
• What is being split off and located in COVID-19 on behalf of the system as a whole?
There are broader issues of equity and equality embedded in the narratives of prevention. Many have talked about overpopulation and the resource implications if the whole planet chooses to live by the USA/UK model of “the good life”.
• How to keep 6ft away from any other human being in Bangladesh or Tokyo?
• Possibility of washing hands in running water for 20 seconds in a rural village in Sudan?
The key concept of Authority is on the table. Could this be the heralding of legitimacy to the UN System to create a global government (as the EU project faces Brexit). Perhaps there is a change so broad and fundamental to the nature of Authority that we cannot conceive it?
LITHUANIAN GROUP RELATIONS SOCIETY: LITHUANIA
The level of anxiety is very high. This unknown, unpredictable situation generates lots of anxiety in me. Anxiety is paralyzing, blocking my thinking. I find it very difficult to concentrate my thoughts and writing. Writing is very important part of my job. It seems that I have perfect conditions for writing now, but my thoughts are clumsy, foggy, distracted, unfocused… I worry not about myself but about my beloved ones.
There are signs of defenses against the anxiety: denial and ignorance of the reality. Some people behave as if they are immortal or have fatalistic view on life and death. For the older generation who are highest risk it is the most difficult to adjust to working on the Internet and technologies, and they keep going to offices, riding on public transport ignoring the risk. Some employers force employees to come to offices without real necessity, denying the risks and trying to control uncontrollable.
Technologies of course provide conditions for connections and continuation of the work, but at the same time they give opportunities for this never-ending communication, which becomes a noise: disturbing, distracting noise.
There is lots of splitting in the society, authorities are blamed for incompetence, and decisions are sabotaged and made to look bad. Isolated people are claiming their freedoms, threatening to take the authorities to court for isolating and violating their freedom, ignoring the fact that their freedoms can violate the rights of other people to be healthy…
Government cannot provide full protection and satisfy all needs for services because of the lack of human resources as well as medical supplies. On the other hand, there are many examples of initiatives from citizens, who are taking care of elderly neighbors, and donating money. There were more than 700 000 euro raised for supplies by businesses and citizens. There are at least two nationally operating networks of volunteers providing free services through call centers.
It is difficult for all of us to understand that our task has changed. We all have the same task for the pandemic period – to prevent the spread of the virus and to ensure health. But negotiations between individual and collective needs are not easy. There are competing values in this arena: human vs business, health vs money, freedom vs survival etc. We all know there will be loses and it is difficult.
By Christopher Clulow
‘April is the cruellest month’, or so T. S. Eliot would have us believe, a time bursting with new life set against a background of death and decay, desire placed in painful juxtaposition with memory. His words seem cruelly apt in this time of pandemic, where so many lives have been ravaged by Covid-19. We cannot avoid the surrounding noise of news reports recounting the toll of deaths, the heart-breaking stories of families who have been unexpectedly bereaved, the risks that lockdown pose for relationships already under strain, and the economic uncertainties that now will affect us all.
Yet this has also been a time of calm, a time for reflection as the roar of traffic as receded and the sun has shone through a clear blue sky unpolluted by human activity. We have time to experiment with doing things differently, maintaining some continuity with the past yet entertaining new thoughts about how we might be in the future. In our personal lives and professionally we may have been prompted to ask this question: do we unthinkingly want to get back to ‘business as usual’, or has the pandemic offered us an opportunity to grow something different and more life-affirming for the future? If so, it may have served to be our therapist.
28th April, 2020
Professor Brett Kahr.
Copyright © 2020, by Professor Brett Kahr.
Please do not quote without the permission of the author.
Amid this extraordinary chapter of world history, as Britons queue for groceries, ever fearful of being slaughtered by a lethal, coronavirus enemy, I strongly suspect that the Second World War, marked by food rationing, civilian mobilization, and numerous fatalities, may well be on all of our minds.
I recently watched the talented actor Gary Oldman deliver a sterling performance as Winston Churchill in the excellent film, Darkest Hour, released in 2017, which I found quite inspiring. Certainly, the parallels between wartime Great Britain and our contemporary corona-infested landscape resonated quite chillingly, and I must confess that I derived much comfort from watching Mr. Oldman embody the strong and decisive leadership of Mr. Churchill.
In spite of his considerable bravery and fortitude, back in the 1940s, Churchill and his government took very little interest in the subject of mental health. At that time, the country boasted only a tiny handful of psychoanalysts, and most people regarded these Freudian advocates with tremendous suspicion. But one woman, in particular, toiled relentlessly, in true Churchillian fashion, and made a vital, game-changing contribution to the emotional welfare of families during a time of great tragedy.
Born in 1903, Enid Flora Albu studied at the London School of Economics and Political Science in the University of London. Not long after her graduation, she married Robert Nathaniel Eichholz, a lawyer, and became known as Enid Eichholz.
Once the Nazi menace began to surge across Europe in the 1930s, Mrs. Eichholz opened a school near Lewes, in the county of Sussex, for Jewish refugee children. This experience whetted her appetite for being helpful and charitable. And, consequently, after the outbreak of the Second World War, Mrs. Eichholz began to work for the Family Welfare Association, providing assistance to families in need of food and other necessities. In effect, she became an untrained social worker of sorts, assisting at citizens advice bureaux in the nation’s capital.
Before long, Enid Eichholz came to appreciate that Londoners, in particular, needed not only food and refuge but, above all, emotional support, as many women and children suffered tremendous abandonment, and loneliness, and depression, and, indeed, bereavement, having lost their sons and husbands and fathers.
In an effort to provide even greater assistance, Eichholz founded a Family Discussion Bureaux, a small offshoot of the larger Family Welfare Association, and pioneered marital psychotherapy and family psychotherapy for those in distress. With great organisational brilliance, Eichholz soon attached herself to some of London’s leading psychoanalysts, such as Dr. John Bowlby, who provided great encouragement and who invited Eichholz and her newly formed team to affiliate themselves to the Tavistock Clinic. Indeed, one of the Tavistock-based psychoanalysts, Dr. Michael Balint, proved so helpful and so delightful to Mrs. Eichholz, as a teacher and adviser, that she divorced her husband and married this man in 1953 and became known thereafter as Enid Balint.
This creative and inspiring woman also trained, subsequently, as a psychoanalyst in her own right and brought great wisdom and experience to her fledgling organisation, which, over time, flourished and eventually became known as Tavistock Relationships, which remains, to this day, the most impressive and sophisticated and accessible of mental health institutions, offering thousands of sessions of couple psychotherapy and couple psychoanalysis annually to partners in distress.
Many years ago, I had the pleasure of meeting Enid Balint, then a very elderly woman in her eighties, and I enjoyed the privilege of speaking with her about the early history of psychoanalysis in the United Kingdom. She shared her knowledge with generosity, and she impressed me as a woman of deep intelligence, kindliness, and sanity.
Some years later, while researching the early history of couple psychoanalysis, I discovered a little-known essay that she had written in 1944, during the height of the war, in which she reported, “When the flying bombs first began to fall most of us disliked them considerably.” Whether this attitude represented true courage or, perhaps, the use of minimisation as a form of denial, one cannot know with full certainty. But whatever the emotional state of this pioneering woman at that time, she, like many Britons, soldiered through with considerable fortitude in true Churchillian fashion and made a great contribution to the development of couple and family mental health, which persists to this day.
Thus, during this time of global pandemic, as we derive inspiration from clear-minded world leaders such as Winston Churchill, let us also remember Enid Eichholz (later Enid Balint), who has certainly inspired me and my colleagues, and whose name we have enshrined in our consultancy organisation.
(This material derives from Professor Brett Kahr’s Enid Balint Memorial Lecture, delivered in 2016 at the Tavistock Centre for Couple Relationships in London, under the chairpersonship of Susanna Abse, and, also from his subsequent plenary address, presented at the seventieth anniversary celebrations of Tavistock Relationships in 2018. Professor Kahr has published fuller versions of this work in the journal Couple and Family Psychoanalysis (Kahr, 2016) and in the Journal of the Balint Society (Kahr, 2019)).
Eichholz, Enid (1944). Londoners and the Flying Bomb: (From the Point of View of the C.A.B. Worker.). Social Work, 3, 91-95.
Kahr, Brett (2017). “How to Cure Family Disturbance”: Enid Balint and the Creation of Couple Psychoanalysis. Twenty-first Enid Balint Memorial Lecture 2016. Couple and Family Psychoanalysis, 7, 1-25.
Kahr, Brett (2019). Before Enid Was Enid: The Birth of Couple Psychoanalysis. Journal of the Balint Society, 47, 57-65.