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Making Sense: Understanding the Meaning We See in the COVID-19 Pandemic

By Laurence Barrett




In the early 1980s, a social scientist called Gordon Lawrence began to suspect that there was a wider social context to people’s dreams. He saw images from dreams being shared across groups that he worked with, each in turn generating new images and associations like echoes, with each echo seeming to amplify a broader theme arising from the broader social context of the dreamers. Lawrence came to believe that in these groups the dream was a shared phenomenon arising from the unconscious of the dreamers as a collective rather than as individuals.


Lawrence suggested that if we think about our dreams as products of our social context, rather than simply arising from our individual unconscious, we may begin to open up new insights into the world around us. These insights may allow group members to begin to make better sense of that world, and so be better able to tolerate the uncertainty they may experience in times of change. He called his idea "Social Dreaming". For some time, I have been struck by a similar effect in my online supervision groups, where coaches and consultants bring cases from their work for discussion. These cases often contain images and associations that, over time reappear in other cases and suggest a significance beyond the cases themselves. As the COVID-19 pandemic began to take hold, I noticed that these images and associations became particularly charged and the supervision groups began to focus less on the specific cases people brought, and more on the shared symbolism and the feelings that arose from them. Our discussions began to emphasise our shared context and it felt as though participants were using the groups as an 'excuse' to gather and surface something that could not be expressed in any other way.


I set aside sessions specifically to discuss the pandemic and following a number of very rich conversations decided to extend the scope of the groups. I established a series of weekly groups, where six individuals, would discuss how they were feeling about the pandemic. The groups were deliberately not curated, as I wanted to focus on the themes that arose, not on the individuals themselves. I also wanted to encourage the presence of the unconscious rather that the rational mind, so each group was asked three questions only; what brings you here; how are you feeling; and at the end of each session, how are you feeling now? The discussion was allowed to flow freely, and I captured the themes and images as they arose.


Over the next 14 weeks, people from around the world gathered on Zoom and I summarised the themes and images from each session. Some participants came once, others came on multiple occasions and each meeting began to feel like a combination of rekindled friendships and strangers to be welcomed into the community. From the beginning participants found it hard to name their emotions and instead brought a series of intense and overwhelming experiences and images. We explored scenes of rage, like the image of a women with an allergic cough, who was ejected harshly from a store by an angry and terrified manager, or the impulse to hit another person in a supermarket queue for complaining too loudly. The calls began with what felt like a striking intensity of images, and an almost primitive, charged energy that continued to permeate our conversations. We explored the pervasive symbol of toilet paper and the apparent need across the world to hoard it. We wondered whether (as Freud may have suggested) this was an act of 'anal aggression' intended to punish an absent parent, who is expected to swoop in and save us from our fear, or whether we were simply afraid of losing control. Were we unconsciously terrified of literally 'shitting themselves’?


We discussed how the words we saw from our politicians were interesting as symbols in themselves, revealing projections onto the virus as an ‘enemy' that can be 'defeated' in a 'war' rather than an inevitable force of nature. We wondered about the purpose that this may serve; perhaps condensing and simplifying the fear within the politicians themselves to something more manageable. Behind all of this was the idea of fear itself, given form in the symbols of the everyday. We discussed the symbol of the virus as an 'unseen killer', an embodiment perhaps of archetypal fear itself; a psychotic terror of the unknown which Wilfred Bion termed a 'nameless dread’. As the weeks progressed, the emotional tone of the groups changed and the, often manic, discussion gave way to prolonged silence. We discussed our experience of time and a shared feeling that while time seemed shorter and more immediate, it also felt more emotionally charged, as though something deeply profound was about to happen. People described dreams that were returning them to childhood and places they had long since forgotten.


Behind all of this was the idea of fear itself, given form in the symbols of the everyday. Maternal images began to feature more frequently and sparked reflections on the directive patriarchal leadership we saw in organisations and governments. We wondered about the low value that we had historically placed on care and nurture and the way the maternal archetype had systematically been devalued in past decades. Now we needed the medics and carers we were cheering for them, but we wondered what would happen to these 'heroes' after the threat had passed: Would they be returned to their previously lowly place in the social order?


One participant described a cleaner at her workplace who was noticeably diligent in his work, and how she had thought about him a lot over recent weeks. She told the group how nice it was to see him when she returned to the office, but suggested that if she had told him, she worried that he would be surprised or confused. Another described how the people in her office do not even look at the cleaners, who fill and empty the dishwasher in the communal kitchen, suggesting that the thought made her sad as 'without them people will not be able to get even a cup of tea’. We began to notice the natural world. Participants discussed the sound of birds and the group reverie often returned us to considering to our place in the world. We discussed fantasies of how we would live our lives in a more meaningful and connected way once the pandemic had passed. In time the anxiety moved from the immediacy of the virus to a collective fear that we may return to normal after the pandemic, without having learned its lessons.


As lockdown restrictions began to ease in many countries, we discussed a strong sense of grief that for some, accompanied this change. We explored shared feelings of transition and leaving, anticipation and anxiety and the rites of passage and rituals that accompany these. One person described how they were drawn to traditional songs where the bride leaves home for a new life, and quoted a short verse from a Sufi poet: 'My father! I'm leaving home...Your courtyard is now like a mountain, and the threshold a foreign country’. The groups began to take on the energy of the early meetings and, felt scattered and chaotic, it was hard for me to keep track of the images that arose and the flow of the discussion that followed them. Participants described an apparent need by colleagues to 'compulsively reconnect’ or form new relationships and a blurring of personal and professional boundaries in what felt like an 'oversharing' with possibly inappropriate 'banter'. The Black Lives Matter protests happening at the time, felt very present, not as discussions of racial inequality, but as images of a social order that felt broken and displaced. From this chaos emerged the images of death and birth that we hold onto to guide us through the fear of the unknown and the unknowable. Women in the group described the physical feeling of pregnancy and the process of birth as a 'traumatic', 'ugly', 'painful' and 'messy' process that is the beginning of life. People described the experiences of emerging from the lockdown as 'really hard work' and a sense that the uncertainty and strangeness of the world that was now beginning to emerge was as overwhelming as the beginning of pandemic.


Our final sessions seemed to be filled with questions.... How do we reconnect now? How do we renegotiate the web of relationships in our societies? What relationships do we value? What unspoken and previously repressed 'fault lines' are exposed? What will we take with us from the unstructured freedom of the liminal world, to the structured space s of organisations? Will there be changes in how we value and treat people around us? We wondered whether the idea of birth felt premature. Were we ready to be born? As the fourteenth session ended, I reflected on my original intention to run the groups until no one came. This final session was striking as for the first time, people had signed up for the group, but not attended. Although we were still a group of three and I did not sit alone for 90 minutes as I had promised myself, I felt the time had come to draw the calls to a close. I held one final meeting where I invited all the participants, a total of 54 people, many of whom had not met before to share their reflections of their experiences. The images raised here were of sanctuary, where the group meetings were 'like little campfires in a dark forest'. People described a shared experience and a sense of being part of a larger group.


A matrix seemed to have formed that itself created an imagined space. The process of sharing feelings and making sense of them together was seen as valuable and containing. For some the experience had spilled into everyday life, with a greater sensitivity towards the world around them and some relationships had extended beyond the calls. There was also a sense of sadness and even some resentment that the calls had finished. One participant described the series of calls as 'a temple on a hill, whose presence was comforting, even when they chose not to visit. The fact that it was there was enough. As I reflect on this 'sacred space', my hope is that something of it remains with the participants who created it, and that each of them will go on to create spaces of their own.

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