With the COVID-19 pandemic already in the rear-view mirror for most people, many are yearning for a return to the normal life they knew prior to March 2020. While virtually all restrictions have been lifted worldwide, people must not forget the hard lessons taught by the pandemic, because it served, and still serves, as a global rite of passage for humanity, according to Frederick Marx, an Oscar- and Emmy-nominated filmmaker and author who recently celebrated his 20 year anniversary at the helm of Warrior Films and who published a book on this subject in 2022.

Rites of passage, a concept first studied by Dutch cross-cultural anthropologist Arnold van Gennep, consist of three phases: separation, where initiates are withdrawn from the larger society and the context of their daily lives; ordeal/liminality, where they undergo an extreme trial often on their own; and homecoming/reintegration, where they are welcomed back by the community and acknowledged for accomplishing the transition from one stage of life into a new one.

Humanity is Undergoing a Rite of Passage
Humanity is Undergoing a Rite of Passage Ushered by COVID Pandemic, Says Filmmaker-Author Frederick Marx Pexels

Marx says that the pandemic has demanded humans undergo a similar trial with identical phases. Once the virus began spreading globally, governments took steps to restrict people's movement. The subsequent lockdowns represented separation. The old ways of work, leisure, socialization, and worship evaporated overnight, and along with them went people's sense of safety and normalcy. Marx likens this to the rites of many Indigenous societies, where initiates are suddenly, sometimes even violently, separated from their everyday routines and taken to the sacred sites of initiation. When governments locked down, people were forced to wear masks and their activities were severely restricted, often confining them to their homes.

This was followed by the phase of ordeal, the liminal space between the worlds. During this time of uncertainty, people wondered when the restrictions would end, and it felt like it dragged on forever. The notion of time itself became unmoored. Comparing it to various folkloric concepts, Marx says that humanity went on a collective journey through the Underworld, also metaphorically known as spending time in the belly of the whale or undergoing the Dark Night of the Soul.

According to Marx, rites of passage, by nature, are arduous and challenging. In rites where initiates have to hunt a wild animal, the chance of getting seriously injured or killed is very real. Similarly, with Covid, the possibility of death for everyday people and their loved ones became very real. The mental health of many people worsened, and divorce rates increased in many areas. There was an increase in misinformation/disinformation, as well as increasing political polarization during the pandemic. Conspiracy theories and quack cures also gained followings, making it hard for health authorities to address the situation.

Simultaneously, it became clear that numerous positive changes were brought about by the sudden cessation of much human activity – for the first time in years, people could see the Himalayas from Delhi due to the lack of the usual air pollution, and whales could be sighted in normally busy shipping harbors.

"We also saw humanity's capability to respond to others in need. It runs very deep in our nature. We've seen in these extreme emergencies that people actually come together and bond, becoming much more effective workers and teams. We saw how people gave way to their altruistic impulses, ready to share and to sacrifice and do good things for their neighbors. Those are some of the silver linings that came out of that terrible situation," Marx says.

With the impacts of the virus lessening in severity, the world has begun its homecoming/reintegration journey, with restrictions mostly ended by 2023. However, with the way things have gone since then, Marx fears that humanity has not entirely absorbed the lessons brought by COVID. Humanity may not have fully transitioned into a complete understanding of our interconnection and interdependence. In the way that adolescent rites of passage oversee the transition from the "me, me, me" mentality of childhood to the mature "us, us, us" mentality of adulthood, hopefully people experienced an awakening of greater empathy for others due to the suffering they recently shared with their neighbors.

"COVID very dramatically underscored how we are all connected on this planet. What might have begun as a simple viral outbreak in a fish market in Wuhan, China became a worldwide pandemic in a matter of weeks. That alone forcefully underscored our interconnectedness. It also underscored our interdependence. We learned that another person might die if we chose not to wear a mask, along with other behaviors that could put people at risk. It highlighted how our choices affect other people in a very dramatic way," Marx says.

While COVID infection and fatality rates have decreased significantly, other non-medical effects can still be felt. The global economic climate is teetering on the edge of recession, and many polluting and harmful activities have returned in a bid to reinvigorate the economy. War was ignited in Europe with Russia's invasion of Ukraine, and only time will tell if it will spill beyond the two countries' borders. Society, especially in the West, has remained fractured, with polarization continuing to grow.

In overcoming the social challenges growing out of the COVID pandemic, Marx says we collectively must call on the Neo-Jungian archetypes of the Warrior, emphasizing discipline and toughness, and the Sovereign, emphasizing mentorship, wisdom, and purpose. During this rite of passage, he says it is not the time for the Lover to indulge in pleasure and sensuality or the Magician to solely acquire more knowledge and rely exclusively on technology. Strong action is needed.

"Warriorship is doing what needs to be done, no matter what. COVID, in a sense, beckoned us to call up our archetype of warrior energy and shook us from our lassitude. It is the time to stay strong and be particularly disciplined, not only in observing social rules of safety for yourself and others, but also in our daily habits. It's a particularly good time to undertake habits or endeavors that reach for self-mastery, such as meditation or martial arts, and put yourself into a service role that makes you come alive."

Marx believes that the time of the pandemic has brought the Shadow Sovereign archetype to the fore, exhibiting all the worst qualities of leadership. Out of Covid's chaos, he says that too many of the world's leaders today are tyrants driven by their own unconscious fears and appetites, resulting in increased wealth inequality, insufficient employment opportunities, uncertain medical protection, a dearth of climate initiatives, and more, all augmenting the nearly universal suffering of those they govern. To counter this people must call on the energy of the Healthy Sovereign, which includes empathy, compassion, and mentorship.

"True Sovereign energy is hard to find in the public arena today. We are ruled by children grabbing for the spoils, and few demonstrate the necessary understanding of true adulthood: 'us, us, us.' Many people think they can't effect change unless they hold powerful positions. I disagree. This misunderstanding discounts the nature of interdependence. And, while we can't all be Leaders of institutions, we can be leaders in our own lives, recognizing how our actions affect others, especially by creating generativity - mentoring and guiding the next generation, leaving behind a world worth caring for," he says.