Vaccine mandates hit hard in the late summer and fall of 2021. Get the jab or lose your job. Health care workers and public sector employees had it especially bad. Somehow it seemed right. If you are interacting with the public in a health capacity, you need to be sure you won’t infect anyone. If you are a government employee, surely the government should be able to tell you what you have to take to make everyone else safe.
Much of the public was behind this. Indeed, many thought everyone should be coerced to go along. We heard it everywhere, “You have to do what’s right to protect others.”
However, for many in the public sector, this demand was intolerable. Tens of thousands took a stand against it, and they lost their jobs. And not only their jobs. They lost their financial security in the form of pensions and the inability to work again in that field. The emotional toll on those individuals and their families was incredible.
What exactly was the emotional toll? Can we describe it? Can we understand it? Can we empathize?
I have been acquainted with many firefighters in the San Francisco area for the past 10 years. Several of them have become good friends. Many of them were against the jab from the beginning. Many of them fought that policy, and as a result lost their jobs, their pensions, and their ability to work in that capacity in the future.
Some have remained strong in their convictions, willing to put all that on the line, willing to endure the suffering that they and their families have been subjected to, willing to start a new life. But for others, the road was not so sure and was rife with psychological pain. Here is one such story.
One of the firefighters in that group was commanded to get vaccinated or face termination from the department. Before this demand, he had been one of the firefighters that the others talk about as a paragon of the profession.
I heard from others in his crew that he was one of the guys who never let you down. If there was something that he didn’t know, he learned it quickly, and then became the expert. His body was a temple. He was regimented in his diet, and worked out regularly to maintain top physical form.
Most importantly, his job meant everything to him. As his coworkers attest, he was made for this job. He sacrificed himself daily for the good of the public and for the good of his company, and there was nothing he would rather do.
Then, in the summer 2021, he got a notice that he had to get the vaccine or his job would be in jeopardy. This made no sense to him. He knew that Covid was not a danger to him or his family, and that he posed no danger to anyone he might interact with. Given his attention to his physical condition, he also did not want to do anything that had the possibility of damaging his body.
The demands from his department came to a head in the fall of 2021 and he was faced with a stark choice: continue to support his family and do the job he loved, or abandon all that for his strong belief in the sanctity of his body.
What follows from this internal conflict is a palpable expression of Freudian psychology.
After much deliberation, amid continued threats from the department, the man made his decision: he would comply. The next day he drove off alone to his local vaccination center to complete the deed and be done with it. He would save his livelihood for a small concession of his principles.
But it’s not that easy. Beneath the conscious mind and all of this “rational” decision-making lies an unconscious force that can sometimes break to the surface, taking over the mind and the body to enact its will.
Freud separated the mind into three parts that he called the ego, the id and the superego. Basically, the ego is the thing that is the motive force behind our actions. If we make a conscious decision, that is expressed through the ego.
The id, what is sometimes colorfully referred to as the “lizard brain,” are the impulses and desires that are basic animal instincts like your sexual drive, survival instinct, fear and aggression. The id can feed impulses to the ego.
The superego is the social conscience. It consists of the pressure from society to behave in particular ways. Take care of your family, respect others, do the right thing. Guilt.
On that day in the fall of 2021 on his way to the vaccination center, the firefighter decided to turn on the video camera on his phone and tell everyone how he was feeling. What followed was a full Freudian battle of the id and superego for control of the ego.
The video starts simply enough, the ego in charge. We hear expressions of misgivings about getting the vaccine and why he shouldn’t have to take it.
Then suddenly the monologue devolves as the id takes over. The ego falters, he begins to shake, and his voice quavers. Tears effuse.
Then he begins a personal tirade against the people in his department, the ones telling him he must do this. Loud attacks, asking the camera directly how these relatively unhealthy superiors could dare question his morality and his decisions.
“I cannot believe I’m allowing this to happen! I would rather take someone’s soul right now!”
An animal cornered, he attacks and he weeps.
At the end the id acquiesces. The superego returns amidst the tears of the ego. “I gotta do the job I love and I gotta support my family.”
At that the video ends. He subsequently walks over to the center and gets his jab.
Unfortunately, the id has one last part to play. Shortly after signing off, the man hits the send button, and posts the entire affair online. His fellow firefighters, his supervisors, and many others besides, witness the entire ordeal. The personal attacks, the tears, the raw psyche laid bare.
The outcome of this battle of the inner psyche was not good. Having seen the video and the personal attacks against members of the department, the people in charge thought of no other option but to fire the man anyway.
In the battle of the id and superego there was no winner.
The superego lost: the man lost his ability to provide for his family, and society had shunned him.
The id lost: the survival instincts did not take over, and now he feels as though he has poisoned his body, and destroyed what he was committed to preserving.
As he struggles to rebuild his life with his family, he will forever wonder if there was a different way. What could have been different? What was his best true path?
The ego forlorn.
The traps for our psyches are out there. In the environment of the past two years, many of us have had our internal conflicts exposed.
Were you compelled to actions you wanted to refuse, but succumbed anyway?
Did you attack close friends for their vaccination status?
Were you terrified that you would be infected?
Were you so angry that others were imposing their will on your bodily autonomy?
Were you furious at people who were not willing to just go along?
The work of Freud and other psychoanalysts are compelling because they are a vision into ourselves. The theories can seem abstract and irrelevant until we see their expression directly in our lives.
Each day in our lives we take thousands of individual actions based on what we think is our clear worldview. Then our environment changes, and instantly our construct is destroyed, and the primordial forces of our psyche come to bear.
“A man should not strive to eliminate his complexes, but to get into accord with them; they are legitimately what directs his conduct in the world.” – Sigmund Freud