I’ve noticed that many of us struggle to say “2020” without adding an inflection – a sprinkle of horror, a dash of eye-roll, or a head shake of mystification.
What’s happened to us this year? What have we learnt? What lessons do we want to carry over into the future and how can we increase the likelihood of positive change happening?
This was a year that commenced with climate catastrophes that were immediately devastating for many people but which were terrifying in their uncontrollability even to those removed from immediate danger. The global pandemic started as something of only imagined danger: no mountainous flames or pounding storms to represent its menace. In some ways, for those of us with homes, nothing worse happened than that we were required to stay in them. Those of us without homes were, incredibly, finally given one and told we now had no option but to stay indoors, warmly tucked up in bed!
The poet, Denise Riley, has written a book about grief called Time Lived, Without its Flow. Death occasions singular forms of grief but, even at the lesser end of the spectrum, I believe many of us experienced aspects of grief and disorientation during 2020 when, indeed, life suddenly lost its flow. (I am writing this from Victoria, where the pandemic lockdown was months long and, at its worst, essentially unpredictable.)
Picture a mad social scientist who has designed a grand-scale experiment, stripping the daily accoutrements of communal life from an unprepared population. (Please note, any of us who has experienced homelessness were already expert at mad catastrophe).
What happens? Many of the people I know – myself included – experienced an existential crisis where basic questions about life came to the foreground and demanded answers. What do I miss most? What in my life is sustaining me right now? What do I appreciate in all this? What do I deplore? What do I want my future life to be like?
These are important questions, too rarely asked. The answers we gave ourselves matter.
If, like me, you were often told during lockdown to take good care of yourself, I want to propose a possibly more meaningful alternative.
At home, in my room, I spent a lot of time inside my mainly empty head. Without events, without interactions, with only daily pandemic conversations with the same few people to animate me, I found I had less and less to think about as the weeks wore on. In this state, all ‘looking after myself’ meant was more ice cream.
One thing made an unexpected difference. It was municipal election time and I had previously volunteered to assist a person whose policy platform I supported. I threw myself into leafletting for my candidate, pounding the empty streets, be-masked but purposeful, pondering letterbox design and the most efficient ways around my designated patchwork of streets.
You see, I was taken out of myself. I had attached myself to a cause and a team that included me but was not about me. It lifted me out of something I could not quite name.
A Sense of Community
Margaret Thatcher, the firebrand Prime Minister of Britain during the 1980s, (in)famously said: “There is no such thing as society: there are individual men and women, and there are families.”
I think we’ve had vivid proof in recent times that there is such a thing as society (at least in Australia) and that the vast majority of us are prepared to make significant sacrifices for a benefit that is only detectable at the social level. Many people, including almost all young people (who were not at significant threat if they caught COVID-19 themselves), stopped everything for the ‘greater good’ – i.e. to protect vulnerable people and prevent disease surges overrunning our health systems and personnel.
At the turn of the century, Robert Putnam published a famous thesis called “Bowling Alone; America’s Declining Social Capital”. Putnam’s argument was that the shared purpose and social interactions that occur in sporting clubs, political and labour movements, public committees, religious groups, Rotary, Lions, Scouts etc, underwrite civil engagement and stitch together an enriching social fabric.
Membership of all such entities has declined in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Instead, individuals have multiple memberships of systems that, typically, generate consumer discounts; we will follow or sign online petitions for interest groups that convene numbers but never meet; and, to use Putnam’s still vivid metaphor, we will choose to bowl alone, rather than in a bowls league as used to be an American commonplace.
In a weird way, the pandemic has re-invigorated our previously diminished sense of a ‘social fabric’ and of the incontestable importance of a ‘common good’.
Tigers in the bush
In evolutionary terms, we are all primed to detect danger, expect the worst and over-interpret small signals. In the lizard part of our brains, we still watch for the tiger that might be hiding when a bush quivers.
However, in Australia, today, the hazards we need to be primed against are certainly not tigers. We need to guard against anxiety, depression, loneliness, hopelessness, addiction and isolation as if each were an apex predator. Instead, we are slow to recognise them and bewildered when they grip.
Thankfully, we have many practitioners of positive psychology who provide material and methods to build on strengths and re-habituate our brains to sensations of joy rather than danger. To sample a few: Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi wrote Flow: the psychology of optimal experience; Australian, Lea Waters, writes about strength-based parenting; and Brené Brown talks about the power of vulnerability.
All would agree that there is immense value in focusing on the things in our lives we can be grateful for. The trick is to practice awareness of life’s positives, so as to fight off our brain’s hard-wired tendency to scan for and spot negatives.
At the very least, we can be thankful that we live in Australia where pandemic chaos has been successfully minimised, in large part because of our grand collective efforts.