The pandemic has changed our lives permanently and paranoid fantasies have taken root. But a remedy for the crisis of trust we're facing might be found in an unlikely place — in J.R.R. Tolkein's The Lord of the Rings.
First, there was 2020, the year of the virus. Then 2021, the year of vaccinations. But what will 2022 be? My first thought was “the year of exhaustion.” The second idea — which I like better — was “the year of repairing.”
In our efforts to save lives and keep everyone safe, much has been broken. That was inevitable.
When we’re trying to avoid danger, we tend to be selfish and aggressive, leaving a trail of collateral damage in our wake.
Fairy tales always have wolves
Those who have suffered the most are those whose voices are so seldom heard. One study by the University Medical Center Hamburg-Eppendorf showed that before the crisis, around 10% of children and young people were suffering from depression and anxiety. During the pandemic, this rose to 15% for depression and 30% for anxiety.
The way we interact with each other has fundamentally changed. There are bound to be consequences when, over the course of two years, everyone who reads the newspaper or turns on the TV is bombarded with the message that other people are not completely safe. That anyone we meet might infect us with the poisonous “Black Breath” of J. R. R. Tolkien’s sinister Ringwraiths, also known as Nazgûls.
It’s as if overnight we’ve grown fangs and become poisonous. If I am fit and healthy, I stand a good chance of fighting off the virus. But it’s possible that although I’m showing no symptoms, I could infect others who are more vulnerable than me. This possibility has made COVID-19 the spark for a global crisis, which reaches into every individual’s mind.
Now it’s only in fairy tales that Little Red Riding Hood can visit her poorly grandmother, bringing a cake in her basket. The world has always been dangerous; fairy tales are full of wolves, witches and even the devil incarnate. But the idea of being healthy and happy, and yet a carrier of death, is new and deeply unnerving.
Tiny gestures count
At Christmas 2020, parents and grandchildren brought cookies and a thermos and sat outside on the terrace in their fleeces, while the grandparents stayed on the balcony above. We all made the best of it, approaching the situation with a sense of humor. By 2021, everyone had been vaccinated, boosted and tested, so we were able to gather in the same room. Everything was almost back to normal, wasn’t it?
We should be wary of making predictions, of making fools of ourselves. But we can safely say that we won’t return to the carefree days of 2019, a time when we didn’t give a second thought to being physically close to people, when we hugged friends especially tightly when we hadn’t seen them for a long time.
Up until 2019, patients turned up to my psychotherapy practice with a red nose and streaming eyes, shook my hand and said, “I have a cold, but I still came.”
We have become lepers.
It would have been tactless for me to send them home, although I sometimes wished I could. But since 2020, this doesn’t happen anymore. Patients call up or send an email to say they have a cold and would prefer to stay home and conduct their appointment by phone.
In 2020, I stopped shaking hands with people. The risk of infection posed by a handshake has always been very small, but the overriding message of the pandemic is: when the overall risk is high, every tiny gesture counts. Now I can’t imagine greeting patients with a handshake.
It’s as if I’ve fallen out of the habit. Other possible greetings that have been suggested — fist bumps, elbow bumps, even touching knees or feet — have always seemed ridiculous to me. The handshake has a long and proud tradition. It comes from a time when men regularly carried weapons and holding out an empty hand was a sign that they were unarmed.
But the time for this show of harmlessness is over and it makes sense to move away from a tradition whose roots lie in the Middle Ages. Due to globalization, people and viruses are mixing more and more, which means it’s no longer safe to touch and embrace strangers. We have become lepers.
"Fist bumps have always seemed ridiculous to me."
It seems logical not to start shaking hands again. Two years of a pandemic have been enough to make that clear. When greeting people, I keep my distance and give a little bow. When the appointment is over, I stand up and open the window. As my clients leave the room, I wave at them. That’s how it is now and how it will stay.
Now and in the future it will be masks
New traditions have been established. Now we show our vaccination certificate or negative test result. We put masks on, even if they’re not obligatory. Here and in many other places, there will most likely be people who continue to wear them to protect themselves from harmful air particles. The pavements used to be littered with cigarette packets. Now and in the future it will be masks.
The most widespread damage we’ll need to repair is the paranoia that has emerged over the past few years. It is a consequence of the general anxiety, the excessive vigilance we adopt in a world populated by imaginary enemies. In the Greek, paranoia literally means “beside the mind”.
The term has migrated from psychiatry into general usage. It describes the state of feeling like you’re being followed or persecuted when that isn’t actually the case because sufferers project their own hostility onto others.
When trust is broken
At the moment, anti-vaxxers feel threatened by compulsory vaccination, as if people want to poison them, although medical research shows that the vaccine’s advantages far outweigh any dangers. Anyone who is familiar with scientific thought will recognize the vaccine as one of the few medical developments that provide huge health advantages with minimal risks. However, since vaccines were first invented, people have levied objections at them.
Paranoid thoughts have fed off the idea of poisonous breath that has been hammered into us over the past two years. The pandemic has been controlled through vaccines, testing, masks and minimizing contact with others. But these restrictions have taken their toll, damaged the economy, and been so wide-ranging that the state could not ensure their effects were shared out fairly across society. Nothing makes people angrier than the threat of having something that is important to them taken away.
The coronavirus crisis is by its very nature a crisis of trust. Where trust has been broken, paranoid fantasies take root. When people can no longer distance themselves from the effects of fear and aggression, they look for quick, easy solutions.
That is how they are duped by self-proclaimed experts who claim to have discovered a conspiracy against the body’s “natural defenses”. The “conspirators” are institutions we can’t do without: the World Health Organization, scientific research, the government, the media, the pharmaceutical industry.
The remedy for paranoia
In simpler times, married couples, siblings and friends didn’t notice the marked differences in their ability to cope with anxiety. In 2020 and 2021, these differences came painfully to the fore.
There were marriages that broke down because the pandemic put too much pressure on their relationship, causing its foundations to crumble. One husband didn’t want to leave the house and hunkered down, getting supplies delivered. His wife wanted to continue going to work and shopping. He accused her of trying to kill them both. They have now separated.
The “conspirators” are institutions we can’t do without.
In Tolkien’s universe, there is a remedy for the black breath. It is called “athelas”, an Elvish word for “kingsfoil”. It is a modest-looking plant that I imagine as something like the lily of the valley: small white flowers and green leaves. When it is picked, it releases a scent like a spring morning, which drives out gloomy thoughts and the black breath’s poison.
In Tolkien’s saga, mistrust, paranoia and a longing for death are not healed by medical professionals, but by a child who stumbles across a half-forgotten medicinal plant. I find that a comforting thought. Until they’re taught otherwise, children believe that trust is better than suspicion and love are stronger than fear.
*Wolfgang Schmidbauer is a psychotherapist and author based in Munich.
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