By Bart Magee, Ph.D.
Back in May 2020, during the early, dark days of the pandemic lockdown, I wrote that we might find threads of hope in recognizing how millions of people around the world came together to change their behavior, support each other and limit the spread of COVID-19. In the ensuing months, now years, we’ve often overlooked the various ways people responded to the pandemic by ingeniously adapting and demonstrating mighty resilience. I thought at the time and still believe today that by engaging similar, creative, collective action will lead us to ending the mental illness epidemic and overcoming our many social ills. At the same time, the other responses we’ve witnessed during the last few years warn of the hurdles ahead. Shaming and blaming ourselves and others, social withdrawal and dissociation, disconnection from our bodies, rabid disinformation, political dysfunction, ecological collapse, along with unchecked anxiety and confusion. Looking ahead to 2022, even as COVID becomes more “endemic”, disruptions, both those associated with the pandemic and the disparate ones (economic, social, environmental), no doubt will continue. How will we respond? Could 2022 be the year in which we redouble efforts to come together, combat our darker impulses, support creative resilience in each other, and find new paradigms of thinking and organizing ourselves socially? If so, what will it take? What does it take to get unstuck?
There are many paradoxes in the human experience. One that I find most compelling and relevant to this topic is the reality that, on the one hand, human beings are infinitely creative. We always have been. There are virtually no problems too great for us to address. Whether it’s a personal challenge (climbing the Half Dome without ropes), a group effort (the first expeditions to the North Pole and the moon) or pursuing a social good (invention of antibiotics and vaccines) humans are remarkable in their ability to work together to overcome challenges. At the same time, we are truly masterful at getting stuck in negative patterns of thinking, relating and behaving. As much as we are Houdini-like in our ability to find our way out of mazes, we are also gurus of stuck-ness. So often, we seem compelled to act against our own and others’ best interests. Lying and cheating, substance abuse, toxic relationships, unhealthy habits, racism and bigotry, violence, stealing…The list is very long.
There are many theories that explain this paradox, from our brain’s reward system, to theories of psychological defenses, and social theories of dominance and submission. It’s complicated; we’re complicated. Getting unstuck is not easy—we certainly know that as mental health therapists— whether working with individuals, groups, organizations, and whole communities, we know it takes serious, sustained efforts. We also know about the principles and the tools that work. Let’s review three big ones.
Connection and meaningful engagement
It’s well documented that meaningful social ties are vital to our mental and physical health. Developing and maintaining our social connections is the single most important thing we can do to ensure a longer, healthier, more meaningful lives. We know this from parenting— human development happens through relationships. We also see it first-hand in therapy. Not only does disconnection from others and society exacerbate anxiety, depression, substance abuse and problems in self-care, the connection to the therapist is the primary factor in facilitating positive change. The same is true for groups and organizations. All the hallmarks of a healthy, dynamic organizational culture (mutual acceptance, equity, appreciation of diversity, open and honest communication, collective pride and connection to values, etc) involve social connection. For solving any kind of problem, two (plus) heads are truly better than one.
Anxiety and risk management
The human psychophysiological response to danger: it’s our lifesaver and our albatross. We’ve all had that moment, that instantaneous response to danger, whether it’s losing your balance or perceiving a rapidly approaching threat. The mind and the body react in milliseconds with adrenaline and coordinated movement to achieve safety. However, that system, the one that works so amazingly for immediate threats, fails us miserably in response to virtually all other dangers. Humans tend to vastly overestimate the possibility of rare, but highly dramatic events happening to us (dying in a plane crash, being the victim of a random attack, experiencing a dreadful social humiliation) and exaggerate the chances of the most negative outcomes. For example, surveys have found that a majority of people vastly exaggerate the changes of serious illness and death from COVID-19. We also tend to underestimate our ability to cope with adversity, which is why it’s almost always true that we say after a risky or new experience that it wasn’t as bad as we expected. Finally, we underestimate the cost of avoidance and doing nothing. We are biased to avoid perceived risk even when that avoidance has obviously negative outcomes, such as staying in an oppressive job or bad relationship. All of this faulty risk assessment leads us down endless blind alleys of maladaptive behavior, where we fail to act in the most sensible ways. It’s our perpetual ‘cutting off one’s nose to spite one’s face’ problem. Risk is inherent in biological life and in social life. Avoiding risk means avoiding life. Resilience means astutely assessing risks, managing them, and finding life’s rewards.
Creative thinking and organizing
This one follows from the first two, that is, in order to think creatively we need to have the capacity to engage with ourselves, with others, to assess reality, its risks and rewards, which means navigating a contradictory and often negative information barrage. Attributes like open-mindedness, perception, inspiration, reflection, insight, incubation, exchange of ideas, collaboration, and play, all fundamental to the creative process, must be nurtured and cultivated. They need the right kind of environment, both internal and external, a match that will be different for each person. In general, however an environment that fosters creativity is one where uncertainty is tolerated and novelty is encouraged. It’s one that respects, critiques and synthesis prior knowledge and experiences. An environment where one can be at once very focused, as we say, in the moment and able step back and take perspective. Throughout the ages we’ve relied on our capacity to think imaginatively together to find new paradigms and different ways of organizing ourselves socially. Our ability to survive and thrive as a species has depended on it.
For 20 years now, Access Institute has been committed to creatively and resiliently serving our community in every way we can, and to do that we’ve relied on the energy of a diverse and engaged community. For 2022, we are recommitting ourselves to service, and to helping facilitate the social renewal that the people of San Francisco and the Bay Area so long for. In that spirit, we are launching Catalyst, a series of events where we will facilitate conversations and creative experiences with local artists, cultural leaders and mental health professionals, all with the goal of finding new paradigms for personal and social change. And that’s just the start. Other initiatives in the works will extend our reach and foster new forms of volunteerism and service. Getting unstuck is going to take all of us getting involved. Of course, it comes with risk, anytime we come together it involves risk, but the risk of doing nothing is greater today than ever. Just look around. And the reward potential, the potential of a world where everyone can find the social and emotional support they need, where equity, diversity, freedom and a healthy planet are all interconnected and woven together into our culture and values, that reward is potentially so great that it calls us to act.
We look forward to connecting, collaborating and creating with you in 2022 and beyond.