May 19, 2020 — When you are stressed, anxious, and struggling to make sense of your teaching or leadership, where do you turn for grounding? Centering? Anchoring? I have a tendency to do one of two things in my efforts at refocusing. One strategy is to go for a walk, mostly in nature where I often find a new way to see old problems. Perhaps it is seeing a plant pushing through the hard surface of blacktop pavement. Perhaps I find a rock that is rounded with age and the turbulent forces of nature. Now I have affirmation that with time and patience my troubles will push through to the light. Or perhaps they will be refined by life into a gentler and more accessible form. My other go to, when I’m looking for a connection to deep meaning is music. I don’t have a particular artist in mind. I just keep my heart open to lyrics that bring me to a new place of meaning and understanding. In this age of the coronavirus I find myself relying heavily on both meaning making strategies. Do you have strategies for navigating stress into clarity? Are these tactics still working in the era of COVID-19?
The weeks of sheltering in place have been tough for just about everyone. But they seem particularly tough on teachers and other members of the helping professions. They must shelter in place while attempting to construct learning experiences for their students who are also sheltering in place. This requires, it seems, an ability to set aside personal wants, worries, and needs in favor of serving the wants, worries, and needs of another person. Teachers are creative when it comes to imaginative responses to difficult instructional settings. I have heard stories of teachers recording messages, creating YouTube videos, organizing drive by instruction, and generally doing what is needed to engage students in learning. But it often feels like teachers are in a holding pattern, waiting for a return to “normal”. How much longer can everyone hold out? What is the goal toward which everyone is working?
We keep hearing that the measure of success in combating COVID-19 is flattening the curve. All our sacrifices and losses will be worth it when the number of infections drops, and we no longer need to be so careful and intentional about social distancing. This makes perfect sense when considering fact. The science of controlling a pandemic that spreads through physical proximity is clear. But that is not how I feel. My emotions and embodied response to the coronavirus doesn’t feel like it tracks along a predictable line. It can’t be plotted on a graph across time. I wonder how teachers are feeling these days as they attend to the needs of students while finding time for their own selfcare. How about you? How are you feeling right now? Does the logic of flattening the curve bring you solace and fuel your commitment to remain isolated from students, friends, family, colleagues? I’m finding it harder and harder to believe in the calculation of a flattened curve. I have no doubt that it will work, but right now my feelings and emotions are what I need to convince, not my mind.
I need a new metaphor that offers meaning to my feelings. One that is dynamic enough to honor my emotions, which are anything but flat. One day I’m up. One day I’m down. I’m looking for understandings that place fact and feeling in productive relationship, not opposites to each other. The image of waves moving across the surface of the water is an inviting metaphor for me. Sometimes the waves, like my feelings, can be nearly still and other times they can crest at incredible heights of unease or joy depending on the context. The poet Judy Brown offers a helpful fact about waves. They are as much their trough (low spot) as they are their crest (high spot):
“There is a trough in waves, / A low spot / Where horizon disappears / And only sky / And water / Are our company.”
I know this loneliness of the trough. My emotional bottom. I’m tired, frustrated, and just want to go to the store and buy peanut butter, cereal, or onions without having to cover my face in a mask or work to stand six feet from another human being. My mind knows why this is important, but right now it is not my mind but my emotions that need convincing.
I’ve noticed a curious thing about my emotions and feelings. They don’t typically respond to logic. They operate on a different circuit. You might say they have a mind of their own, a different kind of logic that is wired for a different kind of understanding. Judy Brown seems to sense this as well. She knows that negative emotions, like troughs, also rise and lift. The key is time and perspective:
“But if we rest there / In the trough, / Are silent, / Noticing the shape of things, / Then time alone / Will bring us to another / Place / Where we can see / Horizon.”
I don’t need to change my feelings. I only need to be present to them, to notice how they shape my response to COVID-19. And with patience I know that the curve of my feelings won’t flatten but rather rise, caring me to a new place and new emotions. Eventually the wave will lift, and I will see new possibilities. New ways of being. It is true that sometime the emotional wave of the corona virus will lift me to a new way of seeing and understanding. But for now, I’m in a trough. What about you? Where are you on your emotional wave? What are you noticing and paying attention to? What new perspective feels like it is waiting you?