As I sit here at my desk in the Autumn of 2022, it feels rather trite to recite the line that the social restrictions imposed in response to the Covid-19 pandemic have caused significant upheaval in most of our lives. Nonetheless it remains true.
For some, a previously comfortable and stable existence was ruptured, the rug pulled from under their feet. For some, personal and/or health struggles began to grow, taking on a more insidious shape. Others who already dealt with existing challenges were forced to navigate a radically different landscape, in many cases undoing years of hard work establishing coping routines and ways of existing that made life manageable.
Some, however, flourished. Some found that the changed conditions of shared life suited them better, perhaps giving space and time for ways of being that were previously suppressed by the aggressive, ableist routines and standards of shared life. Just as the nature around us started to emerge more bountiful, confident and colourful than before, with weeds and wildflowers growing in cracks of harsh well-trodden city pavements, some people blossomed.
This is just one aspect of the myth of the pandemic as a ‘great equaliser’, the idea that we are all ‘in the same boat’ and how we react to it is a matter of resilience and personal strength. I don’t want to suggest that resilience is necessarily a dirty word. I do think, however, that it tends to be used sufficiently vaguely to leave room for simplistic moralising attitudes, for instance, the attitude that we can ‘shake off’ our distress if we put our mind to it.
What is resilience, then? One group of scientists, when studying risk-factors for the development of the chronic illness fibromyalgia, acknowledged some scientific debate about whether resilience is a personality trait or an ability that is shaped over time by one’s existential circumstances. They emphasised the latter, arguing that resilience in the clinically relevant sense is built, or at least strengthened by, “having access to social resources, being a member of a community, cultivating social relationships, having a supportive family, and maintaining affective bonds, and is also influenced by attachment, social learning, socio-economic status, religion and culture.” (Casale et al, 2019).
Affective scaffolding, broadly speaking, is the process of making use of features of one’s environment to support certain affective, or emotional, states.
One way of systematizing this relevant notion of resilience can be supported by a turn to philosophical literature on affective scaffolding. Affective scaffolding, broadly speaking, is the process of making use of features of one’s environment to support certain affective, or emotional, states. Being able to easily make use of the relevant scaffolds is key for maintaining a healthy, well-regulated emotional life.
So what are the relevant scaffolds? Well, for each of us they differ. As emphasized by Casale et al, over the course of our life we build trust in a system of things around us that support us emotionally. We cannot make use of any old thing, and what works for our closest friends may not work for us. We have all been in situations where a well-meaning friend suggests we go on a run to regulate our affective life (unless you are the runner, in which case maybe a friend suggested that you take up playing RPGs, or yoga), only for us to be confident at the outset that it would only exacerbate our feelings of anxiety, unease, discomfort, alienation or whatever it may be. Though dynamic and subject to changes, at any given time there is a particular collection of things, or types of things, that fall within our regulatory repertoire.
Our regulatory repertoires are deeply personal, and are crafted over the course of our lives. Take Jack, who has a wide circle of friends with whom he sustains a sense of closeness to by taking part in shared activities like raving, down-regulates the anxiety of his workday by playing sport, and confides in certain trusted others by going to his place of religious worship. Jack gets bored in the quietness of his home alone, and finds things the quiet intimacy of phone and video calls exhausting. Compare him with Stephen, who down-regulates anxiety by reading by candlelight, and supports a sense of togetherness by playing games online with long-distance friends and cooking with his partner.
In any case, Jack and Stephen represent extremes of the scale, and the reality for most of us will have been much more complex. For people whose repertoires are more like Stephen’s, the lockdowns may not have so heavily interfered with, indeed perhaps even supported, engagement with habitually trusted affective scaffolds.For people whose repertoires are more like Jack’s, the lockdowns may have rendered almost all of the scaffolds of one’s habitual life out of reach.
Eventually, albeit bumpily, social restrictions were eased and people were once again able to reengage with that which was valued before. People returned to their favourite cafes to have that daily thirty minutes in solitude. People returned to work to be reunited with that one colleague who, in retrospect, offered a remarkably valuable sense of being understood. People returned to live music venues to once again experience that powerful sense of togetherness.
Those left behind
Well, some people did. Even long after social restrictions have been lifted, some people continue to face additional restrictions which threaten to linger for much longer: the people suffering the long-term effects of SARS-CoV-2 infection (‘Long Covid’, ‘Post-Covid Syndrome’ or ‘PASC’).
For these people, the scope of the challenge to one’s ability to emotionally regulate can be incredibly wide, sometimes so wide as to completely engulf the person. Many face obstacles which challenge the most fundamental aspects of existence. Symptoms like severe fatigue can erode trust in one’s body to carry out the simplest of daily tasks. Every moment of existing is radically transformed, from the now careful calculations one must make about whether one has the energy to stand long enough to cook a meal, or to see a friend. With symptoms like ‘brain fog’, primarily understood as a cognitive impairment, one can lose the ability to articulate oneself, and the ability to follow and participate in fast-paced humour or debate with friends.
In stark contrast to any feelings of solidarity over the paralysis of shared time experienced through lockdowns, illness is experienced alone. Friends stop texting, people move on with their lives, their education, their careers. Shared time resumes its flow, while the ill person remains in stasis. Moreover, suffering from a poorly-understood illness opens one up to the callous treatment long-suffered by people with related illnesses like CFS/ME, where the oxymoronic question of whether it is ‘just depression’ can be seen in people’s eyes. People once-trusted to reliably support feelings of being understood no longer fulfil their regulative role.
Can these people expect to return to the things that previously supported their emotional lives, or must they rebuild an entirely new regulatory repertoire, erecting new affective scaffolds from the rubble?
Knowing so little about the condition only exacerbates this. Some journalistic pieces have referred to the condition as ‘lifelong’ - a little irresponsibly, given that nobody’s post-acute morbidity precedes 2019. Nonetheless, while some have recovered, many have not. Can these people expect to return to the things that previously supported their emotional lives, or must they rebuild an entirely new regulatory repertoire, erecting new affective scaffolds from the rubble?
We do not (yet) have the answers to these questions.
What we must work on in the mean-time, I suggest, is our ability to get comfortable with the fact that our experiences are not homogeneous. We must attend to the fact that our bodily and interpersonal circumstances create for each of us a unique existential predicament. Only when we get comfortable with this can we foster resilience and better support people in their unique circumstances through and after this period of drastic upheaval.