It’s day something of the lockdown and I’m surrounded by images that I don’t understand. There’s an image of a pizza that’s trying to kill me, it’s on the main news three times a day, as if on repeat. Nobody is quite sure where it came from or where it’s going. There are lots of statistics, infinite statistics, but they are just that, and when it comes to human action images always win out. So we have all these images, a malevolent pizza, an old hand peering out of the sheets, lots of tubes, space suits, respectful distances, but then glimpses of patients up close. Dying. We saw them. Not the lucky ones being applauded as they’re wheeled down the corridors but the other ones, the other half, the statistics tell us, from intensive care.
The only problem is that I’m not sure if I dreamt these images. They weren’t repeated, they must have been censored out, if they were ever broadcast in the first place. Like everyone else my dreams are disturbed – long, vivid, colourful dreams every night, always remembered in the morning – so odd.
Dreams (from the Bible onwards) so much a part of everyday, consequential real life. Either, the brain just shuffling through the files of the day for better storage or the repressed unconscious breaking through in great Freudian symbolic forms. Open to interpretation.
I’ve never had so many old ‘close friends’ walk back into my life, sometimes at the same time and I spend the whole dream trying to keep them apart. I’ve promised to go out for dinner with each of them at the same time (that’s last night’s dream) and I wake up sweating (surely not a night sweat?) and anxious, with the dilemma unresolved. A dream driven by repressed anxiety about loneliness and isolation, these ‘close friends’ coming back in their droves after all these years to show that I’m not alone, I’m surrounded. Images that terrify me, not about dying in a room without any psychological connection with people, but the terror of embarrassment when these ‘close friends’ finally meet. It’s good to be awake.
I go for a run in my socially-distanced bubble. The streets are full of runners. I’ve never seen so many and I run every day. But these are strange times, there’s none of that runners’ nod and smile of recognition. I’m anonymous, even without any mask. I’m not connecting, none of us are. The images of the wicked pizza and the hacking coughs have got through to us all.
Fear can work for behaviour change when it’s ladled on like this. But what’s it going to be like afterwards? How do you remove that fear? I’ve heard some pundits talk about the rise of nationalism, but one can imagine a return to stranger, even earlier times, the psychology of the small group, the comfort of the tribe, the pull of the familiar, the closeness of the family, that’s when you feel safe.
I bump into some friends and acquaintances from my gym, shrinking before my very eyes, searching the grey streets of Salford for some half-finished building to do some pull-ups or push-ups. I’ve seen all the work that they’ve put in over many years in that gym to build themselves into temples. And the temples have crumbled down before us all. The businesses that they run, and the years of hard graft behind all that, are never mentioned, they don’t have to be. I just look at the physical image and see enough. It will take years to recover, to get back to what we once had. The harsh reality – not a dream.
Geoffrey Beattie is Professor of Psychology at Edge Hill University.