The restrictions placed on all of us through Covid-19 are affecting people in very different ways.  Some of the ways in which we react may have their origins in our earliest years.

One child and a dog

Imagine a small child and their mother out for a walk in a park.  The child sees a large dog and its owner nearby and wants to go and stroke the dog.  In the first scenario, the mother reacts with tangible fear and says, ‘Don’t go near it.  Dogs can attack children and bite them very badly.  Come on, we’re going’.  In the second scenario, the mother enthusiastically says, ‘Dogs are great.  Go up to it and stroke it.  Just put your hand out’.  In the third scenario, the mother says, ‘Well, it’s a lovely-looking dog, let’s go and ask its owner if it would be okay for you to stroke it.  It might be but occasionally they can give you a nip’.

Different reactions to reality

These three mothers are responding to reality in different ways.  The first is misreading reality by assuming the dog is vicious.  That could be so but she doesn’t know that.  The second mother is misinterpreting reality by assuming that the dog is benevolent.  Again, it might be but then again it might not.  The third mother is getting it about right.  It’s good to have a rapport with dogs and it’s good for children to learn this but with a strange dog you need to try and get an idea of what its temperament is before you let a child stroke it.


All this is important because, with much repetition over time, experiences like the ones I’ve described are internalized, becoming part of us and our normal way of responding to unfamiliar and possibly dangerous situations.   For instance, one can imagine one of three possible psychological positions being laid down in us.

Covid-19 and pessimism

In the first, we respond to a crisis such as Covid-19 with pessimism.  Perhaps we daren’t go out at all, we live in fear and we regard social distancing as hopelessly inadequate and video chats as useless.  We’re convinced we’re going to contract the virus, probably with fatal results.  That’s a bit of a caricature but I’m making a point.

Covid-19 and over-optimism

With the second psychological position we react to the epidemic with inappropriate optimism.  We regard the government’s restrictions as being too much fuss because we know we’ll be fine and Coronavirus won’t happen to us.  So we meet friends regularly without any social distancing and don’t bother washing our hands more or keeping our surroundings extra clean.

Covid-19 and being positive

The third position is being positive – and that’s not the same as inappropriate optimism which could put you at risk.  A positive outlook says ‘I’m going outside but I’m aware of the dangers so I’ll be careful.  I’m going to stick to the guidelines and not risk anything more than that.  And I’m going to keep in touch with my friends but either outside at a safe distance or on the phone or by video.   There’s a good chance I’ll be okay if I do all that’.

Covid-19 and Michael Palin

So experiencing testing circumstances can reveal hidden aspects of ourselves, including those patterns of responding that were laid down long ago.  To flesh this out with a real example, Michael Palin was interviewed on the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show a while back (3/5/20) about his response to Covid-19.  This great TV traveller was asked about the probable loss of foreign travel this year for many of us.  This is what he said:

‘We can travel less and travel better if you know what I mean.  If we have to be confined to travelling in the UK it’s not a bad place to travel.  There are all sorts of wonderful places and different landscapes and different sorts of atmospheres – Northern Scotland, Cornwall.  Go to places and learn more about them …. Find out more about your own country …. Narrowing your horizons is not necessarily a bad thing.’

For my money you couldn’t have a better example of a positive response to the constraints of Covid-19.