These are days of pandemic and prejudice.
Our children are disoriented and struggling because we adults are disoriented and struggling.
There are ways in which we are disoriented to which we can orient ourselves, or believe we can. It is disorienting to be laid off, to be unable to pay the bills, to be subject to prejudice, discrimination, and violence, to witness the same, to get sick, to have loved ones get sick, to die. But such events have always been with us; we have words for these events and experiences, even inadequate words like “trauma”. So we have at least a starting point for trying to help our children cope.
The corona virus has plunged us into a new level of disorientation because in some ways everything seems to be the same, Spring arrived on time, the flowers bloomed, the Internet still works, there is food in the grocery stores, drugs in the pharmacy, newscasters on TV, the stock market goes up and it goes down.
But there is a novel sense of mortal danger and we can’t quite put our fingers on where it is coming from or why. There are ways in which we can’t help our children feel safe because we adults don’t know how to feel safe, nor feel assured that we can keep them safe. Things are upside down; children must be protected from the corona virus to keep us adults safe.
One way we can seek to reorient ourselves is to acknowledge the ways in which really nothing has fundamentally changed. There is racial and ethnic prejudice and discrimination. There’s is hate and there is love. God is still in heaven, and the devil continues to manifest in familiar ways.
We have always been in mortal danger and we have never known from where the threat might come. We have accustomed ourselves to living in denial. The world has always seemed “normal” as various threats from climate change to pandemics to being hit by a car or a falling brick loomed in the background. From that vantage point, we have sought to make our young children feel safe.
Across cultures there are ways of acknowledging the dangers that children sense even more intensely than adults, without being able to formulate or articulate them explicitly. Fairy tales, the stuff of bedtime stories, are full of witches and fierce wild animals and kidnappers. Holocaust survivor Maurice Sendak was particularly gifted in articulating and portraying the inner life of danger counterposed to seeming normality in works such as “Where the Wild Things Are”. Children’s stories, like all art forms, speak to that which the psychoanalysts Christopher Bellas called the “unthought known”, i.e. that which is known on a level different from that on which logical, linear, reasoning operates, on a level more like that which informs poetry than that which informs discursive language.
At this moment the illusion of a safe normality has been undermined for children and for parents. The New York Times of June 14, 2020 published a series of moments from quarantine. The mother of two young children said her worst moment was when she put her children in front of the TV for five hours during which time she intended to work. She spent the five hours sitting on the floor staring into space.
Let us hope that the programs she and her children chose resonated on the “unthought known” level that generates and underwrites our emotions, dreams and reveries, and on which rests the processing of trauma and the unthinkable.