The Burning Question: Did COVID-19 Force Us to Cede Control?
The last year made the unfairness of life far more glaringly obvious. Going forward, how we work through that common realization may shape the most profound impact of this pandemic. It’s likely to be particularly challenging for those who habitually emphasize personal responsibility and self-control.
The role of luck in our lives was made more painfully salient than ever. Having less power and money never made life easier; during the pandemic it could indirectly kill you. Not being graced with genes and a biome that subtended a lean, lithe body was always unfortunate; now it meant you were more likely to die if infected.
Many of us generally prefer to emphasize self-determination. Psychologists refer to this as having an internal locus of control. This pandemic certainly challenged the belief that we are in control. Some people redoubled their efforts to master outcomes by seeking out as much information about COVID19 as they could, becoming experts first on testing, then treatment, and then vaccine protocols. Many locked down their lives for a year, stayed up all night online to register for the first available vaccines, and with great dismay resumed wearing masks as the delta variant surged.
Others showed reactance (actively opposing those who constrain one’s freedom). Refusing to wear masks and restrict activities, and proudly refusing vaccination, restored a threatened sense of agency for them (although at a tremendous cost).
Thwarting our perceived control made the pandemic more enormously frustrating. Predictably, frustration begat anger, deepening social divides. “Who can we blame?” Some raged, others cringed.
The pandemic’s shoving death in our faces every day also elevated fear in a way many had never experienced before. Fear can prompt withdrawal and retreat, or the mounting of a strong offense. It can make us regress, become more primitive and unreflective; it reveals our basic nature more starkly.
Recently, some of those who sought to restore a sense of control by getting vaccinated now confront in themselves a capacity for anger at others that astonishes them. Their blinding fury at those who can, but won’t, protect themselves and others is challenging their self-conception. They don’t like feeling this way about others. But after having done their best to help regain a sense of control, the frustration associated with the resurgence of cases and threats to children seems overwhelming. Contending with this second dose of helplessness is particularly exhausting.
But most are showing considerable resilience, adapting and focusing on the almost magical progress we’ve already made. The vaccines save lives, even if the risk of infection, illness, and even hospitalization will continue to lurk in our lives and challenge our sense of mastery. Using empathy and education may help us find ways of restoring control more collaboratively.
One thing is non-debatable: We are living in interesting times. The pandemic forced us all to hit pause. It changed all of our lives. It gave a gift to some: time to reflect, take stock, and reprioritize. Many of us had been too busy, with lives jammed with automatic routines. Perhaps we broke some bad habits and became more mindful. Perhaps this will help us come to terms with realizing the limits of our control.
Cathy Chambliss is a professor of psychology at Ursinus College. Her research expertise includes mental health, substance use, and interpersonal relationships. She has published five books and over 300 research papers on a broad range of topics related to her discipline.