Imagine you are standing in a bus queue, of maybe 25 people, and you are at the back of the line. Somebody comes along and sidles into the space in front of you. You are annoyed but not outraged. It’s not going to make a big difference whether you are 25th and 26th. If the person was to turn around and say they were terribly sorry and offer to give your place back, you might very well say no. You might even have a chat as you move along the line.
Now imagine you’ve arrived at the very front of the queue. Somebody steps in front of you and takes your place. You don’t need to be a psychologist (though psychologists have researched this) to figure out that you are going to be far more angry this time around than when you were 25 places away. You could very well get into a blazing row or even a fist fight with the usurper. You’re certainly not going to be pals for the rest of the journey.
That’s part of what is happening with frustrated responses to new rounds of Covid-19 pandemic restrictions. We keep getting to the end of the bus queue and something, namely a virus, nips in front of us before we can get onto the freedom coach.
And since there’s really no point in getting angry with a virus we can’t see, we have to displace our anger on to something else. If the queue in this story was a real one, and if you couldn’t or wouldn’t tackle the person jumping in front of you, you might displace your anger on to the bus driver who had failed to do, as far as you’re concerned, his or her job.
With us, it’s not the bus driver: it’s the Government and Nphet (the National Public Health Emergency Team). Anger with governments is pretty normal and even unremarkable – and moreover it sometimes feels like we have an array of governments – but Nphet presents a single, identifiable target. Perhaps that is why so much anger is aimed in that direction.
Primarily, though, the build-up of frustration can be explained by the fact that we keep getting to the top of the queue but we never get on the coach – or if we do, it comes to a halt down the road and turfs us all out.
Need for freedom
Of course, another key element of human psychology at play is the basic human need for freedom. Look at how we revere people who fight for freedom even if the fight ends in their own destruction. Or look at how the UK has destroyed chunks of its economic future in the name of freedom. The need for freedom doesn’t always express itself in cold logic.
We’re expressing the same need when we react with such exuberance during periods when the lockdowns are lifting – we are like cattle let out of the sheds after a long winter and galloping and bounding through the fields.
Some of the over-the-top behaviour we have seen isn’t really an expression of the irresponsibility of “young people these days” (a complaint that dates back at least to the time of the Roman Empire) but an expression, however unskilful, of that need for freedom.
Understanding some of the psychological elements that play into our response to the virus might help us to modulate that response in better ways.
For instance, when we are complaining about the loss of freedom, it might be worth remembering that we’re not actually locked in a prison cell. We are not in Gaza, which has been in a sort of lockdown for decades (or a decade and a half depending on how you look at it).
Humans also have a capacity for endurance and for being able to get used to difficult situations. We’re probably going to have to call on those abilities a lot more than we’d like to in the times to come – especially as it would seem that we can expect more delays to the coach that was supposed to take us to freedom.
– Padraig O’Morain (@PadraigOMorain) is accredited by the Irish Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy. His latest book is Daily Calm. His daily mindfulness reminder is free by email ([email protected]).