“I must emphasize, however, that the grand plan on which the unconscious life of the psyche is constructed is so inaccessible to our understanding that we can never know what evil may not be necessary in order to produce good by enantiodromia, and what good may very possibly lead to evil. Sometimes the probate spiritus recommended by John cannot, with the best will in the world, be anything other than a cautious and patient waiting to see how things will finally turn out.”
C. G. Jung, CW9, Part 1
The COVID-19 pandemic has swept the world. And it has caught humanity unprepared despite all past experiences. What is happening to society, to everyone at this special time? “Big questions come from a small virus,” says Vladislav Šolc, a Jungian Analyst living and practicing in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Eva Bobůrková Interviewed Vlado Šolc.
What are we experiencing today, can you describe it?
About 100 years have passed since the last major pandemic of the so-called Spanish Flu, which broke out in 1918 and claimed 50 million victims worldwide. Despite its disastrous impact, it took the WHO 30 years after that pandemic to establish a coordinated system of prevention and detection of global epidemics. Early intervention apparently prevented major spread of later respiratory epidemics such as Singapore (1957), Hong Kong Flu (1968) and later H1N1 (2009). Coordinated cooperation between governments and non-government organizations has been able to prevent the spread of Ebola, and to significantly mitigate the effects of classic influenza, malaria, or the Zika virus. However, the COVID-19 epidemic shows that mankind is not prepared for a virus that has a relatively long incubation time (5 days – 2 weeks), is highly infectious and shows a low symptom rate of the infected (95%). Again, nature has shown that even a virus whose mortality is – compared to the Black Death plague (1347-1351) which exterminated more than half of Europe’s then population) – is relatively low, yet it can disrupt even stable economies. Only with a few exceptions in the Pacific (Taiwan, New Zealand, or South Korea) the highly developed countries that boast of their advancement of science and technology have been surprised, or we should say humbled. This crisis has shown the importance of preparing for a possible global pandemic and how dangerous it is when science is not taken seriously! All of a sudden we woke up from big “Hollywood” fantasies of our readiness for biological warfare or alien invasions. Pandemic COVID-19 has brought about an inevitable confrontation with reality.
How do you see this confrontation as a Jungian Analyst?
From a psychological point of view, we are talking about confrontation with the shadow. We can say that the virus itself represents our collective shadow. It was there waiting in “pleroma,” scientists have been warning us about its potential for a long time, but we were paying little attention. Maybe we were even willingly ignoring it. The shadow, or what is part of us, but what we are not aware of, what we do not want to admit, we reject or minimize, does not cease to exist, but it causes unwanted and unexpected changes in our lives. And these have the ability to not only surprise, but also wake us up. The party is over, the waiter has brought a bill. All that what we had neglected and overlooked suddenly is now, in the face of loss and in the face of death so real… The ancient Greeks taught that pride (hubris) is followed by shame (aischyne), an encounter with suffering that naturally splits off the pain to protect ego. Hubris was taught to be punished by Nemesis, the goddess of righteous distribution. The one-sidedness, the adherence to the fantasies that everything is under control is now being quickly compensated by the sobering realization of our limits. SARS-CoV-2 set the mirror to our narcissistic belief that we are the masters of Nature to show us that we are actually a part of it. Compensation is a natural process purpose of which is to establish equilibrium by supplementing or replacing the loss of opposing energy. We observe it at both the micro and macro levels; for example in the water cycles in nature, or with the immune system, where infection by a pathogen causes a fever and the like. Carl Jung understands compensation as a fundamental tool of psychological growth. Humanity as a whole experiences a phenomenon of compensation, when it has no choice but to react creatively to the new state at the general, objective, level, as well as at the subjective, emotional level. We are willy-nilly forced into introversion – that is, turning our attention inward. For Asian countries, where meditation is part of daily life it is easier than for us westerners.
How does the current situation affect the psyche in general?
Every major loss inevitably brings about confusion, anxiety and dissolution of consciousness, the intensity is distributed over the whole spectrum, depending on the strength of ego organization and social support that he or she has available. Initially, shock ensues when a person loses the ability to think rationally and basically does not feel anything specific, s/he is paralyzed by physical manifestations of panic states, fatigue, loss of appetite, diarrhea. One may experience an emotional flatness, or conversely uncontrollable fluctuations of emotions and sleep problems. When you add a sense of abandonment to physical and social isolation, some people may feel as if their world was falling apart. In this period, we observe a post-traumatic reaction even with some healthy people. Emergency lines are flooded with phone calls from people panicking.
What happens next?
In the next stage, the psyche’s defense system is mobilized and ego-consciousness begins to cope with the startling reality. It is as if the ego sets to create its own, alternative, reality that gives the new experience a new meaning. The first impulse usually goes back to the past, where we have already dealt with something similar, we speak of regression. Often we see denial, rationalization, that is, an expounding without the presence of affect, banalizing, negotiation and other psychological maneuvers designed to avoid stress. But affect cannot be suppressed in the long run without being compensated by unconscious energies. The built-up pressure must be manifested in some way. Thus rage, anger and frustration arise. And anger as a rule seeks an object. One is looking for the culprit “responsible” for the situation by projecting his or her anger outward; at the same time regulating their own confusion to establish a sense of control through the process of projection. Or, conversely, one can turn his anger against him/hers self, which is then manifested as feelings of shame, or even deserved punishment (sinfulness).
Tragedies and disasters are nothing new for humanity..
Yes. Wars, pandemics and famines have been decimating societies since the beginning of the anthropocene era. Great tragedies also gave birth to ideas of divine vengeance. The supernatural beings had their own justice, and thus, to some extent, the weight of human control is removed from their shoulders. You see, the gods or God now holds the scale of judgement in their hands. I do not want to be misunderstood and reduce religious faith as a spiritual process to something merely profane. I am talking here about the process of projection and its return to the self as spiritual process par excellence. Jung calls it individuation. In relation to the supernatural being, humans become self-conscious and a moral mirror is thus established. Individual emotions are differentiated and given a unique, subjective meaning. It is our individual chance to come to terms with the world and its reality.
Now, thanks to coronavirus, more people are asking ontological and existential questions. We are going deeper, the pain is gently turning us into philosophers because we encounter an awe: Who am I? Where am I? What is my quest? Can I be better, should I be better? Many of us wonder if our relationship with Mother Earth can be healthier, holier. We have the opportunity to expand our consciousness, which occurs during tense situations. The Greek word apocalypse means revelation, revealing, uncovering, thus coming the Self into ego-consciousness. Through this process the Self reveals what had been hidden, the dark aspects of the unconscious.
So the parts of the Self are being revealed to us?
If we can look at the new reality with open eyes and accept it, we are actually recollecting ourselves and integrating “dark parts” of the Self into our ego via conscious relation and change of attitude. We are creating a new, more whole view of the world. A new imago dei. We write about this process in depth in our book: Dark Religion, Fundamentalism from the Jungian Perspective.
If we can hold our fears and anxieties present in consciousness, we can develop compassion. We can understand and develop the need to help others, to focus on solutions rather than on worries. We can start acting more rationally, asking ourselves what realistic options we have available, how to utilize positives and the like. If our consciousness embraces reality, reintegrates dark aspects of the Self and creates new meaning we are talking about the spiritual process of transformation. It is the acceptance of the fuller reality and mindful adaptation to it that is the goal of psychotherapy and analysis. If the ego is unable to do so, it can get stuck in primitive escape-fantasies cut-off from reality, then we are talking about lingering in a regression state. At the broader, social level, this is reflected in an increase in fundamentalistic, “apotropaic” coping approaches that we have termed Dark Religion (theocalypsis). These include calls for mass prayer similar to those in the Middle Ages for the defeat of the virus, the rise of conspiracy theories and other superstitions detached from reality.
President Trump was claiming until recently that covid-19 is a hoax…
Yes, the “hoax devised by the Democrats to deprive him of power.” Unfortunately, many of his followers truly believe this and refuse to follow the protective measures recommendations or orders. Donald Trump called the investigation of the Russian interference into elections a witch hunt, and he succeeded to avoid consequences because he countered every statement by a new lie. Victims of coronavirus cannot be concealed and their loved ones cannot be fooled. Thus, one of the unexpected side effects of a pandemic may be general awakening, sobering from the lies Trump has bet on, lies that have worked for him until recently. The reality of death cannot be avoided, lied away and that is why this pandemic will perhaps contribute to the rise of consciousness.
So are there any possible positive effects of the pandemic?
In the United States, where up to a third of the population deny or dispute science or where third of the population believe in bizarre conspiracy theories, an outbreak of COVID-19 pandemic may re-awaken the importance of science. In a country where a week of treatment on respirator could cost $70,000, the demand for health insurance, paid sick leave, and preventative care will undoubtedly become main topics of the upcoming elections. We began to understand more and more that homelessness is a health risk for the society as a whole.
I believe that many people will try to live more healthy, quit smoking and will cease eating meat. The field ecopsychology, which studies the relationship between humans and environment, will gain even more importance. We will study more in depth the zoonotic diseases and how human activity contributes to them. Questions of income inequality, international cooperation, climate change and the health of our planet in general are becoming the number one topics during the elections.
Plagues can change religious beliefs and behavior, but also reveal the need for social stability, interconnectedness of society, fair arrangement between rulers and workers. Pandemics have led to the development of hygiene, medicine and the industrial revolution in general. All epidemics have shifted society towards cooperation and improved the quality of life of the community. Even in this epidemic we can expect changes in this direction. Here I would like to quote Carl Sagan:
“Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.”
What challenges is the pandemic presenting us with?
The pandemic showed differences in the efficiencies of the solutions various systems have utilized. Totalitarian regimes that were able to impose an immediate curfew, separated children from their parents, or even let whole families starve, got the virus spread under control more quickly… So called free, western countries are up against the challenges of their own way of being… It looks like the freedoms that we enjoy in democratic countries are a disadvantage in this case, so we will have to reach a compromise between security and some of the freedoms losses if we want to win over the virus. We can expect greater interconnection of technologies and electronic monitoring such as smart quarantines and the like. But in the US, people are already afraid of government monitoring, reluctant to provide their phone number or address. So we are facing a big unknown in this direction, no one really knows what the future will bring. The world will change, for sure, but whether better or for worse cannot be said at this time, because history is a process that flows beyond good and evil.
But it is certain that delusional beliefs, conspiracy theories, or misleading religious ideas sometimes complicate the course of convalescence more than the virus itself.
For manipulations who use various -isms, mass solutions, or fundamentalist religious ideologies epidemics are a psychological breeding ground. Emphasis on education, self-knowledge are the most important antidotes against the decline of humanity. Carl Jung’s words have not lost their validity today:
“We need more understanding of human nature, because the only real danger that exists is man himself. He is the great danger. And we are pitifully unaware of it. We know nothing of man … far too little. His psyche should be studied — because we are the origin of all coming evil.”
“Thanks to” the pandemic, scientists, doctors and economists have regained their respect. But new conspiracy theories emerged too. What makes people still want to create those and follow them even more passionately?
The human desire to understand reality and to attach meaning to it is instinctive and related to consciousness. Mythologies and ritual behavior tell of an ancient effort to understand the meaning of life. Conspiracy theories could be considered as attempts to decipher the hidden laws of reality. They typically arise when a force of reality begins to deviate from the ideas we hold about the world.
In times of crisis, dark imago dei, cruel images of reality emerge, with it an urge to produce some acceptable explanations. Conspiracy theories, like religions, satisfy the desire for meaning, order, and express the will to control that order. From a psychological perspective, we can understand conspiracy theories as religious theories of sui generis, through which the ego copes with the painful or inexplicable vicissitudes of life. The less I am willing and able to be conscious of negative emotions and relate to them, the more power the conspiracy fantasies gain. Conspiracy theories are defensive fantasy constructs that falsify reality through which ego can experience a sense of relief from anxiety and other otherwise dissociating affects. They give conspirators a sense of personal power and control over reality. In a way they allow redirection of aggression, hatred and other socially censored emotions into the “theory,” enabling them thus to better manage the heaviness of life. It is the disintegration of traditional religious systems in secular societies that created a new realm for their emergence. You can read more on this topic in the article Dark Religion and Conspiracy Theories, An Analytical Viewpoint.
How do the Americans, or specifically Wisconsinites, react to Trump’s initial denial of the now harsh reality?
The majority of the people respect the government orders. People have reduced their work and business, working from home if possible. But even here, America’s ideological divisions are manifested and many Trump followers do not trust the media and still believe his statements when he completely underestimated the seriousness of the epidemic. Trump has so far spread fictional quasi-scientific theories, refusing to wear a face mask, and encourages people to form their own opinions based on “gut feelings.” However, with the rise of the sick and dead, Trump’s popularity gradually declines. There is no doubt that his narcissistic approach does not help in a crisis, quite the contrary. He is internally divided and projects his internal conflict to the nation. He does not wish to unite Americans, he speaks only to his loyal part of the population – the part that mirrors him and that embodies the nostalgic vision of a Christian-fundamental, white, self-centered, fearful, nationalist and patriarchal country. Now he exploits pandemic and he is using it to further his sociopathic agenda of division and conflict. By its very nature, the United States will never be truly united politically and ideologically. The tough dialectical dialogue of opposites so typical for America is a source of progress and prevents one-sidedness, but Trump legitimizes irrational attitudes that divide opposites to the brink of dangerous conflict. By promoting the opening of the economy, lockdown, opposed the governors who ordered the proven social distance, he opened Pandora’s box, which most likely would not be closed by a rational dialogue.
But you are saying that Trump’s popularity is declining as the number of deaths increases…
In the article Donald Trump in the Mirror that I wrote for Vesmir, I expressed the opinion that Trump managed to appeal to his followers through rather “primitive” emotions of fear, anger and the feelings of entitlement. These emotions are now being projected onto “enemies,” such as migrants, foreigners, Hispanics, African-Americans, Democrats, environmentalists…you name it. Trump managed to awaken an authoritarian and nationalist instinct: on the one hand he puts himself in the role of savior and on the other hand he diverts attention from reality. Republicans have feared “socialism,” since McCarthy’s post-war era, and therefore remain stuck in magical thinking that Trump’s medicine will miraculously get them out of the crisis. Trump did not invent the division of society, but he is awakening old skeletons in the closets. He was able to evoke and legitimize “forbidden” emotions, which gave many people a sense of relief and an illusion of power. At the same time, they have trapped them like in a cult. Sticking to a leader can be compared to drug addiction, it is a variation of Stockholm’s abused person’s syndrome. Thus, his popularity may decline in proportion to the decline of power that Trump is now able to convey to Americans. The qualities that have brought him to power can turn into a catalyst of a fall in a crisis. In therapy of addictions, we commonly observe this enantiodromia brought about by exhaustion and crisis.
Thus far, we count mainly direct victims of coronavirus, sick, dead. Unexpected dramas also take place in isolation, in quarantine, behind closed doors. Will there be an unexpected amount of divorce, or a babyboom, or both when the pandemic subsides?
It depends on the entrance conditions. The crisis can have a very positive effect on relatively stable families. After the initial phase, an adaptation can take place, where people learn how to utilize neglected resources. This is a desirable aspect of the introversion mentioned earlier. Those families may now have more time to communicate, they are forced to solve problems without running away, now they have to focus more on themselves. They can use that unexpected time and space to develop creativity and tame their inferior cognitive functions. It is most important right now to accept one’s own emotions and feelings, whether it is fear, anger, hopelessness, and so on and to form a conscious relationship with them. And it’s happening, I’m already seeing it with my clients. Creative activity, the observation and relation to our dreams, the humor, the daily routine connected with physical movement, keeping the mindfulness of each other in a strained conditions, those are proven to be very beneficial attitudes these days.
Unfortunately, not all relationships, families are stable…
In families with unstable, predisposed individuals, or in families where there is domestic violence, trauma, the situation is quite the contrary. The crisis and forced isolation increase aggression in some people, and abused partners, especially in socially and economically impacted families, are even more dependent on the tyrant. We are seeing an increase of incest, suicide, bipolar disorders, but also psychotic breakdowns in people with predispositions and lose inner organization. For many people the situation during a pandemic is deteriorating.
And with respect to the baby boom: in times of economic instability, fertility usually declines, on the other hand, during crisis, sexual instinct increases with aggression. The resulting figures will probably be broken down by economic and social status. In any rate, all the effects will be felt later, for example the unemployment is a strong risk factor for depression and suicide. On the other hand, to mention something positive, the work related accidents and the number of car accidents have dropped significantly.
Are we now a part of an unplanned social experiment, as Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari put it?
Harari is a very intuitive thinker. He is probably right that in times of uncertainty and fear, the powerful will try to consolidate their positions and gain additional tools of manipulation. But the Homo Sapiens experiment has been happening continuously. After the collapse of the Roman Empire, Europe was ruled by religious fanatics, during a great crisis Hitler seized power, after the war the Communists… We must not fall for naiveté and, even in difficult times, we must carry the torch of the Greek ideals of democracy and freedom of human spirit. But we must not succumb to paranoia either, because that is precisely the way to losing our freedoms. The cure for paranoia is individuation, i.e. self-knowledge and at the same time acceptance of reality, with everything that it entails!
How is the current situation manifested in your practice? Do you have cases that are directly related to the pandemic?
Clinics have been experiencing an enormous increase in new patients interest in therapy. This is related not only to physical and social isolation and to the anxiety from the unknown, but it is also related also to the loss of work, or fear of impending childbirth but also the death of loved ones. The crisis affects all my existing clients. We are all going through the change. It depends on our conscious attitude how much we will benefit from this change, and whether SARS-CoV-2 will be a gift or a curse.
This interview originally appeared in Vesmír Magazine. It was translated from Czech to English by Vladislav Šolc.
Vladislav Šolc, MS, ICS is a Licensed Professional Psychotherapist who provides individual, group, couples and family therapy (counseling and psychotherapy) in Whitefish Bay (Milwaukee and Glendale, Wisconsin, WI 53217). Vlado accepts clients speaking English, Czech, Polish or Slovak language. He holds advanced training credentials as a Diplomate Jungian Psychoanalyst, Clinical Substance Abuse Counselor and Independent Clinical Supervisor. Vlado received his training in Europe and US: Charles University in Prague, Czech Republic, Czech Association for Analytical Psychology, Brno, Czech Republic, University of Jyväskylä, Finland, and the C.G. Jung Institute of Chicago. The therapeutic process is a true art, and Vlado’s therapeutic approach begins where the client is at, and he incorporates an integrative and holistic approach to help attain the client’s potentials. He weaves together different therapeutic approaches, depending on the unique needs of the client. Always with the goal of respecting the dignity of the client, and providing a comfortable and confidential setting in which healing can occur. Vlado specializes on the treatment of depression, anxiety, sleep problems, interpersonal conflicts. His focus includes psycho-spiritual crisis and spirituality (loss of life’s meaning and direction), mind-body connection (psychosomatic issues), immigration and cultural issues (displacement from home country and grief), women empowerment and emancipation. His specialties also include treatment of addictions and marital psychotherapy with adult, and youth populations. Vlado is also involved in art and creative process and is author of several depth psychology-oriented books: Psyche, Matrix, Reality; Father’s Archetype; In the Name of God: Psychological Roots of Fanaticism, and most recently Dark Religion: Fundamentalism from the Perspective of Jungian Psychology.
- Jung, C., G., The Phenomenology of the Spirit in Fairytales, CW 9i, (1945/1948), Princeton University Press.
- Jung, C. G., 1969. Psychology and Religion: West and East. Volume 11. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
- Merritt, D,: The Dairy Farmers Guide to the Universe: Jung, Hermes, and Ecopsychology, (2012), Sheridan, Wyoming: Fisher King Press.
- Sagan, C., Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space, (1994), Ballantines Books.
- Šolc, V., and George J. D., (2018), Dark Religion: Fundamentalism from the Perspective of Jungian Psychology. Ashville, NC: Chiron Publications
- Šolc, V., Dark Religion and Conspiracy Theories, An Analytical Viewpoint, (2020), Taylor & Francis.