The Psychology of COVID

Coronavirus appeared on the scene at the beginning of 2020—what we thought would be a great year. Many of us believed the pandemic would last a few weeks, maybe months, and then dissolve into history. We were wrong.

But it felt unifying at first. Political polarizations melted away as the disease pressed the world’s inhabitants into a kind of global huddle in which we all experienced the same threat at the same time. A year and a half later, we aren’t singing kumbayah anymore. We’re more polarized than ever, over the very thing that initially promised to unite us.

The medical and political aspects of COVID, masking, vaxing, and mandates have been discussed at length. Instead of those angles, I want to look at COVID-related matters of the heart—our mental and relational health. Because whatever happens, we can still, through God’s grace, love one another and flourish in that love.

The book and film Lord of the Flies by William Golding profoundly impacted me as a young person. As the story goes, a group of school boys’ plane crashes on a remote island, killing the pilots but leaving the boys to fend for their survival. They unfortunately descend into savagery. By the end of the film, the little dudes don war paint, pick up clubs and spears and hunt down the protagonist, Ralph. The last scene of the film has Ralph running for his life, disheveled and dirty, clawing along the ground, when suddenly the camera happens upon gleaming white tennis shoes and then pans up to an officer. The coast guard has arrived. The boys are saved.

What was it like for those boys after they arrived home, were bathed and brushed and fed a few good meals? Eventually, they would have reflected back on their behavior under duress. We will someday do the same when this pandemic becomes part of history. Which it will, if not in this life, in the next.

Let’s start the process of reflection now. Let’s do a little narrative therapy. Let’s tell the story of COVID.

The Story of COVID

Mass Trauma
The definition of trauma is a distressing event that outstrips our existing coping ability. A mass trauma is therefore a distressing event that hits a mass of people at the same time. By every definition, COVID qualifies as a mass trauma. Trauma temporarily emotionalizes the brain and makes rational, careful thinking difficult. This is called “bottom-up hijacking” in that the lower parts of the brain kind of take over. This makes it necessary to employ coping and calming measures. The Center for the Treatment and Study of Traumatic Stress in Akron, Ohio, identified efficacy and connectedness as two of the most important means of coping with mass trauma. In other words, a sense that together we can conquer.

Unfortunately, that sense of connectedness eroded because of . . .

Breakdown of Trust

Some of the messaging from various health authorities did not build that sense of connectedness. Servant leaders listen effectively to those they lead, and let them feel listened to. This didn’t happen as much as we would hope. “Noble lies” were told to steer the masses into desired behaviors. Questions of how the pandemic began became taboo, and even renounced as xenophobic. Censorship shut down conversations that needed to take place.

This drove people apart and into . . .

Ingroup/Outgroup Formation
The psychological term for polarization is ingroup favoritism and outgroup derogation. One of the most famous examples of this phenomenon occurred when grade school teacher Jane Elliot decided to use her classroom as a laboratory. It was 1968, the day after the assassination of Martin Luther King. Elliot decided to address the problems of racial prejudice by dividing her third-grade class into groups on the basis of eye color. She proclaimed the blue-eyed children superior to brown-eyed children, bestowing them with respective privileges and punishments: Blue-eyed children went to recess; brown-eyed children stayed in. Blue-eyed children went to lunch first and could have seconds; brown-eyed children couldn’t drink from the water fountain. In short order, the blue-eyed seven-year-olds turned into hate-mongers of the brown-eyed children. They sadistically ridiculed their unfortunate classmates, calling them “stupid,” shunning them on the playground. “Brown eyes” became a derogatory term, a slur spoken with disdain. The next day Jane Elliot announced to the class: “Yesterday I told you that brown-eyed people aren’t as good as blue-eyed people. That wasn’t true. I lied to you yesterday. The truth is that brown-eyed people are better than blue-eyed people.” This produced the same result—the brown-eyed children became spitefully superior to the blue-eyed children.

Virtue signaling has flowed out of this ingroup/outgroup psychology. Typically virtue signaling has been pinned on the left end of the spectrum, but the right has its own version of virtue signaling. Realize that because we can’t read motives, virtue signaling is better admitted than accused. Someone may be proclaiming their vaccinated status out of a desire to see others vaccinate because they believe it to be a life-saving choice. Someone may publish their unvaccinated status out of a desire to warn people against the very real possibility of vaccine injuries rather than any sense of superiority.

Self-reflect rather than accuse. Ingroup/outgroup psychology gives our pride a boost as we belittle others to lift up ourselves. A prideful heart is never satisfied, and so more ingroups and outgroups continue to form and feed our sense of superiority.

Spiritualization
One of the most toxic and yet prevalent forms of ingroup/outgroup psychology is religious Phariseeism. Spiritual significance can be inappropriately layered onto issues. There is no pride quite like spiritual pride. COVID has even been factored into Adventists’ view of the end times. Some have thought it to be a religious liberty issue that, if we don’t stay strong, will set us up for capitulating to the mark of the beast. And on balance, some have accused the unvaccinated of being guilty of murder should they infect someone else.

Action Steps

I don’t believe God caused COVID, but I do believe He wanted to use it to draw us together in love. How can we respond in harmony with His will? What can we do to bring about His will in our circle of influence? A few chapters of the COVID story have already been written, but not the whole book. How can we contribute to the best possible ending?

Be Trauma-Informed
People are still struggling from the trauma of this thing. “Men’s hearts failing them from fear and the expectation of those things which are coming on the earth” Luke 21:26. All the mental health problems are through the roof—depression, anxiety, suicidality. Always be gentle with traumatized people—which is all of us.

Listen to People
“Let every man be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath” James 1:19. Even on social media, we can acknowledge others’ points. We don’t have to cave into online disinhibition effect and be our most combative selves. Rather than immediately push back with our own view, we can seek to understand and the concerns and views of others.

Respect and Value People
“Esteem each other better than yourselves.” Philippians 2:3, “in honor preferring one another” Romans 12:10. We will be tempted to think of the “other” group as less spiritual, less virtuous, or less intelligent than ourselves. Resist that tendency. Value the input of others. This is harder than it sounds.

Center the Gospel
Keep the gospel at the center of your faith experience. End time fear can sometimes push the gospel out of that central place. But what prepares us for the coming of Jesus? Knowing all the signs? No, but rather knowing Jesus.

Conspiracy theories have received a lot of flak lately. We can’t rule them out entirely. Right smack dab in the middle of prophecy is a massive conspiracy. But we must guard against the gnostic error of believing we’re saved by special knowledge. We are saved by the righteousness of Jesus. “Knowledge puffs up, charity edifies” 1 Corinthians 8:1. Ephesians says we should expose error, but not even mention things done in secret (Ephesians 5:11-12). God has not called us to outsmart the devil. He has called us to the faith of a child.

The last chapters of the book The Great Controversy make plain what will be the test at the end of time, and it is not a vaccine. It is the biblical Sabbath versus the manmade sabbath. Think about that. The Sabbath is an outward sign of an inward experience of resting in the righteousness of Jesus. If we adhere to the symbol of Christ’s righteousness, but do not internalize it, instead feeding off the real or supposed failings of others to inflate our own righteousness, we will be shaken out. Let’s instead let God shake the self-righteousness out of us.

COVID, the vaccine, masking—they ARE tests. Tests of whether Jesus and His righteousness will prevail in our experiences. The fruit of resting in His righteousness will be love and respect for others, especially those with whom we differ. This has been difficult and confusing for all of us. Let’s take a deep breath, stand up straight, look each other in the eye, and try to do better.

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