It has taken me a long time to sit at my desk as I am doing now, and write. Like everyone at the moment, I am faced with an avalanche of information, expectations and emotions each day and this can be paralysing. But in the last few weeks I have learned a few things which have helped me to pause and accept this moment for what it is: a prolonged period of collective fear, loss and trauma, that requires care and attention.
I can start with my own experience. This lockdown essentially means I cannot pursue my work in the way I would like, and not only because what I am able to offer and what individuals and organisations within the non-profit sector may want is limited by restrictions on movement and increasingly diminishing resources. As with everything arising out of this pandemic, we cannot carry on with business as usual; and this means that I cannot offer the same advice and practices to increase wellbeing as I would previously. These are unique times, calling for a unique approach.
This realisation has led to a loss of purpose. What is my role in all of this? I cannot pretend to have the solutions to addressing the sorrows and fears arising from this pandemic, because right now we are being shown that there are no obvious solutions or cures for what we are facing. It is very easy right now to make ourselves feel better by taking part in an online yoga or fitness class, or another activity aimed at helping us get on with life. But to rush on to the bandwagon of wellness offerings doesn’t feel authentic to me right now; it feels like it’s simply repeating old, neoliberal paradigms that tell us to get back on that horse and keep going, that tell us that we are only successful if we can show we are high achievers, with high productivity.
The harder thing to do is to pause and face a few realities; such as the uncertainty and loss of control we have in our lives as a result of Covid-19. And the responsibility that comes when we have been sent to our rooms to reflect on our behaviour as humans towards our planet, and towards each other. These realities for me have meant that each day is unpredictable; even in 24 hours I may go through a gamut of emotions – from feeling active, creative and sure of myself to feeling tender and compassionate, to lost and fearful. Instead of piling expectations on myself each day, I have learned to ask myself, ‘What do I need right now?’ And ‘What can I learn from this experience, in this moment?’
I’ve found the daily government-restricted walk outside very informative. I’ve been quite touched by the patience shown by people walking past each other, giving way, apologetically keeping a distance whilst offering a smile. Yet today I saw another side to it; a construction worker having an altercation with a couple for stopping to buy a coffee from a mobile café because, he believed, they should either be out on a walk or they should just be at home. ‘It’s people like us who keep the economy going!’ he shouted angrily. This brief and hostile interaction highlights the fears of a nation, indeed of the world. Whilst some, like me, are able to survive somehow in spite of staying home, and take pleasure in a daily walk at a time that suits us; others are not. Many, in fact, are having to expose themselves to possible risks of infection because they have no choice; whether these are doctors, nurses, staff in care homes, construction workers, shopkeepers. For many, particularly in low to middle income countries, to stay home carries a far greater risk to one’s life if this entails a complete loss of income and the ability to feed one’s family. For others, such as people living in slum villages or refugee camps, social distancing is an impossible and unachievable luxury.
The altercation I witnessed this morning also highlights how fear leads to ugly behaviour. I have found myself becoming judgemental, like the construction worker, on a trip to the supermarket, or a walk along Brighton seafront; when I am having to spend much of the time dodging other people who seem unaware of sticking to distancing rules. Yet if we dwell too much on this, we are creating further collective anxiety. We can all only do the best we can, and ultimately try to hold some compassion for others and their effort to do the same.
The small but powerful lessons arise when we pause to take notice of what is going on around us; when we turn away from our social media threads, news headlines, Zoom classes, and turn towards ourselves and the world on our doorstep. This pandemic is bringing up a lot of these shadows in our personality; the parts of ourselves that that we usually want to remain hidden. Now we cannot keep them at bay. Instead, as we try to do with people around us, we have to show compassion towards them. For too long we have been living in a perpetual cycle of distraction, of not facing our vulnerabilities; and when we do, they are given ugly names that scare us even more, like ‘demons’. We are taught that feeling difficult emotions is bad and there are ways to make them go away – like cultivating gratitude, or taking anti-depressants, or doing yoga. But what if we were to lean into the difficulty; to acknowledge that this is really hard, and that we are faced with no choice but to brush up against our shadows and try to learn from them? The feelings of loneliness, separation, fears for survival may be seen as part of our collective struggle – and a means to break free of our distractions in order to care more for each other and for our planet.
Solitude is a familiar experience for me; I have faced it in my work in situations where there are constant restrictions on movement and the fear of violence if finding oneself in the wrong place at the wrong time. And I have faced it whilst writing my PhD. In such moments, it is in fact writing that has offered me solace; it is a way for me to express what is arising inside of me, with some care and attention. This is essentially the self-care we need right now: a space, a gentle activity, that helps bring loving recognition to our complicated emotions in these unprecedented times. That activity is different for everybody; no one guru or wellness instructor has the perfect solution – we have to find it ourselves and we can, if we stop and listen. I finish here with an insight from the Chilean poet and diplomat Pablo Neruda that has helped me in the past and feels so relevant right now:
There is no insurmountable solitude. All paths lead to the same goal: to convey to others what we are. And we must pass through solitude and difficulty, isolation and silence in order to reach forth to the enchanted place where we can dance our clumsy dance and sing our sorrowful song — but in this dance or in this song there are fulfilled the most ancient rites of our conscience in the awareness of being human and of believing in a common destiny.