When I ask psychologist John Woodcock to tell me about an image that summarizes the current state of the world, he says the ‘This One Earth’ statue located in the Korean Demilitarized Zone comes to mind immediately. Representing the sadness of a country torn in two, Woodcock says he thinks the symbol works on a larger scale than that.
“It’s a good image of the fault lines and the futility of people trying to push the world together,” says Woodcock, who has over 40 years of experience in Counselling Psychology and Depth Psychotherapy. In our interview, Woodcock speaks from a Jungian, or depth, psychotherapy point of view – that everything begins in the invisible realm and then condenses and precipitates out to the material realm, a stance that goes back into antiquity.
“Some people call it the imagination, some people call it the mind, others call it the psyche, but its main characteristic is that it’s invisible, like language itself. And yet it’s real,” says Woodcock, who is based in Sydney, Australia.
He says that the COVID-19 experience in Australia has been predominantly media-driven. This is because most people haven’t had to confront the virus or death personally, making the military language being used around the pandemic very interesting to analyse.
“One way to cover up social fault lines is to create a common enemy and COVID-19 is a perfect candidate for that. So in Australia, you hear the Prime Minister and others in power saying ‘We’re all in this together,’ but it very quickly falls apart,” Woodcock says.
He points out that this abstract idea of togetherness is so flimsy because painting COVID-19 as the enemy hasn’t stopped it very visibly revealing pre-existing social fault lines such as racism, hatred of different groups, and income inequality among others, with people polarizing around them dramatically.
“There’s a whole emergence of erasing anything different from ‘my opinions’, ‘my ideas’, ‘my politics’,” says Woodcock. “The intolerance of difference is ripping the world apart.”
While in Australia many people are somewhat isolated from reality, in a developing country like Brazil, it’s not so easy.
Clinical psychologist Igor Dias Caldeira Marques says that in his hometown of São Paulo, which numbers close to 12.3 million residents, an “awful” way of life is normal. He cites the enormous size of the city, work conditions, transportation, violence, and economic issues as some of the key reasons so many residents suffer from anxiety and mental health problems. In fact, Brazil is a world leader in anxiety and depression rates.
“It’s a very big problem because people don’t know what they have to fix in order to have a better quality of life, as ‘normal’ is this awful situation that they are used to living in,” says Caldeira Marques, who says many people in Brazil don’t want to face the chaos of the COVID-19 pandemic.
On one hand, with the pandemic raging along with fires in the Brazilian Amazon and Pantanal, it is easier to simply believe the denials of far-right President Jair Bolsonaro and ignore scientific data. On the other hand, many people can simply not afford to assume the gravity of the situation and stop working.
“Maybe starving is worse than the pandemic. Maybe it is better to face the risk without thinking,” says Caldeira Marques, speaking of the many Brazilians who have found themselves facing this terrible choice.
The question I want to ask both psychologists is whether the shared global suffering of the current pandemic could signify a shift in collective mentality towards the greater good. However, speaking as a layman, Woodcock questions if there is any evidence that we are going to change after so many previous warnings about climate change, capitalism, global money distribution inequity, and indeed, pandemics.
“How much reality do we need shoved down our throat?!” remarks Woodcock, pointing out the optimism at the turn of the twentieth century – before World War I crushed it and more cynical, hopeless art movements like Dada appeared – as one historical example of false hope.
“Such hope would only divorce us from the reality of what’s happening,” says Woodcock. “It’s completely groundless and we need people who can stare unflinchingly into the reality and navigate what is happening while remaining human – and without going up into ideals.”
He says that if our mindsets are going to be changed, they’ll be changed by reality, but so far it hasn’t done that. He points out the “insulating barrier” around the First World which shelters people from reality, while the rest of the Earth’s population is “smacked between the eyes”.
“Take the Melanesian Islands, for example. Every time they step outside their house, they get to see their island being swallowed up a few more meters by the ocean – now, they can’t ignore reality,” says Woodcock.
However, he points out that the First World doesn’t need to imagine anymore as the USA has been a “horror show” in 2020, losing the capacity to be human beings while navigating the chaos that has engulfed their nation.
“Everything we’ve built up in the West is coming down like a house of cards, it’s just a question of when. That’s reality,” says Woodcock, who says we have gotten to this point by losing our connection to earthly limitations – through living in First World ideals and trying to rubber-stamp the future with certainty so that it will become the future we want, at the expense of all else.
“We want this big city here, let’s do it – screw the swamps, screw the glades, screw the jungles, screw the land, screw the animals. We want a future where there are cities here, we’ll just do it, we won’t pay any attention to the costs – that way of relating to the future has got to go,” he says.
Woodcock says art, dreams, and nature are all some of the ways we can have a healthier relationship with the unknown future, ways we used before that can speak to us again if we pay the required attention. Caldeira Marques agrees as he points out that many of our ancestors lived with very different values to the kind of dominant western discourse that we are experiencing today.
“With our current values – you have to have what you want, you have to consume what you want and who cares how others will be affected by your lifestyle because ‘my lifestyle is better and more important than everything else’,” says Caldeira Marques.
Loosely referencing Nietzsche’s Human, All Too Human, he says “everything is human, so much human. We think we are important, we think we are a ‘big thing’, but we are nothing. This human fantasy that we are living in is bullshit.”
Yet, Woodcock says confronting reality and upholding the dignity of others who are different from us while catastrophe unfolds – unaccompanied by grand visions of the future – is something we can choose at any time, before finishing our conversation with a piece of advice:
“This generation has to learn in ways that past generations have not needed to. They have to learn very fast to come into accord with reality and its limitations.”