By: Kevin Martin
Responses to Covid-19 vary within nations, states, counties, towns, families, and individuals. The new tension within these groups, created by our responses to Covid-19, has created collateral damage in our relationships, financial lives, civic lives, and governance. While, in general, it is easy to criticize strong responses, my interest in this article is not to critique our responses to the crisis, but how to recover from the damage they have caused to our personal relationships. Our relationship lives have been affected by both social distancing and our deeper immersion in the polarized public response to political action. Once the threat and fear of the virus has subsided, we must assume that collateral damages to our relationships will remain. Now what?
CRISIS RESPONSE: THE GOOD, THE BAD, THE UGLY
As is typical in the fog of crisis, it’s hard to see the silver lining. Many families are facing financial ruin due to government-mandated cessation of their revenue. While that subject deserves loud discussion, this article does not intend to focus on that component of the Covid-19 tragedy. Here, I intend to look at some nuanced changes in our social relationships and their implications. It’s not as if there are no positive social outcomes from our response to this pandemic. No doubt, in houses across the USA that have not been visited by medical despair brought on by Covid-19, families have been expressing some positive sentiment about baking more bread at home, reducing expenditures, creating more reliable family rhythms, and increased time spent with nuclear family members. Also, I suspect there is serious upside potential in re-thinking how we educate our children. We are learning a lot about the means of education while schools are closed. And regarding friendships, many families are doubtlessly pleased to find that some friendships are being prioritized while others are fading. This is kind of a study in the Darwinian fitness of our friendships. Only the strong [friendships] will survive while the weaker ones will fade into oblivion. This will allow more decidedly “important” priorities to arise within families. That’s great. But, seeing the upside in the shake-down of our friendships will require us to deal with some negative feelings as well.
Let’s look at how shame fits into this scene. Shame can be either self-imposed or foisted on us by others.
SHAME ON YOU
The Covid-19 pandemic has increased the tension in our already-tense public discourse. Being immersed in strong opinions about political action is not new to us. However, this dynamic has really ramped up and been accentuated with some additional features. Rather than merely each waking moment being an opportunity to shout our opinions about Federal competence, we now have added opportunities to squabble about varying expert medical opinions, failed infection rate models, fiscal and monetary action, the role of scientists in a cohesive advisory body, the costs and benefits of planned economic slowdown, whether or not human safety can be discussed in terms of monetary cost, the effectiveness of our local government’s response in comparison to that of other cities and counties, etc. As if we didn’t have enough to disagree about, Covid-19 is providing ample opportunity for us to further upset each other with differing opinions. Add the risk of lethal infection and observe heightened levels of emotion.
Being worked up about any or all of the changes resulting from our reaction to Covid-19 needs no justification. Change can be hard to accept. Add to that any mistrust or cynicism toward decision makers or community members and it is natural to get frustrated. However, how about when someone close to you starts talking in a way that really irks you? How about when a friend or family member starts talking ignorant nonsense? We are familiar with the admonishment of a person when they say something stupid, “You should be ashamed of yourself!” Maybe they should be. Or maybe you aren’t listening well enough. Thus, the emotional walls can be erected and catapults loaded with burning tar.
When the dust settles after any social display of anger or fear there is always at least one party who is left feeling less than good. Someone is left sweeping up the pieces (maybe under a rug!) and reconciling what just happened. Part of the fallout when someone recognizes that they over-reacted is the feeling of shame.
We often feel ashamed or humiliated from our own public displays of weakness or vulnerability. This is as true for uncontrolled crying in public as it is when we look physically incompetent by stumbling on the sidewalk. We can feel shame when we display any type of incompetence that is seen by strangers. Losing a job can feel shameful if we think the loss makes us appear inadequate. A girlfriend or boyfriend breaking up with us after we admitted love to them makes us feel ashamed. Losing a house to fire can make us vulnerable and ashamed when our projection of competence is interwoven with our possessions. I had a friend who felt deep shame after their home was plundered by burglars. Even on social media, unhinged outbursts and emotional recriminations toward our neighbors fit this description. Losing control is rarely seen as virtuous and many think it is shame-worthy.
The cloak of privacy that shields our identities on social media doesn’t help matters. I like the analogy of a Mardi-Gras mask and social media. When people don a flamboyant mask (I’m not talking about an N-90 face mask) at Mardi-Gras they might feel more apt to do something out of their ordinary because they feel anonymous. However, committing what you might think is a slimy act while being unrecognized doesn’t change the fact that you observed yourself making that particular decision. Will you feel ashamed at having done so? Maybe. The experience of unfettered freedom does not guarantee the feeling of pride in what you choose to do with it. The same goes for our behavior on social media. Regardless of how the person in question feels, we often think a person’s lack of emotional control is deserving of shame.
Emotional control is certainly virtuous for civilized adults, but hardly something to force in a young toddler. As a first-time parent of a toddler, I had to learn this lesson begrudgingly. If emotional control is required for my children to participate in society, why couldn’t they just learn it early! Since realizing that children can only learn to regulate their emotions from adults who model it, I have (far too often!) found myself in a horribly strange house of mirrors where my frustrations are simultaneously cause and result of difficult moments with my children and wife. Some of these emotionally-complicated moments just feel like a small slice of Hell and shame is not helpful for anyone.
This isn’t to say that shame is never helpful. Even for children, an interior feeling of shame can be both a helpful indicator that they behaved incorrectly, as well as a motivator to not repeat the incorrect action. Self-imposed shame can be felt in big doses and small doses, and can likewise be useful or toxic. As with many things, the “poison is the dose.” It might be that the interior perception of our own shame is useful only in proportion to our capacity for self-reflection and ability to articulate a way forward.
When shame is cast by one upon another, the scenario gets even muddier. Why would someone cast shame on others? Sometimes they deserve it. Casting shame can function as an accountability mechanism in a community of adults who share common interests. To the extent that the interior experience of shame motivates us to avoid shame-worthy behavior, others can signal it in our direction when they think we are toeing the line of inappropriate behavior that jeopardizes our common interests. Beyond this, people can cast shame for all sorts of dark reasons. Maybe they see something in another that they hate about themselves and fight it with casting shame outward. When we shame others, we had better either get it right or apologize quickly.
Shame is often cast on others very hypocritically. In our responses to Covid-19, we have created a lot of opportunity to cast shame on strangers. A good buddy of mine was tide-pooling at a beach with his daughter the other day. There wasn’t a person in sight. Soon, a duo of cyclists cruised by. One of them shouted, scornfully, at my friend, “Social distancing!!” To what benefit? I’m not sure, but the attempt at shame-casting was shame-worthy.
In an environment of heightened emotions, we might think other people are acting shamefully with more regularity than usual. Or maybe, with a little reflection, even our own actions deserve a little shame.
SHAME ON ME
In social distancing, we have agreed to not see people that we would normally spend time around. Some of these people we miss dearly. Others, we are pleased to avoid. Some other social situations we had previously not considered avoiding, but now enjoy their absence. How does this affect us? Usually, when we get enjoyment from an act we “should not” enjoy, (like eating too much cake or avoiding a friend or family member) we feel at least a little bit of shame or guilt. There’s a reason we call it a “guilty pleasure.”
Humor me while I indulge in a hypothetical shaky moment between uncertain friends. Let’s say that you have a monthly dinner date with a friend but the requirements of social distancing prevent you two from meeting this month. Also suppose that you were getting a little tired of this monthly dinner date. The whole idea of monthly meetings was an experiment. He wasn’t really that great of a friend, and you suspect that he benefited more than you did from the monthly meeting. After all, all he did was complain about mutual acquaintances and you found it annoying. While you thought he was a bit broken, you could see that he needed a friend. You were happy to be that friend when it was convenient, but now seems like a great opportunity to duck out of the arrangement. “Thank you, social distancing.” Next month, maybe you’ll feel different.
You’re probably thinking that this relationship was destined to dissolve (and maybe they should try different meds) but that isn’t necessarily true. Government-mandated restrictions on gatherings create a layer of fog between some friends. The veil of ignorance covering the reason for friends not seeing each other (“Have they not visited because of government mandate, or just because they don’t like me?”) creates a prisoner’s dilemma where we can do more harm than good.
The psyche is a bizarre thing. What happens when we observe ourselves wronging a person with whom we have an unsigned contract of friendship? Shame begets mistrust. When we feel a little ashamed about avoiding our friend, our psyche, in a tantrum of projection and blame avoidance, can easily generate mistrust toward the person we wronged. Once we wrong that person (by neglecting our relationship) we assume his willingness to neglect, or betray, the relationship too. Thus, we can begin to mistrust another person when we grow suspicious of their capacity for betrayal. What tipped us off to the idea that they might betray our friendship? Our own betrayal of the relationship… no matter how small it might have been at the time. We assume our friend is unaware of the pleasure we gained from avoiding him. However, this pleasure is not without consequence. In fact, we might begin to mistrust him precisely when we understand that he might get the same guilty pleasure by neglecting our friendship in like fashion. I don’t need to point out the obvious immaturity here. In this example, the root cause of our mistrust toward our friend’s commitment is actually our own shame in choosing to avoid him.
Changes in our psyche are rarely made under our full control. One emotion morphs into another when we see our reflection (no matter how distorted) in another person. In this example, we are obviously not talking about a super high-quality friendship that has weathered many ups and downs. Many friendships can benefit from the endurance of stress. Others whither and disappear, and not without emotional fireworks. While some personalities are far more neurotic and insecure than others, everyone must maintain positive relationships for overall health. Government-mandated social distancing has fertilized the soil for negative feelings between friends. And this can make us ashamed of ourselves.
Cringe-worthy behavior not befitting of our pre-Covid-19 social interactions can yield self-righteous indignation, pity, resentment, belittlement, or self-centered anger. We mustn’t forget that we will see our friends and family again. Even a single moment of resentment or pity toward a community member or family member will silently change the dynamic.
Covid-19 has, indeed, presented additional complications to an already-complex world. One of many results is an increase in potential for shame in our social lives. This additional amount of shame has resulted in damage to our social fabric that is difficult to quantify. How do we mend the fabric, and who is responsible for righting the wrongs?
As an analogy, let’s look at how we recuperate financial losses before looking at social losses. To the extent that we as individuals have taken financial losses due to societal responses to Covid-19, our solution sounds easy; “Give me my money back.” If money is lost, and debt accrued, because of a mandated response, then an appropriate post-crisis recovery includes an attempt to recuperate those financial losses and resolve the debts. Because we can chalk up these losses to either an act of God or to government restrictions on income, choosing the methods by which we are made financially whole is obviously problematic. We have many options, such as renewed personal commitments to save instead of borrow, work extra hours, business ventures that profit from the post-Covid-19 landscape, insistence that governments intervene on our behalf with the redistribution of other’s resources, etc. The possibilities are endless. Nonetheless, quantifying the loss is not impossible, and most of us agree on our desires to recuperate financial losses and pay down personal debts.
SHAME AS DEBT
To the extent that love and careful attention are a relationship’s currencies of transaction, shameful social action puts us in debt to those with whom we share friendship. Acting shamefully towards our community members is to over-spend our relationship currency, no matter if the act is passionately unwitting or deliberately malicious. Shameful social action is deficit spending; an emotional debt payable to those in our community.
How can we ever pay this back? How can we encourage others to move on and forget our shameful actions? The shameful debtor is in a helpless position. How can we work it off? For the answer, we must put ourselves in the shoes of the person to whom the relationship debt is owed.
The ancient Israelites had a way of dealing with debt that can be useful in this discussion. Every forty-ninth year was a “Year of Jubilee” wherein all debts were forgiven, slaves freed, and prisoners released. This effectively placed a ceiling on how big a debt could grow. Applied to this discussion about emotional debt and the release from shame, we can see how a moment of Jubilee would effectively limit the size of any grudge. (I suggest not waiting forty-nine years.) How does Jubilee translate to personal shame amidst our responses to Covid-19? Show a little mercy.
We must have mercy on those whose actions we think deserve humiliation. I think marriage and parenthood have equipped us with some useful tools here. Routinely in family life, there is somebody over-reacting, freaking out, lashing out, blowing up, or breaking down. Whether the cause is missing an afternoon nap or anger toward political theater is irrelevant. In a family where emotional closeness is requisite for proper function, the forgiveness of ridiculous acts is eventually required. Sometimes, following a shameful act of irrational frustration, a peaceful understanding is reached through explanation and discussion. Other times, blood-sugar is low, sleep deprivation has set in, and work is stressful. In these situations, we constantly say and do ridiculous things that we would never plan on doing after a full night’s rest, hearty breakfast in our belly, and gleeful work environment. When our spouses act in such irrational ways, and we think we understand why, what do we do? Show some mercy. They deserve it.
In stressful times, people freak out. Shall we hold it over their heads? Shall we ransom them with ridicule and reminders? Shall we be the type of debt collector that brutalizes his debtor? Of course, strangers on social media are not the same as family members in our household. Also, some behavior absolutely requires legal response. What I’m talking about is the irrationality that can drive wedges into our social lives due to stressful and extraordinary times. Extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures. Show some mercy. A lot of us need it right now.