We all know this story. The hero faces the monster and seems to have defeated it only to discover that the monster has not really been encountered in its full form. The hero is then forced to face the monster in the monster’s lair. Only when we reach the point where it seems the hero will be defeated do we see a miraculous victory over the monster. In Christopher Booker’s book “The Seven Basic Plots” we learn about the basic story lines we humans tell each other over and over. One such story is overcoming the monster. This story is told over and over in cinema. We all know the James Bond movies. Every time we see our hero, he must face down the villain, or monster, in the monster’s lair. Only when it seems that all hope is lost do we see Mr. Bond emerge victorious over the monster.
Another telling of the familiar story is seen in Akira Kurosawa’s movie “The Seven Samurai”. This variation on the overcoming the monster story makes several modifications over the standard plot line. One, the monster comes to the heroes of the story as opposed to the hero making the journey to where the monster lives. Two, it is not a single hero that faces down the monster but an entire village. This variation of the story brings to bear the power contained in the group and within all of us and not in a single heroic figure. The story also calls into question where the monster lives and what exactly is the monster. Is the monster some external foe or is it our own paralyzing fears and anxieties? When we face the monster, are we facing some external reality, or do we find ourselves staring into the mirror at ourselves?
As we consider the emotional cost of the pandemic, I would like for us to think about the overcoming-the-monster plot and how that story we know so well is part of the reality we find ourselves in today. I also want to consider the two different stories I mentioned a moment ago and see if there are ways we can understand them from a psychological standpoint.
In the classic James Bond telling, we wait for the hero to arrive and defeat the monster on our behalf. For most of the unseen characters in the story, there is no knowledge that he is saving us and for many, no sense that there is even any danger. From a certain point of view, James saves millions of unseen people that have no awareness of danger in the first place. He goes off by himself, completely removed from the group to face the monster. We are all reassured that we are safe because he is there to fight off the monsters and we don’t even have to know about them. He is not relying on the group to help him. He doesn’t even ask. The strength of the fantasy grows when we see our hero at the end of the movie unhurt and in the loving arms (presumably) of the heroine. All is well that ends well and the world is safe.
Looking through the lens of a psychoanalyst there seems to be more there to see. James Bond’s experience makes none of us any smarter or any better. We haven’t really learned anything and are still defenseless against the next monster. Because there is no experience to draw on, the unseen characters of the movie never experience anything and therefore, never grow.
I wonder if the current pandemic is experienced in a similar way by many of us. The pandemic has hit close to home for many of us, but there are many who still have not experienced the pandemic “up close and personal”. Like the unseen characters of a James Bond movie, the action seems far away. Hearing news about surges in cases and hospitals that no longer have capacity to manage or care for patients feels unreal, like it is a story about somewhere else but not here. Freud once said about psychoanalysis “knowledge without affect will not have a curative effect”. What Freud was talking about, I think, was that having some thought or memory without feeling will not have the effect of change. It is not enough for us to talk about the pandemic, we must have experience of it in some way for it to really “come home” as it were. I can remember when we first heard of the pandemic now eighteen months ago that it felt to me like it just couldn’t be real. As if this couldn’t possibly happen here. Not in the United States. Until I had the experience of living through it the idea of the pandemic didn’t hold any sway for me because there was no experience to “hold on to”. Now, eighteen months later, the pandemic feels very real to me. Working in a hospital and seeing patients with COVID, seeing the numbers coming through UofL, and experiencing the trauma of this pandemic through the lenses of my patients and their losses has made this feel very real to me in ways I could not have possibly imagined last year. For many, this close view has never happened. The pandemic still feels to them, I imagine, like that thing they see on the news. For many who still lack the perspective of close experience it has felt inconvenient to wear that stupid mask, or not be able to go to that restaurant with friends and it never really feels that the measures they are taking to protect themselves is really doing anything.
I am continually amused by economists and economic theory in its constant assertion that people act according to rational motives. As a psychiatrist and psychoanalytic thinker, I am very aware that we all act irrationally from time to time and to greater and lesser degrees. Fear and anxiety about the unknown, uncertainty about what to believe and skepticism are much more believable to us than logic, facts, and reason. Going back to Freud, it makes sense. Feeling and experience drive the bus. Logic and reason are in the back seat. Freud talked extensively about the unconscious mind in his life’s work and studied the ways our conscious mind takes that unconscious information in. He also talked about defenses and the ways our conscious mind defends against unconscious wishes, fears, and fantasies. Maybe it would be better to deny what is going on and wait for James Bond to fix it. At least that way we wouldn’t have to deal with these feelings and fears. As with all things psychological, this pandemic stirs up a lot. Experience and relationships from the past are stirred when we face trauma. The pandemic, a traumatic experience for sure, triggers stress reactions in all of us. Those among us who have suffered trauma in the past may relive that past trauma during the pandemic in the form of emotions that were stirred by the original trauma. They may experience the current pandemic “as if” it was the past trauma. The reaction to the trauma of the pandemic may feel the same as the past trauma to them. Their emotional and physical reaction to the “here and now experience” of the pandemic may be experienced in the same way as they felt at the time of the original trauma. The way they managed the past trauma becomes the way they manage the pandemic. Defenses and emotions are triggered, and it is experienced anew in the here and now.
The pandemic makes us feel helpless and the helplessness causes us to withdraw and isolate ourselves. Like with reactions to trauma, that isolation makes us feel that we are alone and there is no one to help us. Why don’t I feel better when I see James Bond defeat the monster? Perhaps I don’t feel better because the monster isn’t out there somewhere but in me. My own fear, paralysis and isolation are the true monsters. The pandemic is simply a catalyst that stirs those fears in me. Looking at the overcoming the monster story in the James Bond version then seems to leave me empty, isolated, and powerless. I find myself now fighting against the dark forces within me to be isolated and hidden. My current impulse is to reach out and find the strength in me through the strength that is found in us.
This takes me to the second movie example. In Akira Kurosawa’s movie, The Seven Samurai”, we see a village being terrorized by a group of thieves. They reach out to a Samurai to help them who in turn enlists several other warriors to help him. Together, villagers and Samurai, the monster is defeated. Looking through the lens of analysis, we see the villagers struggle against their own doubts, fears, and lack of skill. They battle against their own sense of not being enough to rise and together find the strength to defeat the monster. They are changed by their experience and at the end of the movie are not the people we saw at the beginning. They were truly changed because they experienced themselves with the Samurai fighting off the monster. Only working together were they able to win.
As I explore my own feelings about this pandemic, I find myself, like the villagers in The Seven Samurai, experiencing the struggle against this monster of COVID. As I imagine Kurosawa intended, I want to join with the group in this fight and feel that together this monster can be defeated. That is why I optimistically titled this talk “Overcoming the Monster: Facing the End Game of COVID 19.” Why on earth would I think of this current time as the end game? Thinking about now and holding it in contrast to this time last year, it feels that there are real differences that should fill us with hope and can be used as an antidote to the pandemic fatigue and burnout we are all struggling with.
Last year there was only the promise of a vaccine. At that time, we thought it was a disease of the elderly, now we know this fight must engage everyone. We didn’t have it yet. It all seemed so far away and remote. Now, we have a vaccine, and it really is working. Last year we didn’t really know how to manage patients in the hospital with COVID. Now we have a much clearer understanding of what to do and how to treat patients.
How do we benefit from looking at the contrast between James Bond and the Samurai? Bond didn’t solve any of these problems, but the village did. Every action of the individual villager in Kurosawa’s movie, taken on its own, didn’t really amount to a lot, but taken together, they were a force that could not be defeated. They also learned and grew in the story. At the end, they didn’t really need the Samurai anymore because they were not the same people they were at the beginning. To borrow a popular maxim, “Bring someone a fish and you feed them for a day, teach them to fish and you feed them for a lifetime.” Our jobs as community leaders are to teach our villagers to fish. We can lead by example but more importantly, we can find ways to empower our villagers to defend themselves. From a psychological standpoint, it is far better to follow the example of Kurosawa and not James Bond. James must be exhausted by now. He works tirelessly against the foes, but he never really gets any help from the village. Is it because he never asks? It was never a question for the Samurai that the village was going to help or not. They were not given a choice. It was all or nothing. If they were all in then there would be the promise of victory, otherwise they would be defeated.
Our psychological tendency to wait for our hero to step in and defeat the mighty foe will lead to sadness, isolation, and defeat. It will also leave us as leaders exhausted and lonely. We must find ways to embolden our own villagers to stand up and fight. We have some mighty weapons at our disposal if only we would use them. We, here in Kentucky, have heard over the past year calls to work together to defeat COVID 19. This is in fact what we need to do. I think as leaders we can lead by example. Vaccines and masking, while unpopular, work. I have made it my cause with my patients to promote getting vaccinated and wearing masks in public places when they are not sure of the vaccination state of others. There is something powerfully psychological about incremental approaches to fighting this virus. Chipping away at it as I do with my patients feels somehow unsatisfying, yet I know that it is effective and will work.
As an analyst I find myself curious about why I have chosen these movies to discuss with you today. One thought that comes to mind is the wish for simplicity. I want to have simple feelings about this and not have to navigate the complexity of feeling that this pandemic stirs in me. I love the idea of a single hero sweeping down to save us all. A hero undaunted by complex feelings, and doubt. The reality is that it is complicated. I feel that if we use the tools we have at hand, we can defeat this virus. At the same time, I have a very good friend who has been vaccinated and is in the ICU on a vent battling with COVID. Perhaps the thing to keep in mind is that facing this end game as I call it, is no simple task, and I will have to battle through the fatigue and burnout caused by these complex feelings just like everyone else.
–Stephen M Taylor, M. D.