When the shit hits the fan


The English language is well known for its multitude of expressions which contribute hugely to its richness, but few are as evocative as the ‘the shit hits the fan’ expression. There is wide speculation about its origins and the stories built around it are as florid and graphic as the expression itself. One that is particularly evocative alleges that a drunk man went to the upstairs bathroom of a bar, but instead he defecated in a hole above the bar’s fan. Upon his return downstairs no customer had remained in the bar. The rest was history!

What is it about January as a month that seems to inspire dramas of the particularly messy variety? My memory of last January was of a series of days where I received a succession of bad news, some of the very particularly toxic kind. This last week in January seems to have been very similar, almost like last January was repeating itself, despite my earlier hopes that this year would be more of a fresh start. The saying ‘as above so below’ also applies here, i.e., what we see as being played out in the public sphere has often some resonance in our private lives as well. Last January, many people were ill in hospital after conducting covid through attending Christmas gatherings and this January has not been dissimilar, though thankfully the hospitalisation and death rates are significantly reduced, but the toxicity and destructiveness of the pandemic and the cost to human life and also, very significantly to the mental health of all of us seems to have no end.

The most common meaning of the shit hits the fan expression is about a secret becoming public and causing mayhem. The big news in the UK this week was the revelation of yet another secret party that took place in Downing Street in the midst of a strict lockdown. And it is such revelations that provoke an outcry of public outrage, but also, and most importantly, much private sorrow. Because we all have friends who think they know better or that they can bend the rules, and whose contact with the reality of the collective trauma the pandemic has been might be rather skewed. And though it is not realistic or even healthy to expect that we all agree on highly charged and complex political matters triggered by nearly two years of accumulated disaster and human struggle, if we cannot have somewhat of a common ground about how we process reality the fear is that there is nobody who will remain unscathed such as in the story where no customer could remain in the bar.

For me, the particularly distressing effect of the above expression in our common and private lives is that it is actually the exact opposite of what Yalom has described as ‘the ripple effect’. Yalom’s rippling is a creative and reassuring antidote to death anxiety. When facing acute fears about our prospective annihilation, it is important to remember that like in moving water where the ripple effect can be observed, our constructive actions and thoughts can spread around in concentric circles which are much wider than we can ever imagine, and so  our being in the world can inspire positive change well after the limitations of our biological existence. This, in my mind, is the closest to a metaphysical and spiritual understanding of the value of human life and existence one can get without resorting to religion.

Unfortunately though, during highly stressed times such as a prolonged pandemic, many people’s psychological responses to the uncertainty, deprivation and loss is to let their unconscious destructive, murderous and self-annihilating instincts hit the fan without hesitation and without wondering how widespread the effect of their actions may be. And when their shit hits the fan as such, sadly none of us feels that they can find any protection. And sometimes in life, all we can do during weeks like that is to take a deep breath and wish the effects of the fan spread will only be temporary, and also that they will eventually be washed off through rippling water doing its cleansing job.

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