By Mark B. Borg, Jr., Ph.D., author of Don’t Be a Dick: Change Yourself, Change the World
After weeks of lock-down in quarantine, my patient, Joe pops up on my computer screen for his regular psychotherapy session and says, “Dr. Borg, I keep on having this dream where I am a lifeguard on the beach, but each time someone is drowning I realize that I don’t have my bathing suit on. I am then confronted with the horrible realization that to save someone’s life will require me to embarrass and humiliate myself.”
The very first thing that one is taught in military lifeguard school is how to beat the holy hell out of the drowning victim—the very one who you are also attempting to save. The reason for this is that to a person who is drowning (that is, dying) the lifeguard represents just one thing: a breath. The desperation of the drowning person can be so extreme that, to the lifeguard, the drowning person represents a legitimate threat to her or his life. The only way for a lifeguard to both succeed and survive the difficult and dangerous task of saving a dying person is to take care of themself and others simultaneously.
Being an ex-military lifeguard and a clinical/community psychologist working in New York City who survived a good, solid ten days of COVID-19-related symptoms, I can tell you that taking care of ourselves in this pandemic is taking care of others. Ours is a collective experience where the psychology of personal responsibility and the constellation of personal/community/societal/global responses intersect and interact in ways that will have long-term ramifications for when and how we are transformed—positively and negatively—by this world crisis.
My co-authors and colleagues, Danny Berry, Dr. Grant Brenner and I have been developing a concept that we refer to as relationship sanity. It is a dynamic of healthy relationship where the people in relationship create and maintain a balance of giving and receiving, loving and being loved, as well as a reciprocity in the act of caring and being cared for. When we access the most up-to-date information about what is going in our world (specifically regarding safeguarding ourselves and others from exposure to the coronavirus), how to protect ourselves and each other, and then act accordingly—yes, I am talking about wearing your mask here—we can claim to be in a state of relationship sanity with, in, and for our world (i.e., all of us who exist here within it).
In contrast, is it not insane—relationship-wise and formally, clinically—to put ourselves and our neighbors at risk? And even if you are like me (and my wife) and already went through the hell of coronavirus (and therefore have developed antibodies), the wearing of a mask serves as a symbol of solidarity and a commitment to care for ourselves and our neighbors no matter what. Not to mention, regarding being immune from re-infection, there remains a mixed message of when and how one can actually consider oneself safe. If you’d experienced coronavirus firsthand as I have—both by contracting it myself and having friends, colleagues, and patients killed by it—you might feel that calling those who do put on their protective gear “masked crusaders,” heroes who are committed to the health and healing of our world, is anything but an exaggeration.
“Maybe it’s not either/or, Joe?” I suggest in response to his dream. “Did you think that perhaps you could put your trunks on before you go out to save the drowning person?”