ILLUMINATION
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ILLUMINATION

Can More Control Save Us From the Pandemic?

Photo by visuals on Unsplash

We’re almost two years into the COVID-19 pandemic.

It seems worthwhile to pause here and assess our tactics to “defeat” the virus. How well are our strategies working? Has the quest to conquer and defeat COVID-19 been a productive pursuit?

Perhaps our tactical framework is inverted. What if the whole idea of controlling the virus is the wrong pursuit to begin with? What if our attempts to eradicate the virus only irritate it — nature being an opponent that, despite our well intentioned efforts, is defiant to the mechanisms of control imposed by science and technology?

What if mother nature doesn’t want to be silenced, but listened to? What is she communicating?

Instead of asking, how can we rid this noxious disease from our bodies and the world, we should instead be asking, what noxious tendencies is this disease trying to rid within us? By continuing to throw a temper tantrum, nature is crying out for our attention. We have continued to suppress and ignore it.

The control mechanisms we have tried are multitudinous, each with varying levels of merit and might; there are scientifically-grounded, good-faith, and rational arguments across the political spectrum about if, and how much, to use lockdowns, masks, social distancing, and vaccine mandates to defeat this virus. But today we are still facing down an illness that has not only refused to disappear, but seems to be outsmarting our scientific and technological wits. As I write this, we recently discovered the omicron variant, which, true to its science-fiction-sounding name, appears to contain some ominous mutations.

Will we ever successfully eliminate this thing? And is it possible that our control efforts are paradoxically making our situation worse?

Photo by Gaspar Uhas on Unsplash

The Backlash of Control

A masterclass in the perils of too much control is being displayed. Increasingly, we have bought in to the promise that science and technology can conquer nature, without any backlash.

The problem with control, whether exerted inside ourselves, with others, socially (e.g., governments), or against nature, is that it all but guarantees a backlash. Most of the time, that which is being controlled or suppressed returns with a vengeance.

Freud taught us this lesson on a psychological level. The repressed contents of the unconscious mind do not remain peacefully dormant — the repressed returns in the ailments of our bodies, relationships, and life circumstances. The repressed returns in the form of symptoms.

Photo by Xia Yang on Unsplash

The mechanisms of control that apply intra-personally also apply inter-personally. We do not like being told what to do. Think back to when you your parents told you not to do something. What did you want to do? The instinct to defy is hardwired. Our efforts to control partners, employees, friends, and foes produces no more impressive results. The attempt to control behavior guarantees resistance, defiance, or worse — the opposite of the outcome you are attempting to wield.

This is also true on a broader social and political scale. Examples of resistance and backlash over too much government control are limitless (I am not advocating for no government, or even minimal government, or anything like that. I like government plenty. I am referring to when it goes too far, as in authoritarian regimes). In the case of COVID-19, the helpfulness of government control is debatable. On the one hand, there is a valid argument that lockdowns, mask policies, and vaccine mandates save lives — period. On the other hand, critics also rightfully point out the economic, social, and health costs of halting the economy and robbing citizens of the medicine of social connection; people have also suffered and died from the unintended effects of well-intended public health policies.

If you weigh these two sides and still favor the strategy of more control — forcing masks, vaccines, and the like — I am with you, up to a point. Yes, mandates ensure that more people comply quickly; pretty soon, we’ll be able to celebrate the drop in infection rates posted on the front page of our favorite echo-paper and yell na-na na-na boo-boo to the naysayers. However, it is only a matter of time until that which is being controlled rears its insidious, ugly, mutated face at our celebratory party. See: the roller coaster of new infections and variants following each prior victory lap.

Vaccine “Hesitant?”

Like the psychological mechanisms that repress unwanted material, the strategy of social control works only in the short-term. Instant gratification. We get what we want. We feel good. We feel like we’ve solved the problem.

But, as a long-term strategy, controlling people’s behavior may not only be ineffective, but counterproductive. It is clear (at least from where I stand) that the push to vaccinate the unvaccinated, or “vaccine hesitant,” only creates more resistance; the unvaccinated double-down in their resolve to make individual decisions about their health. Do you know anyone who has “seen the light” after uncle Jerry berated them at Thanksgiving dinner? Or, after ostracizing cousin Suzy from the family wedding due to being unvaccinated, witnessed the dramatic return of Suzy back into the family, making a slow-motion entrance into the ceremony, vaccine card in hand, “I got vaccinated” sticker on chest, spouting, “you were right all along!” (“Baby Come Back” playing in the background)?

You can make the argument that it’s not only more ethical, but also more scientifically-grounded, to ditch the control strategies in favor of individual choice. Behavioral science teaches us that people are more likely to make behavior changes when they are accepted “where they are at,” versus being shamed, judged, or forced into change (trust me, I am a therapist ;) ).

But here I am misstepping again — falling into the trap of a dominant narrative. The question of “how to get people to change?” or “how to convince people to get vaccinated?” is perhaps itself erroneous. Even if carried out through softer and scientifically-grounded means — means that trust individuals to make the “right decision” (i.e., getting vaccinated) — we are still assuming that we should attempt to change, or control, people into performing the behavior we assume is correct. We take for granted the assumption that taking the vaccine is the right thing to do: “if only we could get those big dummies vaccinated.”

But what if our assumptions about the vaccine are wrong? Now, before you go calling me an “anti-vaxer,” let me declare that I am double vaccinated. I get my flu shot every year. I’ve had all my immunizations for the mumps, measles, and all the other scary-sounding diseases of which I know nothing about, but trust the medical system to protect me against.

But maybe the question of how to get everyone vaccinated? is a big part of the problem. We assume that at this very moment, we have all the answers. Everyone else just needs to “trust us.” But where is our trust in them? I don’t believe that people who are skeptical or refuse the vaccine are dumb, anti-science, or any other pejoratives. In these people, I see my brothers and sisters, and I trust they harbor some wisdom we need in this moment. If we want “them” to trust “us,” “we” have to trust “them.” That’s the only way it will work. That’s the only way we arrive at any truth.

Photo by Rob Lambert on Unsplash

Engineering Another Pandemic

Whether or not a government should force vaccines upon people is not an argument I hope to win, or even contribute much to. You shouldn’t really listen to me — there are plenty of others who are more educated, experienced, and articulate on this topic and make a good case, one way or the other.

Instead, what I really hope to contribute here is a new way of thinking about controlling the virus itself. What happens when we exert too much control over nature? How does the world respond?

Here, I take cues from writer Charles Eisenstein (check out his stuff if you haven’t — he’s awesome!). Like Eisenstein, I remain skeptical about the promise of science and technology delivering a utopia — a world without physical and mental suffering. On the contrary, I worry that the mechanisms of control offered by science and technology create more suffering — more symptoms — for the world to contend with by default of its very function (to control). Now, I am not arguing for a world without science and technology. I do not claim to be, nor wish to be, a caveman (woman?). I really like Netflix, FaceTiming my family, and medicine that helps me when I have a tummy ache. But, I believe we could be more conscious about harmonizing the relationship between science/technology and nature. In certain circumstances, we have to realize when the quest to triumph over our bodies, and over the earth, is not productive but counterproductive; control is useful to a point, but there are times when too much control creates more suffering, not less. The universe prefers some mix of order and chaos.

If we do stamp this virus out of existence, my opinion is that we truly haven’t seen the last of it; the virus’s “karma” will show its ugly, reincarnated face sooner or later. Somehow, I get the sense that we all believe this is sooner (not later). We know it in our guts. We know another pandemic is right around the corner.

How do we know this? Why are we preparing for another pandemic to come — not just “on time,” as in every century, but like… right after we finish this one?

I believe it’s because somewhere in our minds, we know how control works. We’ve been here before — trying to repress our own sh*t, other’s sh*t, our family’s sh*t, or political adversaries’ sh*t, and now this sh*tty virus. We know this strategy works in the short-term — it tames the beast —it makes us feel triumphant, and ever-so human — but, in due time, we will be forced to reckon with the wiser mother nature, who has her own plan.

What is she trying to tell us? And how do we listen?

Her message? This is not clear.

But how to listen? We know this. We have to meet her with a compassionate heart, ready to respond to her cryptic cues. This will require flexible thinking. Willingness to bend ideology. Courage to replace old social norms and scientific narratives with new ones. It will require, at least to some degree, letting go of control.

Matthew S. Goodman, Ph.D. is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist (PSY32423) and Clinical Assistant Professor of Psychiatry and the Behavioral Sciences at the University of Southern California. He hosts The Middle Way Podcast. Learn more here: https://www.matthewgoodmanphd.com/

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Matthew S. Goodman, Ph.D.

Matthew S. Goodman, Ph.D.

Clinical Psychologist and Clinical Assistant Professor at USC. Host of The Middle Way podcast. Writing on interconnectedness and compassion.