We’re living in tough times. The COVID-19 pandemic is ravaging communities across the United States and around the world. Stress, fear and heartbreak abound as many mourn the loss of normal life and of loved ones, and the economic outlook is grim.
People need help, but pride and the world’s brutality discourage us from expressing our needs openly. This creates a vicious cycle: the harsher the world appears, the more heartless we become to one another.
Physical pain reduces a person to a body, to her mortal, fragile, vulnerable flesh. It weakens the sense of self, attenuates one’s powers of logic and speech, language and reason – the bases of civilisation itself. Pain prompts withdrawal: it seems to separate us.
Modern psychology recognises that social pain is basically the same as physical pain, although conventional wisdom regards physical pain as graver than social ostracism. Both types of pain are processed in the same body and suffered in the same brain. Psychologically, there’s no such thing as salutary neglect.
The children’s taunt; “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me” is wrong. Emotional and social stress can provoke Takotsubo syndrome, which may result in death from a ’broken heart’. Whether the pain one suffers is the pain of exclusion and marginalisation; the pain of powerlessness and voicelessness; the pain of struggling to make ends meet; or the pain of physical abuse; pain is an undeniable factor in politics.
Trauma begets trauma
Human beings need meaningful recognition. Indifference is a psychic attack: being ignored sends us the message that we are worthless. Rejection, whether active or passive, wounds the spirit.
Abuse often causes victims to lash out: trauma begets trauma. Often, we inflict on others the pain we ourselves suffer. When we are starved of attention, recognition and love, the underlying desire for them doesn’t dissipate. Instead, it is often corrupted into bitterness and despair. When you feel deprived of love, others’ good fortune can seem like a slap in the face. Elite hypocrisy becomes unbearable. You lose the ability to direct fury appropriately: anger turns indiscriminate.
Emotional hunger and intense loneliness – like the isolation societies are suffering during COVID-19 – warp the soul. They encourage a loss of proportion: trivial insults are magnified. A mind freed of the reassuring ballast of others’ judgments is a breeding ground for conspiracy theories like QAnon or Trump’s accusations of a “stolen” election.
The more people feel compelled to repress distress, to put on a brave face rather than admit ’weakness’ and the fewer opportunities we have to unburden ourselves, the more explosive these feelings become. They turn venomous when, absent of healthy outlets, they inevitably combust.
As the old saying goes, “misery loves company”: pain can bring out people’s mean-spirited, sadistic streaks. Seeing no way out of their suffering, imprisoned in self-criticism and blame, some sufferers may wish to drag others down with them, to create a kind of community of suffering. They may direct their rage, resentment and pain at scapegoats in a warped sort of psychic levelling.