What Has the Coronavirus Crisis Taught Us About Ideas of Home and Identity?
The coronavirus lockdown message is clear: 'Stay at home', prompting for many of us questions about where home is and what it means to us
Psychotherapist Christina Moutsou explores an anthropological view on the Covid-19 crisis
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Every morning I wake up to dreams I can only half remember of city bazaars full of street food stalls, planes taking me to destinations I have never been to, meeting friends in parties. My brain must be registering what is no longer there, trying to alert me to it. In one of my dreams, I meet three of my friends from the time I was doing anthropological fieldwork in Brussels, who now live in three different parts of the world. I remark how rare it is for all of us to find ourselves in the same place. We meet in a Pakistani café in East London bustling with life.
There has never been, I think, a more rife time for anthropological research on the effects of globalisation and at the same time, on how cultural context affects all of us. I feel blessed to have a number of patients from around the world, some of whom I had worked with on Skype only even before. This transports me regularly to other cultures and how strikingly cultural specificity and globalisation have come together during this escalating crisis. What I mean by that is that all my patients, no matter where they are in the world, have now been asked to stay at home.
Yet, where they are and of course, with whom they are, is a significant factor in the experience. Hygiene practices, their relationship with the urban or rural landscape around them, their view on their local government’s politics, their position with regards to religion and spirituality, their everyday habits, life as we all know it in our particular context has been shattered, yet the context still matters. Personally, I miss access to water, preferably the sea, painfully. I imagine that those in lockdown near water will have freedom that I just cannot access at the moment, yet, I know this is a fantasy reminding me what home feels like to me.
Where is home?
Culture is everywhere at the moment, especially as we are all asked to stay stranded in one place, a place we may realise we don’t find easy to call home. In fact, this is one of the pressing questions that has come up for many people. Where is home? And what if one calls home more than one places, places that they cannot longer visit, where beloved ones live?
Living in a highly mobile globalised world meant that up to now, we could all, to an extent at least, pick and choose where home was. We could move effortlessly, not realising that making a choice was going to be demanded of us. I found that for some of my patients, as well as for some of my friends, the question became pertinent, right from the beginning of the crisis. Some had to make a decision very quickly before most flights were cancelled, a decision that brought to the fore a web of relationships that they prioritised over some others. Would choosing to fly to another country to be with family be seen as jumping ship by their work colleagues and friends where they ordinarily live? Others had to say goodbye to elderly parents living in another country in full knowledge that the goodbye may be final, that they may not be able to attend their funeral in the event of their death.
Ultimately, home for all of us is being with beloved ones. Yet, many stories travelled from Italy about people dying alone in hospitals, not able to see their family, to say goodbye. Stories like that have started becoming a reality in the UK too, especially in London. As much as our access to technology has made us realise in how many different ways connectedness is possible, if only one is open to it, there are limits to how much technology can serve us when it comes to moments of life and death. Babies born under the coronavirus crisis, birthdays celebrated in isolation, illness that has to be endured at home alone or in an alienating hospital environment, surrounded by strangers wearing space suits. We are never too far away from tragedy, from losing our home with one another in the world.
On imprisonment and exile
Just at the beginning of the coronavirus crisis, and when it was certainly not being taken seriously in the UK, a friend of mine asked me to participate in a literary event in Greece on the theme of imprisonment and exile either literal or symbolic. I remarked that the themes may prove particularly timely, and it turned out that I was right! I think the current crisis highlights for all of us collectively, and each of us individually, where we may be imprisoned or in exile in our life. Of course, there is the literal imprisonment in relationships one may no longer want or abusive family situations and violent couple dynamics, as it has been pointed out by the media already. Or feeling exiled from the country many members of our family live in, even from our lives as we had constructed them before. The freedom to make a choice, which in many ways we had taken for granted in our contemporary world, has now been removed and so, psychically, symbolically or even literally, we are all prisoners or refugees trying to get by.
Some of the stories I hear in my practice are about couples who escaped their everyday reality in order to be isolated together, yet some of them have found that they have unwittingly built a prison around them and, scarily, they don’t know for how long the imprisonment will last. Others are in lockdown alone, and while this may have felt like the right choice to begin with, in the sense that it is better to be alone in enclosure rather than with somebody else who may trigger or threaten you, they are now finding that not sharing the same physical space with others and not knowing when this will end, has locked them into an emotional desert that puts into question their mental survival. And we are only at the beginning.
Humour and food
I find humour and food have brought my anthropologist and psychoanalyst selves together during the current crisis. Has there been anybody who has not received innumerable jokes on their mobile and who has not been tempted to share with friends and family? Or anybody who has not found that their day revolves around three meals, which now involve planning, cooking and even, fantasising about them? It has certainly been one of the most positive effects of the virus for families and couples, the sharing of three meals a day, every day. Statistics say that couples who eat together stay together, and certainly, there is no family life that does not resolve around food, admittedly not always in a good way. Anthropologists would say that the sharing of food has been the glue keeping all traditional societies together, yet in our modern urban world, food had often become something to just manage and spend as little time as possible on during a busy working day.
Food of course, allows us to focus on the pleasure principle, the life instinct and we all need a healthy dose of it at the moment. As for jokes, there has hardly been a time before in our experience, where regulating our feelings seems crucial for survival. Humour allows for the bleakest and the most unpalatable to be expressed in a form that seems to entertain us at least for a little while. It speaks of the inevitable reality that at times like this, we will all come face to face with what Jung has called ‘the shadow’, our darkest thoughts and fears. If we can at least laugh about it, it may be that fear will not win over the best of us.