Month: April 2020

Children of the Pandemic

murray schane state of mind

As a toddler during World War II, playing in our comfy living room in Detroit, I was unaware of the fear and anxiety that permeated the adult life around me. Not just the threat of war possibly arriving at our shore, but the knowledge that my parent’s families in France were possibly subject to the horrors of the holocaust. And word of their fate, their actual status, was unavailing.

When the news came home, after the war had ended, both parents were devastated, my mother especially. She had saved up during the depression years to bring her parents to live in the U.S. They came for a year in 1938, but, unable to speak English and missing their younger children, they returned to Paris in 1939. Paris fell to the Nazis in 1940. Then, on a hot July day in 1942, the French police, eager to please their Nazi overlords, undertook the mass arrest of Jews in the infamous Vel’ d’Hiv’ roundup. Among those 12,000 were my mother’s parents and two of her sisters, ultimately sent to be murdered at Auschwitz. That news devastated my mother.

I cannot measure the effect of living as a child through those tense and grievous early years. Perhaps it’s one reason I ultimately became a psychiatrist. I know I had an especially keen sense of empathy for the suffering of my patients. But I also retained the kind of clinical objectivity that perhaps replicates a child’s eye-view of adults in despair: closely observed and felt, but yet socially distant.

Now, locked in self-quarantine with their parents and with no live interaction with peers, children are subject to the pressured environment around them. The major impact originates from two perspectives: one is the emotional temperature of the caretakers, principally parents, and other co-inhabitants. The stress that the adults (and older siblings) experience inevitably impacts children, the way they witness and observe and experience the behavioral tone in the home.

A second impact derives from the way parents and others directly interact with children. Isolation with children at home continually day in and day out creates issues about relating to and tolerating children who are also unused to extended contact with parents. Discipline and caretaking become redefined merely by force of the conditions of constant contact.

Children are as adversely affected by the social containment forced on them as are the older family members. And children’s tendency to react to conditions forced upon them is not seasoned and reasoned by the rationales available to adults.

 

“[T]he mounting effect of stress on children may result in problems in adaptability on a scale we have never seen before”

 

Fear and anxiety are emotionally contagious. Groups of people are genetically programmed to spread anxiety and panic under massed conditions. Social isolation, though tempered by the reduced number and familiarity, is none-the-less a condition where mood is readily caught and embedded, transferred between each other. Empathy, so much a human trait, when paired with the brain’s flight-or-fight reactivity can overwhelm even the most mature and affectively restrained person.

The coronavirus crisis is a stark example of rapidly spreading panic, exemplified by the enormous surge toward stocking toilet paper. The problem for children is that their capacity to self-soothe and to temper emotional flare-ups is not fully or adequately developed. Children react intensely. Nor can they accurately delimit or correctly interpret the emotional messages coming at them from the adults in the room.

The problem is further extended by the neural plasticity that allows for adaptation to new conditions as well as acquiring new adaptive patterns. Living under stressful conditions affects the neural development of the brains of children and creates adverse patterns of brain-based behavior, mood and social interaction. Stress, experienced directly or vicariously, can reset multiple neural pathways in the developing child’s brain.

With the likelihood that the coronavirus crisis will force sustained social isolation, the mounting effect of stress on children may result in problems in adaptability on a scale we have never seen before.

This, of course, necessitates that parents and intimate caretakers of children are tasked with the need to contain their own emotional lability and to develop methods to assuage the effects of stress on their children.

We are living in an endangered new world, not one only threatened by the mounting effects of climate change, the extinction of critical animal species, the uncertainty of politics, economics, and global relations, but under the siege of fear, anxiety, and endemic stress due to the coronavirus terror.

“Oh brave new world…”

The Passover Lesson That Can Save us All

 

 

 

 

The central tenet of the Jewish holiday, Passover, is the celebration of God’s deliverance of the Jews from slavery. But that deliverance came because the Jews were warned to paint their doors with the blood of a sacrificial lamb so that God’s wrath would spare the Jews of the slaughter of their first-born sons. That was the final plague Moses proclaimed against the Egyptians. The pharaoh’s refusal to free the Jews when faced with this tenth, terrible plague forced God’s hand. But the Jews had to act on God’s instruction, on faith that their sons would be spared. Yet, again, fleeing the attack by Egyptian soldiers, they gathered at the edge of the sea, acting on the belief that they would somehow cross it. And God parted the sea, allowing the Jews to pass, then folded the sea back, drowning the pursuing soldiers.

A very dramatic story, one braced against the grim history of the holocaust. But what is the lesson here? First is the recognition that the entire Passover legend is based on no traceable truths. There is no evidence that Jews were enslaved in Egypt, that almost a million escaped and journeyed through Sinai eventually to found Israel. Passover marks not only divine interventions but also the willing faith of the Jews and their daring decision to follow divine instruction and act accordingly.

 

“The denial of susceptibility rages even as proof of the contagion mushrooms exponentially.”

 

Deliverance from slavery resonates with the experience of pestilence. It is fitting that that deliverance was wrought by ten plagues. But slavery was the greater plague.  Hitler viewed the Jews as a global pestilence to be eradicated. The very idea of pestilence has pursued Jews at least from the time of the diaspora, after the sack of the temple and the genocide inflicted by the Romans in 60 AD. Almost everywhere in Europe where plagues occurred, and they occurred regularly, Jews were often blamed and punished. These reprisals, though obviously racist, represented attempts to secure deliverance from pestilence.

Today the coronavirus has arrived as a massive plague that spreads because of the core of human civilization—the instinctive trend toward socialization. We can now remove most traces of mythologization. COVID-19, like most viruses, exists in the natural order that ties them to the great evolutionary chain which all living things partake in.

Deliverance from this pestilence requires action faithful to belief in the scientific theory of contagion. Like the enslaved Jews of ancient Egypt, apocryphal as that story may be, people today must act on the recommendations offered by science.

Yet the tendency to assert blame on others, invoking racial and xenophobic slurs, has once again emerged. The denial of susceptibility rages even as proof of the contagion mushrooms exponentially. The allocation and the hoarding of medical resources recapitulate ideas of special privileging. Our democratic society is back-sliding, falling prey to eons-old fears framing one against the other.

The major preventative, physical isolation, also creates social isolation. But this preventive measure feels like an ancient enslavement, an imprisonment. But it is an act we must follow, as the Passover story reminds us, in order to find deliverance. And we must do it generously and faithfully.

We will prevail. Only save ourselves from the worst.

 

 

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