Post 415.

SCHOOL started back this week. I watched Ziya on her first day, following the teacher on her computer, thinking her energy seemed like she had already had enough. I couldn’t blame her. It’s a pandemic and she’s been isolated at home, doing school by herself in our living room for 13 months. Her energy felt like it could start strong, but would surely run down. Looking on, I thought I need a strategy to get her through the next two and a half months of homework, assessments and scaling up of preparation for SEA next year. 

Her marks dropped last term, but so did her class average, and I wondered how to respond. Does quarrelling work? Does that actually motivate? Is there even a magic formula? Is it about more lessons? We went for the long talk about working hard to be proud of yourself, and developing good habits to do well. She’d been through a lot of changes in her family, and had gone through various stages of managing, and it would only be normal for everything to which she had to adapt to have had some impact. 

She was doing everything she should for school, but seemed disconnected from it, like she was attentive, but on automatic while there. Perhaps, not learning among other children left her less motivated. Perhaps it has been harder to separate her school-self from herself at home. I have adult students saying how much harder it is to study without UWI’s library to go to. I’m tired teaching students over a computer and I imagine her just as tired of learning from a screen all day. Perhaps, she is just ten and these are unusual circumstances and this is her best. 

As parents, we are all negotiating the balance between our children’s emotional and mental health, their individual strengths and challenges, and the demand to step up to what school exams still require. I’m thinking about the students writing SEA in two weeks, and the stress even their parents must be feeling. How much to push in a pandemic, and with what costs to our children? I’m thinking about how I’m functioning less well, without quite knowing why. I also think my university students are barely keeping up. 

Studies conducted over 2020 around the world suggest that the home confinement of children is associated with uncertainty, depression and anxiety resulting from disruption in their education, physical activities and opportunities for socialisation. Children are more bored and less engaged. We may miss the signs of covid19’s impact on them. In a Save the Children study of 1,127 students in Latin America and the Caribbean (Dominican Republic and El Salvador), four out of ten children indicated that they needed counselling.

Alternatively, I’ve also seen children Ziya’s age spend vastly more time on their devices, playing games for hours and unable to socialise without them. Now that children are on their computers, phones or tablets, with internet access, they are also on various apps much more, all of which are designed to keep them watching, checking, scrolling or playing. 

These devices have likely helped them to cope, but I think they are also rewiring their brains. This generation is the youngest to have such access ever in the world and, as the Social Dilemma on Netflix shows, there are costs. We cut Roblox after Zi wanted to spend time just to keep up with the children who were playing more hours than her, and socialising there as well. The less she played, the less she seemed to have in common, and all that required adjustment too. We purposely got her outside as much as possible, and off her screen, so that the cumulative impact of being in front a device all day could be reduced. 

A year ago, at the beginning of the pandemic, I proposed in this column that maybe we should opt out of trying to achieve as normal, recognising that children may be holding it together just as we are, but may just be going through the motions, connecting in and out, as it feels that my own students at university are similarly doing. I want to be sensitive to what is happening even as I want both my students and Zi to learn. I’m looking at her on the first day of school, and wondering about the best approach to both her marks and her mental health as well as her school motivation and social relationships over the rest of the term.

Post 404.

I keep wanting to write about joy, to ask people what gives them joy, and to remind us that joy is needed as much as food and shelter. I imagine each of us finds kernels of joy that give our days meaning, connection and purpose, and I’ve been wondering what those are. There’s something missing in our analysis if we don’t observe and value those kernels for the way that we draw on them to endure aches, self-esteem challenges, scarcity or depression, particularly in these difficult times.

For myself, over this year, when so many have struggled with money, lockdown, injustice, and covid19’s stress on relationships or our own mental health, I’ve learned to pay more attention to my partner’s desires for joy, understand them as a priority, and more fully recognise joy as the substance of our goodwill, care and co-operation.

She’s lovely and beautiful, but I can get lost in my own world, and I’ve had to do a lot of learning about not taking joy and its necessity for granted. I’ve begun to notice those moments more, and to try to create them, observing that we can withstand so much, but not if joy is missing.

It takes mindfulness to consciously attend to what makes us or those we care for feel good. It takes effort to look at negative possibilities and to find or make small lights of joy, like a candle’s warm flicker in the dark or like the deyas we light daily to give small fire to our intentions as we navigate frustrating or unfulfilling realities. Amidst the troubles of our CO2-laden world, joy is like oxygen, like ocean breeze, like the songs of frogs on cool nights when you are sitting quietly and feel safe.

Attending to joy isn’t the same as being solution-focused because we are nowhere near achieving the solutions we need in the world nor even within our imperfect selves. It is more about what enables us to find life worthwhile along the way there. It’s not about escapism or simply being positive either. Rather it’s about how we negotiate sadness and happiness, and what we balance on the scales each day.

In one of many conversations over the last months, my long-time comrade and fellow columnist Colin Robinson mentioned wanting to choose to spend his remaining time in ways that brought him joy, laughter and togetherness. I listened carefully. Indeed, the work of trying to create a better world is meaningful, even if overwhelming, but joy is a different kind of momentous triviality; hardly an achievement and, yet, incomparably rewarding.

I find joy that enables me to feel my heart beating in the smallest of experiences, such as putting Zi to bed at night or having opportunities to tell her I am proud of her, now that we are home together all day.

In the midst of humdrum shopping, we would often catch her or her friends dancing (without consciously realising) to the music playing in stores. One explained that it’s because dancing (apparently wherever there is music) brings children joy. More power to them, just watching filled my heart.

I’m yearning to have different conversations than I usually do, to ask migrant women what are the joys we can amplify, to ask women who became unemployed over covid19 and who I know are struggling what are the joys that we can help ensure, to ask all those with difficult stories what are the joys that we can instead emphasise.

I’m trying to move from problems and their analysis, and from what needs to be transformed to instead delve into what gives us hope, brings happiness, and can be powerfully drawn on. I’m not coming with recommendations or neat conclusions. Instead, I’d like to listen, sharing in gratitude, and learning from what I hear.

Post 369.

Forgiveness is a beautiful and powerful act of showing the capacity and strength to free oneself from an old hurt. This must be why Archbishop Jason Gordon was quoted as recommending forgiving your family “because the house is too small to hold unforgiveness on top of everything else”.

As many come to terms with being locked indoors with people who have hurt us in the past or may still in the future, figuring out how to survive psychologically requires emotional power, flexibility and insight – and good advice.

We could be home with sexually abusive adults or with homophobic parents. We could be home with partners quick to insult and anger or with cousins prone to lack of consideration. We could have been on the verge of divorce, but are now in each other’s face with our hate daily. We could be holding on to the date when we are all released to the outdoors by the state, but also living with uncertainty about the risks that then increase.

Now that we are in a prolonged period of psychological stress, perhaps from the sheer unfamiliarity of this time or from our disconnection with those closest to us or from depression that has fewer distractions, many may not know how best to cope.

Given the vast rates of everyday neglect, child sexual abuse and partner violence, affecting thousands of households and tens of thousands of lives, there’s a lot to forgive filling all the spaces in houses too small to hold unforgiveness.

Naïve pontification undermines deeply-held dreams of confronting harm and being heard such that the house includes trust and safety, sometimes for the first time in decades, and can expand beyond the meanness of hardened disappointment and cynicism

Our messaging, from pulpit to politician needs to be better. Forgiveness is an outcome, not a beginning. It is impossible where fear and hurt create the experience of both a desire for justice and its denial. It requires a process which can be painful and difficult, and simply espousing the value of forgiving can deepen self-blame among survivors for their inability to act normally and as if nothing ever occurred. Indeed, in complex ways, survivors often blame even themselves and forgiveness is a knotty process of disentangling from so much that creates fear, shame and silence in our relationships with ourselves as well as each other.

So, there’s an opportunity for pastoral care, psychologists and state press conferences. Be real with the population, recognising deep trauma that resides within the places where we are now confined. Respond with messages beyond updates on infection and calls for physical distancing, as crucial to life and death as an epidemiological approach may be.

Those daily press conferences can expand their communication with the nation and help many people who have never disclosed their abuse, who will now see their abuser daily, who are descending into dissonance about how to be themselves among those who don’t understand or accept them.

By guidance, I don’t mean a day of prayer nor do I mean telling people to forgive without also affirming their right to acknowledgement of harm, apology and consent to a new foundation for relationship.

It’s a good time to bring in our best psychologists – not pastors or priests or pundits or imams – to every press conference to provide focused coping strategies for individuals struggling in all these destructive households, in order to not assume some ideal (and fictive) loving and conflict-free nuclear family model as the target of COVID-19 emergency policy.

Now that we have been told to stay at home, families are caught in a public policy decision for which they may not have the guidance, process, tools, words or safety to cope. We need to be helped to do so for our old ways of walking away or not being at home until late or escaping to work or school or a bar or for exercise will no longer do.

All state press conferences should offer such coping strategies, assuming that homes are the very places where we may least want to be.

We shouldn’t start with the house being too small to hold unforgiveness. Forgiveness is a gift just as much as unforgiveness is a defence, and it takes communication, courage, love and truth to exchange them. As much as it is a beautiful ideal, we must now take seriously how to manage weeks, maybe months, in homes that have long had little room for so much of what we feel.