Covid-19 is the first true cataclysm most of us have ever seen. It’s a crisis with multiple layers - a pandemic that could ultimately cause millions of deaths; an economic catastrophe, by far the worst since the Great Depression; and a time of social and cultural upheaval, ranging from the psychological impacts of lockdown (like loneliness, anxiety, boredom and grief) to the current Black Lives Matter protests.
But for all that we may feel our situation to be unprecedented, human beings have faced cataclysms throughout our history. Our ancestors knew about the challenges posed by moments of profound crisis, and they have plenty to tell us about how we might respond. In particular, they knew that during such moments, myths - the shared stories we use to make sense of the world - become especially important.
In This Too Shall Pass, a new report from the Collective Psychology Project co-authored with Casper ter Kuile and Ivor Williams, we look at three kinds of myths that helped our ancestors to make sense of crises that are bubbling up in popular culture once again:
- Apocalypse myths – stories in which something is revealed;
- Restoration myths – stories in which something is healed; and
- Emergence myths – stories in which something is being born.
All three are powerfully relevant to Covid-19, and each of them also contains important wisdom around issues of justice and power – issues on which the current protests against racism and police brutality are shining a powerful light.
Let’s start with apocalypse myths. We often think of ‘apocalypse’ as a synonym for the end of the world. It’s not hard to see why. The Book of Revelation is full of plague and pestilence, fire and brimstone before the last judgment takes place. In our own times, a whole genre of fiction and movies is devoted to imagining post-apocalyptic futures like World War Z, The Road, I Am Legend, 28 Days Later and many more.
In reality, though, apocalypse means something far more subtle and interesting than the end of the world. It refers to the idea of an unveiling of things as they really are - a revelation.
Much is being revealed right now. For example, who the real ‘key workers’ are in our economies, and how often they’re the lowest paid, least visible and most marginalised among us. The vulnerabilities that come with our interdependence are also coming into sharper focus. As the evolutionary biologist Carl Bergstrom puts it, “We may not act like we’re all in this together, but in a pandemic, like it or not, we are.”
The depth and persistence of structural injustice, racism and cruelty have all been revealed in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, together with our complicity in systems of privilege that we’ve failed to challenge and transform. In the psychotherapist Carl Jung’s terminology, there is deep “shadow work” to be done here as we are forced to confront the things in ourselves and our societies from which we prefer to look away.
Second, consider myths of restoration that tell of a world made whole again. In these stories, something fundamental has gone wrong. Society, the world, or even the cosmos has suffered a wound or a rupture in the natural order of things. Often, that wound has been caused by our own greed or folly, and unless we can heal it we risk losing everything.
This is the story arc of the Bible, an epic that begins with humanity expelled from a garden with the Tree of Life at its centre, and ends with the same Tree restored to the New Jerusalem in the final chapter of Revelation. It’s also the basis of many of the most popular works of fiction and film of our time, including Star Wars; The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe; the Harry Potter saga; The Lord of the Rings; Frozen, and His Dark Materials.
All of these stories derive from myths about a covenant that was formed at the beginning of time when the cosmos was created. Its purpose was to hold creation together, with the sea in its proper place, the climate in balance, and the stars in their orbits. Star Wars fans will spot the similarity with the “Force,” which, as Obi-Wan Kenobi observes in Star Wars (episode 4), “surrounds us and penetrates us; it binds the galaxy together.”
Crucially, though, this covenant can be broken, especially through ignorance, injustice, or idolatry - worshipping inanimate things made by the human hand. When this happens, the remedy for healing the breach and restoring the cosmos to its rightful state is a process known as atonement, which centres on a symbolic act of self-sacrifice.
This is another recurrent theme in popular fiction, as seen in the self-sacrifice of Harry in The Deathly Hallows; of Obi-Wan in Star Wars (and Darth Vader in Return of the Jedi); of both Gandalf and Frodo in Lord of the Rings; of Aslan in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe; of Anna at the end of Frozen and of Will and Lyra entering the land of the dead to free those imprisoned there in His Dark Materials.
In all these cases, self-sacrifice brings things back into balance and makes the world whole again. The powers that imprison or bewitch us are destroyed or defeated. Images of winter or environmental catastrophe are replaced by those of flourishing and plenty. And the person who made the sacrifice – whether Gandalf, Harry, Anna, Obi-Wan, Aslan, Lyra, Will or Jesus – is resurrected.
In psychological terms, such myths point to the need to sacrifice the grasping ego that always wants more. But they also have a political point to make about the need for restorative justice - the kind that goes beyond mere apologies towards doing everything possible to heal the wrongs that have been done. An example would be renewing the intergenerational covenant between young and old that has been eroded.
Young people have had a tough decade, hallmarked by wage stagnation, unaffordable housing, student debt, and a disproportionate share of the burden of austerity, as well as the looming shadow of issues that will shape the rest of their lives like Brexit and climate change. This in turn has contributed to increasing polarisation between the generations, with the last UK election dividing on age rather than class lines and the rapid growth of intergenerational terms of abuse like ‘snowflake’ and ‘OK, boomer.’
Now, lockdowns are seeing young people take a huge hit to their education and earning capacity in order to protect older people from the virus. If this act of solidarity and self-sacrifice is recognised and reciprocated – if older generations use their political power to back ambitious action on education and climate change, for example, or are willing to use their higher asset ownership to pay a fairer share of the cost of bailouts – this could prove hugely restorative. If on the other hand, young people feel their sacrifice has been thrown back in their faces, then polarisation risks getting even worse.
Finally, there are emergence myths. While mythic acts of self-sacrifice usually lead to rebirth, it isn’t the kind of rebirth in which everything goes back to the way it was before. Instead, those who are resurrected come back changed, for these are stories of the birth of the new and not just the healing of the old.
When Jesus is resurrected, he initially goes unrecognised by both Mary Magdalene and his disciples. When Obi-Wan returns in Star Wars, it is not in his corporeal body. When Gandalf reappears in Lord of the Rings it is as Gandalf the White, not Gandalf the Grey.
This has parallels with trauma psychology, which emphasises that healing from trauma is more subtle than simply being ‘fixed’ back to a pre-trauma state. Instead, people who have survived trauma come back changed by the experience, and in a position to see how it has made them more resilient rather than more vulnerable, able to live in the present rather than being overwhelmed by the past.
These insights can help us to navigate a moment such as today in which all kinds of collective trauma are bubbling up, demanding to be revealed and healed before we can find our way to something new. It’s a moment that involves both inner and outer work - work on ourselves, our biases and prejudices, on how we respond to perceived threats and how we can deepen our empathy for others; and work in the world to address injustices and redesign institutions. Only by doing both can we move forward as a larger ‘Us’ rather than a smaller and more divided ‘Them-and-Us.’
As we grapple with the multi-faceted crises of Covid-19, racism, police violence and their consequences, we need to be mindful of what is being revealed, especially inside of us where it’s most uncomfortable. We need to be alive to what needs to be healed, restored or atoned for – the places where we must take responsibility and use our agency. And we should be expectant of what’s being born in and through us that may yet help us to break through to the kind of future we want, even as so much of the old is breaking down around us.