Reflections during Covid-19 self-isolation: June 2020

I am fascinated by the range of thoughts and feelings experienced during this period of ‘stay-at-home’ isolation, a consequence of the Covid-19 Pandemic.

Most frequently we have reflected on how fortunate we are to be isolated on a five acre rural property, with a forest in which to wander and still be at home, enjoying quite remarkable autumn weather, part of which is a greenness that comes from good rain after an extremely dry summer. Many plants are behaving as if it was spring. During that very dry time, with its extremely hot days and fires burning all-round us (not literally, but feeling as if that is the case), the numbers of birds were reduced. Birds have now returned in their abundance. We have had days in which 30 rainbow lorikeets came by, other days with up to 20 white-headed pigeons and a dozen or so magpies, on the ground, fossicking for food.

What this period has meant for us, a retired couple in their seventies, has been opportunity for some sorting of old photographs and papers, some scanning of photos we had forgotten we had, some reading of books that waited to be read, some baking, some dealing with weeds and walking in our forest, adding to our exercise regimes, connecting on-line with different groups and with family members, making thoughtful use of social media and increasing the frequency of phone contact with family members.

The calls our sons are making by phone and videolink, to check on our wellbeing, are full of rich conversations. We have several meals on Zoom with family members. We have also updated our list headed ‘checklist for action to take when one of us passes’, the heading of which may be a little “tongue in cheek”, while the intent is serious, as we are both in the age group that are considered to be at risk from the consequences of the coronavirus.

I have enjoyed researching my grandfather’s role in the 1918 Influenza Pandemic, as the GP in Port Augusta and Medical Officer for the District and for the recently opened Transcontinental Railway.

We have appreciated home deliveries from local merchants and the kindness of neighbours and friends.

Sorting papers, finding letters and photographs we had sent to our parents over the years, has reminded us of the rich and varied lives we have enjoyed and some of the adventures we have undertaken. We have enjoyed wonderful conversations, including those ‘what if?’ discussions we had not yet had. Doing this has been like making a deposit in our emotional bank account.  How good it is to have had that opportunity, and timely too, should I happen to get ill from Covid-19 and succumb.

However, one thing that has concerned me is the extent to which I hear people complaining about the difficulties they face because of isolation, dwelling on how terrible it is, and the inconveniences they are forced to endure. My feeling is that by focusing on what they haven’t got, these people are making the situation bleaker than it really is. During the South Coast bushfire emergency, which challenged us in the months before the Corona Virus pandemic, I wrote about “action I could take”, responding to my concern about the people who were revving each other up with stories that were sure to increase anxiety, stories that were alarmist, stories that were probably untrue, stories that focused on the melancholy of those days. I wrote that such things would ‘stop with me’ and that I would do my best to inject some balance into the narrative by sharing and promoting stories that were about more positive things.

What I meant was to focus on things that actually exist, rather than things that do not exist. During the Covid-19 isolation I have done this by purposefully, taking my camera with me as I have worked in, or walked through our forest, capturing pictures of vistas, of light on leaves, of flowers, fruit and seeds and the rich bird life we have here, then posting the pictures on social media, occasionally with the invitation to “come on a virtual walk with me”. Many have come. Many have enjoyed.

I wonder what would happen if we all were to focus on what we have, rather than what we have not. Maybe if we did this, we could make use of what we have, and as a result enable ourselves to make the most out of each moment of this period of isolation.  Perhaps this is part of resilience. Resilience is talked about as the ability to bounce back. Perhaps it is also the ability to make the most of the situation in which one finds oneself. Perhaps resilience is the capacity to look at the things you already have and use them as resources for the next step.

This would surely be an alternative to the stories that many are telling on the TV and in the media, a narrative that “this is all very difficult”. Clearly many things that are beyond our control are making daily life quite challenging and for some creating real hardship, including the coronavirus isolation itself and its effect on jobs and workplaces. Even so, if people were to focus more on what they have, they would see that we have a national system of healthcare that serves us better than do the national health services in many countries, an administration which is focusing on protection and prevention to an  extent which is better than in many other countries, and a “flattening of the curve” of new virus infections, which is happening more effectively than in most other countries.

If these were considered as positives, as assets in hand, we might then have more energy to look at what is happening within our own households, and in doing so use this energy to make the most of the time we have. This would include making better use of phone calls, better use of social media and the Internet, to share ideas, thoughts, feelings and stories and to be connected and encourage connectedness.

I recalled, from books I had read, passages about “that to which we give our thoughts, we also give our energy” and “our energy is what makes things happen” (or not). I reflected that such had been my experience.

Perhaps if we simply change the way we describe a situation in which we find ourselves, we can transform that situation.  I am reminded here of the principles espoused in “Asset Based Community Development”, ABCD, which I had come across in my work with Landcare, in which attention is paid to the ‘assets that exist within the situation being explored’ rather than a focus on ‘problems which need to be solved’. Such assets include the people, their energy, their experience and their capacity. The way we look at things and the language we use also function to enable or disable, to empower or deny. I remember attending a conference on the “Health Aspects of Post-conflict Situations”.  One of the presentations was by a sociologist from Sri Lanka. My ‘take home’ from his paper was his story of the difference it made to the way they worked when they replaced a “strengths and weaknesses” perspective with an approach which looked at “vulnerabilities and resilience”. It transformed the way they worked with their people.

I also remember, my working life, the many people who were prone to worry about what was not there, rather than think about what is there.  How different, I thought, the world would be if we promoted the capacity to build on what we have, to identify the strengths and the resiliencies within a situation in which we find ourselves, in order to respond to it, as an alternative to just listing all the problems and describing how bleak and challenging is that situation. We might even reach a situation where, instead of trying to outdo each other with the awfulness of our own narrative, we inadvertently begin to compete with stories about how well off we are as we make use of whatever it is that we have.

For me, it is not just a matter of the difference between seeing the glass half full or half empty. It is about when the glass is only ¼ full, not letting the ¾ emptiness overwhelm me and disable me from seeing the quarter fullness. This might be so much more significant if the glass is metaphorically only 1/16th full and 15/16th empty. That degree of emptiness could well depress one, and being able to see even the 1/16th that is there might enable us to look at the whole differently, see what is there and be empowered to move on, or at least keep breathing.   Nor is a matter of either/or.  Both aspects exist, but choosing which one to focus on might materially affect the outcome.

One lesson I take from this is that nothing will be gained from focusing on what is not there, whereas much might be gained from focusing on what is there, even if it is not what we wanted, or is not what is traditionally regarded as valid material with which to work.

Many are saying that we must not return to our old ways and must seek to create a “new normal”. The examples of kindness, the examples of compassion, the examples of people connecting with each other in unique ways, are all examples of behaviours that are serving people well during this “shut down” phase coronavirus pandemic. Such behaviours might well be encouraged and developed once this situation is over. My great fear is that we simply retreat to the status quo, with its selfishness, with its greed, with its inequality and its failure to respect the humanness of the different actors within life’s drama.

One outcome may well be that members of any community learn how to help each other collaborate, help each other be compassionate, help each other use a filter of resilience and together make better use of the many opportunities and resources that arise within each situation.

Gratitude and connectedness are important outcomes of this whole experience. This experience of gratitude and connectedness may be something of which we can make better use. Maybe this can enable us to be more compassionate and more collaborative.

And be grateful for what we have.

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