Tuesday, October 19

Boris Johnson’s Lack of Clarity is Unloading Christmas Anxiety on the Nation | Coronavirus

TThere is nothing more concerning than being told not to worry, when there are clearly things to worry about. Like the super broadcast event formerly known as Christmas. Don’t worry, it’s still on! Or, technically, it’s still on because canceling Christmas would be “inhumane,” according to Prime Minister Boris Johnson. With the slight caveat that, if we can, we shouldn’t choose to celebrate in person the old-fashioned way. Not that I want to spoil our collective enjoyment or anything, but the less we spend time with family, the less likely we are to kill thousands of people. But hey, who is the prime minister to tell us what to do?

By trying so hard to be really nice, Johnson risks driving us all crazy. Instead of instructing us on what to do (and basing his edict on the course of action that is likely to cause the least harm), he invites us to “think carefully and carefully” about how to handle Christmas. As I gather from the people I work with in therapy, this is precisely what everyone was already doing. Anyone with any kind of conscience is beating their head, calculating all the eventualities that can result from showing up for lunch within a week, one of which involves inadvertently killing their elderly parents.

“Thinking carefully and in detail” is basically a friendly-sounding description of the symptoms of obsessive neurosis, a mental disorder that involves reflecting on the possibilities of life to the point where life itself becomes impossible: “What happens? If mom thinks we’re using Covid to avoid her? What if we still go but eat outside? How would we keep our food warm? Could the garden be overcrowded? What if it rains? We could get a mini tent but What if Granny died of hypothermia? Maybe we could eat inside with our masks and just slide the food underneath … “

By not making difficult decisions and refusing to set clear guidelines, Johnson has taken the anxiety out of the general population. Good leaders make decisions for us to help our collective lives run better. To do this, they have to be psychologically robust enough to risk the possibility that people may not like it or that something will go wrong. They take the pain of the election on our behalf. What they definitely don’t do is pleasantly pretend they’re doing us a favor by shirking responsibility. This does not help a nation relax during the festive season.

What the government has mysteriously forgotten is that many of us have become used to the idea that things are a little different at this point. We won’t have a tantrum if you tell us to spend a little more time at home. We are veterans at this. Someone will come up with a cheesy national activity that we can all do at noon, and it will be fine. A forced “shitty Christmas” might even give us back some of the shared sense of purpose that we had at the beginning of the pandemic, before our confidence and fatigue wore off and we began to create our own guidelines in the absence of rules that make sense.

At this point in the pandemic, a little clarity would be a welcome relief from having to figure out every social interaction, or even how the queuing system works at your local coffee shop. Conflicting advice makes people stop trying altogether. How can you reconcile yourself by obediently sending your children to school until the end of the term, keeping them in a Covid-safe environment for two weeks before grandparents visit, and having Christmas on allotted dates? (Answer: you can’t). Obeying the rules may be impossible, disobeying them is irresponsible, and even obeying them may be considered morally doubtful when Johnson himself seems to be telling us that they are not actually fit for purpose. With such a grand celebration on the horizon, it is actually anxiety-inducing to have privileged personal enjoyment over collective security. If Johnson wants to please, he might do better if he’s prepared to limit our enjoyment a bit and thereby reduce our fear as well.

Political reactions to Covid often seem to reinforce a false dichotomy between ugly authoritarianism and pleasant liberalism. With our best friend Boris Johnson, everyone is treated like a rational adult who thinks for himself. Whatever you do for Christmas is okay if you think it is. I have it? But rules, a sense of structure, and boundaries, if agreed to by consensus, can actually be kind to people. No one is calling for the return of the Victorian patriarch, imposing dictates from top to bottom with the crash of an iron fist. We would be happy with a Winnicottian “good enough”Father – someone a little funny and receptive, but who is also occasionally prepared to set some rules for our own interests.

Politicians have the option of looking at the numbers, listening to experts, explaining the deadly consequences of large gatherings, developing rules for the welfare of all, and trusting that most of us will be happy to accept them. This is precisely what happened in March, albeit after a prolonged period of gurgling and bravado. And, as a look at the charts shows, it worked. How difficult can it be to convince people that the same magic could happen twice? Along with the launch of the vaccine, we would see cases decrease, rather than increase, in the new year.

If Johnson isn’t ready to do it, can we agree that Christmas is off? I’ll take the blame if you don’t.


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