Increasingly, I read and hear the words: “The pandemic has divided our society. The pandemic has split us apart. The pandemic is tearing deep rifts between us; it will take a long time to overcome them.” Every time I read that, it confuses me. The pandemic is an event. An event that is there, it can be observed, described, and named as such based on the defined criteria. The event itself cannot divide. 

The so-called division, if we can call it that, happens through us people, through the reaction to an event via our thinking, feeling, acting. And this reaction does not solely happen out of ourselves, but is a consequence of communication which then results in thoughts, feelings, behavior, judgments. The judgments consist of good vs. bad, right vs. wrong, etc. In this way, we copy what we hear being communicated. Unreflectively, unconsciously, consciously, reflectively. That’s how new rules of social coexistence emerge. We do not discuss and decide these rules individually with each other, but they are a result of communication. We are currently experiencing the fact that these rules and norms do not develop over years as is usually the case in social processes, but rather in a fast-paced manner due to reactions to external circumstances.

I perceive a lot of fear and guilt communication being used in the context of the pandemic. This may accelerate social processes and the establishment of rules. I even found fear in how cautious we were with one another to be useful, especially at the beginning of this pandemic when so much was new and unknown. However, I perceive an ongoing rhetoric based on fear and guilt as a destructive form of communication in the long run. Guilt segregates, simplifies and reduces complex issues to seemingly simple causalities: if…then…This whole rhetoric of guilt and fear in turn shapes our thinking and actions. Persistent anxiety at the individual level can cause subtle stress and negatively impact health. And also on a collective level, coexistence in fear is full of tension, strain and over-stress rather than relaxation, calmness and serenity.

So what can be done to overcome division?

For me personally, so-called division in social interaction is reduced to mutual judgments. Yet there are linguistic tones that can certainly promote division: devaluing, condemning, smiling at, bossing around, knowing better… All these forms belong to the category of the asymmetrical type of communication, i.e. the opposite of listening respectfully to opposing positions, and can be found on all sides of opinion. The transmitted energy is exactly the same in my perception. And political decision-makers and the media also very often use highly judgmental language and thus contribute to the division.

One premise applied to me personally in my interactions during this pandemic: To behave socially responsible, to be careful with others and to respect their needs in social interaction in the current situation and be aware of mine. Without judgment. The latter, however, is the master discipline. The greater degree of desired caution, e.g. in terms of keeping one’s distance or in the form that personal meetings take, is then the deciding factor. There does not have to be division at all, in my opinion, if I respect my counterpart and vice versa. However, we may all deal with what this pandemic or the event – the communication, the rules – triggers in us and does to us personally. Which of our personal issues become visible through the external circumstances and come to the surface? We can grow and outgrow crises on the individual level if we watch ourselves closely. We can learn how to deal with uncertainties and how to adapt to dynamic changes.

This pandemic does not divide us – we do it or do not.

Cologne, August 5th, 2021

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