The Viral Wake-up Call

Questioning Core Beliefs

Magazine Issue
May/June 2020
A headshot of a man


It is not that you must be free from fear. The moment you try to free yourself from fear, you create a resistance against fear. Resistance, in any form, does not end fear. What is needed, rather than running away or controlling or suppressing or any other resistance, is understanding fear; that means, watch it, learn about it, come directly into contact with it. We are to learn about fear, not how to escape from it, not how to resist it through courage and so on.

—J. Krishnamurti

When people are dominated by striving, individualistic, and materialistic inner parts that, by certain measures, seem to bring them success, they won’t change, regardless of any collateral damage to their other parts, relationships, or physical health. The same is true for countries that are dominated by similar forces; leaders ignore the damage to the majority of their people and the health of the climate and the earth.

Such domination, however, usually results in a crash of some kind that can be a wake-up call. For type A people, it might be the survivable heart attack, a divorce, or hitting bottom with an addiction. For countries, it’s wars, economic depressions, plagues, and climate-change crises, all of which are the product of their obsessions with unlimited growth. As the cost of the mindless striving becomes more evident, such events can shock the system into questioning its core beliefs.

This can lead to major reform. For example, after the Great Depression came the New Deal, and for the first time, our country instituted some safety nets for ordinary people, like social security and increased taxes on the wealthy, creating a secure middle class that lasted until the Reagan era. Amid the current pandemic, the problems with our harsh post-Reagan form of capitalism—the pain and vulnerability of the majority of Americans, who live on the financial edge and can’t afford a crisis like this—are glaringly apparent. What’s also clear is how totally interdependent we are, so not taking care of parts of our country will come back to bite us, no matter who we are.

Eric Klinenberg, professor of sociology and director of the Institute for Public Knowledge at New York University, writes: “The cheap burger I eat from a restaurant that denies paid sick leave to its cashiers and kitchen staff makes me more vulnerable to illness, as does the neighbor who refuses to stay home in a pandemic because our public school failed to teach him science or critical thinking skills. The economy—and the social order it helps support—will collapse if the government doesn’t guarantee income for the millions of workers who will lose their jobs in a major recession or depression. Young adults will fail to launch if government doesn’t help reduce or cancel their student debt. The coronavirus pandemic is going to cause immense pain and suffering. But it will force us to reconsider who we are and what we value, and, in the long run, it could help us rediscover the better version of ourselves.”

At a larger level, this may be an unignorable message from the earth, telling us that we need to wake up to the ways we’re abusing her. As writer Umair Haque posted on Medium in March, “Do you see how suddenly, while economic ‘growth’ has stalled, pollution has come to a dead stop, fish are returning to Venice’s canals, and trees can breathe again? That’s about as big a hint as the universe can send us.” This is a hopeful sign that the earth and other ecosystems can quickly heal, once we stop abusing them.

It would be nice if we heeded this wake-up call and didn’t need harsher ones, because as Haque also points out, “Coronavirus is just a warmup for the main event. What happens when climate change bites—like it’s going to in the next decade? When people aren’t just quarantined—but entire cities are beginning to sink, or continents burn? What happens when ecological collapse convulses entire global supply chains, which can’t operate without enough topsoil, water, energy? Or when mass extinction rips the bottom out of all the ‘resources’ we take for granted, whether timber or silicon? Bang!”

COVID-19 entered our lives the same way that nearly all pandemics have—from wildlife—and our constant expansion into their habitats. “Any emerging disease in the last 30 or 40 years has come about as a result of encroachment into wild lands and changes in demography,” says Peter Daszak, a disease ecologist and the president of EcoHealth Alliance. In fact, emerging diseases have quadrupled in the last half-century, experts say, largely because of increasing human encroachment into habitat, especially in disease hot spots around the globe. This encroachment has a number of sources, including ecologically insensitive economic development, population growth, and poverty. So if there’s any message this virus is sending to the world, it’s that we’d better slow down and take better care of our people and our precious earth.

It’s possible that this massive shock to our planetary and national systems will wake up enough leaders that we can get off the suicide train we’ve been on and create a slower, fairer, greener one for ourselves. I believe a lot of that depends on how each of us responds to this crisis. If we begin to listen to inner parts we normally override and neglect, we’ll learn that they’re hurting and want more space in our lives. This may lead to a major reshuffling of our internal family system and, in turn, our lifestyle. We’ll become more Self-led, working toward balance, harmony, and connectedness.

Self, our innate high wisdom, is contagious. The more Self each of us brings to the world, the more our leaders will too. To access more Self, however, we first have to separate from, and work with, the massive fear that comes with such a survival-threatening event, and with all the other parts of us that are trying to cope with that fear by denying, minimizing, or distracting from it.

As Abraham Maslow taught us, it’s hard to work on self-actualization when your basic needs are in peril—and that’s the case for so many Americans right now. Many will lose their jobs and businesses and have little or no safety net. Those who are better off will watch their life savings disappear with the economic crash. Most of us aren’t used to our lives feeling this out of control. Instead, we’ve had the sense that, while we’ll get old and eventually die, what happens to us otherwise is fairly predictable. That’s no longer true, and it’s terrifying to many of our inner parts.

And yet, amid the terror, the Self in each of us is always there—the “I” in the storm, the calm depth beneath the roiling waves. There is always Self. No matter how triggered and extreme our parts, if we can get them to separate enough, we’ll have access to at least some of the eight qualities of Self—calmness, curiosity, clarity, compassion, confidence, courage, creativity, connectedness—and we’ll be able to be with our fear, rather than be in it.

Of course, being with fear in a loving way is challenging, especially when everyone is telling us just to overcome it, to triumph over it. People have been passing around Franklin D. Roosevelt’s famous statement that “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” To that I counter, “the only thing we have to fear is our contempt for our fear.” Fear emanates from young parts of us, which need the love and comfort of our Self, not the disdain of our macho parts.

If we can connect with these younger parts, we can find out if their current fear is coming from a place in the past, a traumatic childhood perhaps, when our lives were beyond our control and terrifying. If yes, then we can be with them in the comforting way we needed as children and unburden their extreme beliefs and emotions. In this way, we’re allowing the pandemic to be a great “tor-mentor”—by tormenting us, it’s mentoring us about what we need to heal.

Or we might find parts that carry “legacy burdens”—extreme feelings or beliefs that came from traumas that happened to our ancestors and were passed down the generations. Legacy burdens from historic holocausts, famines, plagues, or wars will naturally arise during a crisis like this and are powerful organizers of our experience. Once detected as such, they can often be quickly unloaded as we realize they no longer pertain.

It may be, however, that these fearful parts are not frozen in the past but realistically afraid of the dire circumstances we face in the present. This is more challenging because we can’t reassure them that, for example, we’re no longer children and can prevent bad things from happening to us.

I’m reminded of an episode in my life three years ago, when my wife, Jeanne, and I were visiting my brother and sister-in-law in Hawai‘i. It was a day of very high surf, and despite Jeanne’s warnings, I decided to wade into the shallows, assuming I was safe if the water didn’t get past my thighs. I unknowingly took a step off a drop-off and was suddenly in the middle of a riptide pulling me quickly out to sea. Not knowing any better, I tried to swim directly back to shore and got nowhere. I tried to rest by rolling onto my back, but the waves washed into my mouth, and I started choking.

As I got increasingly fatigued, it began to dawn on me that I might not make it. Parts of me began screaming repeatedly in my head, “We’re going to die!” I was able to separate from them enough to let them feel me saying, “We might die, but I’ll be with you as we do,” and I sensed them calm down. Just when I was ready to give up, my sister-in-law arrived at the beach, saw me struggling, and pointed frantically for me to swim horizontally, toward the huge waves, which was counterintuitive but turned out to be what I needed to do to get back to shore. I barely had enough energy to do that and was eventually carried in by the waves. I learned later that a man had drowned in that same spot days earlier, so I felt extremely lucky.

The point of sharing this story is that even in the face of real danger, it’s possible to hold your parts. Sure, it’s difficult—I had years of experience showing my parts that things go better when they separate and let me handle things, so they trusted me enough to do that. But Self-leadership is clearly helpful in dire circumstances. It may not lead to the kind of life-saving luck I had, but it’s always better to face your challenges from a place of calm, courage, clarity, and confidence, rather than from scared, dissociating, or impulsive parts.

Once you access a bit more Self, you may find that, as is true for the earth as the polluting decreases, you begin to heal. That is, as the extreme, individualistic, materialistic inner parts that had dominated your life, elevated by what it takes to make it in our culture, are forced to step back, you might find that you love the emergence of other exiled parts, which can play, or be creative, or enjoy nature. Like the fish returning to Venice’s canals, as your exiled parts return, you may decide to change your life to make room for them.

The more Self we bring to this crisis, the more likely its lessons will be learned at all levels—planetary, national, and individual. As the poet Rainer Maria Rilke said, “Let me not squander the hour of my pain.”

Richard Schwartz

Richard Schwartz, PhD, is co-author, with Michael Nichols, of Family Therapy: Concepts and Methods, the most widely used family therapy text in the United States. Dr. Schwartz developed Internal Family Systems in response to clients’ descriptions of experiencing various parts–many extreme–within themselves. He noticed that when these parts felt safe and had their concerns addressed, they were less disruptive and would accede to the wise leadership of what Dr. Schwartz came to call the “Self.” In developing IFS, he recognized that, as in systemic family theory, parts take on characteristic roles that help define the inner world of the clients. The coordinating Self, which embodies qualities of confidence, openness, and compassion, acts as a center around which the various parts constellate. Because IFS locates the source of healing within the client, the therapist is freed to focus on guiding the client’s access to his or her true Self and supporting the client in harnessing its wisdom. This approach makes IFS a non-pathologizing, hopeful framework within which to practice psychotherapy. It provides an alternative understanding of psychic functioning and healing that allows for innovative techniques in relieving clients symptoms and suffering.