Many years ago I used to listen to a regular show on ABC radio that featured a lady who was expert at interpreting dreams. I think her name was Quentin, and I think the program was on a Monday morning. Anyway, people used to ring in, describe their dreams, and she would interpret the symbolism. The dreams and their interpretations were fascinating and the show was lovely. But, close to nearly two decades (must be!) later, one dream lingers in my memory because the interpretation was so startling but also satisfying.
A woman rang in and said that her dream featured a vampire who had raped her. Sounds grim, yes, but what really worried the woman was that, in her dream, she had had an orgasm during the rape despite being distressed by the violation.
The dream expert’s interpretation was that, no matter how bad the situation this woman found herself to be in, or how exploitative the people she was dealing with, the orgasm symbolised that she always managed to extract something of value for herself from the situation. So rather than being a nightmare or an indication of some kind of unhealthy pathology, the dream symbolised that this woman was one hell of a survivor. I hope, for the sake of this caller, that this was the case, anyway.
Our current situation – the invisible surge of the pandemic, facing our own inner demons during self-isolation, sociopathic ineptitude on behalf of some of our politicians – might have a nightmarish tinge to it for some of us. I’m not advocating feckless selfishness – we owe it to our communities right now to do the right thing: stay at home; wash our hands; don’t spread misinformation; be kind and patient to each other. But do go looking for opportunities for indulgence, pleasure, fun, even if brief or simple or odd. I think we have to be like the dream lady described above: even if we fear this thing might be sucking the life blood out of us, we need to find whatever value we can extract for ourselves.
Twitter right now is a double edged sword. On the one hand it is full of hysteria and nonsense and prolonged exposure to this is definitely not recommended for peace of mind, but on the other it is full of lovely things. In response to the pandemic of physical distancing and isolation that has spread across the globe, many people are taking refuge in their imaginations. The stuff people are sharing range from the silly to the playful to the beautiful to the profound.
August institutions are sharing their resources online: you can read fine essays or view galleries from the quarantined comfort of your home. Author Robert MacFarlane is conducting a reading group on Twitter.
Under these stressful conditions people are trying to find a way of staving off tedium and the blues. They are looking for meaning. Endeavouring to comfort and entertain themselves and others. I think it’s delightful that so many people are hunkering down with a sense of playfulness and / or an appetite for the artistic.
Obviously, for many people thrown upon their own inner resources to combat one of the most disruptive and serious crises of our lives, the instinct they are drawing on is their sense of creativity. I’m not surprised. I have long felt that creativity and resilience work in a kind of a loop. We are living in strange times that demand resilience, where we are challenged to make sense of, and outlast, the hitherto unexperienced. And to do so in a way that means we emerge from this with some sense of being coherent humans able to rebuild normal lives, whatever that ‘normal’ turns out to be.
Working creatively is psychologically challenging in different ways. You have to be prepared to risk failure. You have to be prepared to risk succeeding on your terms, only to have these terms misunderstood and denounced by others. Making creative work is an alchemical process, combining themes, ideas, techniques, resources in a process of trial and error. Creative people get used to working while feeling doubt, frustration, ambiguity, disappointment, and fear at their own audacity.
So creative work demands resilience, that ability to persevere while being vulnerable.* But the neat thing is that, while you are drawing on your personal resilience as a creative, your creative process is embedding things that, in turn, make you resilient. A rich inner world; learning to get your critical mind to work with your imagination (instead of letting one overwhelm the other); the ability to sit in uncertainty; the ability to learn from your mistakes; being able to recognise when a change of course is required; a sense of playfulness; determination; curiosity. All of these things may be called upon when steering a light bulb moment to tangible outcome. All of them can feed your ability to be resilient. And that resilience helps to sustain your creative process.
“Grit and resiliency, when misunderstood, lead to this notion that I’m supposed to suffer, and that there’s something noble in the suffering. That’s silly and actually creates all sorts of problems. There’s a notion of false grit, which is kind of brittle, where if something truly difficult happens to us, we tend to break…. True resiliency, true grit has the capacity to be flexible, to understand that even the worst situations are, to use a Buddhist term, workable. That is, I can learn from this experience. I can find some greater sense of connectedness and therefore grow from this. And by the way, it hurts. And to deny that it hurts is to deny my humanity. ” ~ Jerry Colonna
‘Resilience’ is a word that is all too often misunderstood or misapplied, in my opinion. I am sick and tired of seeing it used as a synonym for tough or gritty. In my experience it is something quite different.
The distinction is an important one in my mind, and is something I became aware of through my own lived experience. I do not consider myself to be particularly tough. There have been many times in my life when I have felt fragile, tender. Many times I have behaved like a softy, when I have been squeamish and cringing in response to nasty occurrences.
But I am resilient. I am the most resilient person I know. I always come back. I have so often seen the amazement on the faces of friends and colleagues when I recover from something that should have seen me down for the count. They are all the more bewildered by my feats of recovery because they know I am not tough.
Many years ago, and there can never be too many years between where I am now and this experience, I was suicidal after a long, disorientating, and debilitating bout of clinical depression. I had the note written. I had my room cleaned, ready for my landlord to take possession – I didn’t want to put him to more trouble than I could help. I went down to Melbourne Central train station and stood on the platform and waited for a train. It came. I didn’t jump. It passed by. I waited for another. I didn’t jump. It passed by. I repeated this a few times until my feet, acting of their own accord, turned around and walked me out of there. I repeated this for a few more days. Then I stopped. I hated myself for a coward. I didn’t even have the guts to do that thing right.
In time the pain passed. I don’t know why or how but it did. I could make no sense of anything. But I was still, somehow, here.
I spent years wondering just what the instinct was that made me stand still on that train platform. When I tried to talk about it to other people – to reason out what had happened to me – I found I wasn’t believed – that my story was brushed off as an exaggeration – so I stopped talking about it. I know I was actually close to dying. I also remember that I had not experienced any last minute epiphany to help me ‘see the light’ and lead me away from disaster. With apologies to my family, I didn’t consider them because I didn’t think I would be much of a loss to anyone. Anyway, I was in too much pain to think coherently and of consequences. I just wanted to stop.
I didn’t make myself stay alive because I was tough or brave. As I stood on that platform there was no squaring of my spiritual shoulders, no plucky aphorisms pinging around my disordered head. I walked onto that platform broken by pain and I walked off it, unaccountably alive, broken by pain.
I was nothing. Anything hopeful, strong, noble, inspired, joyful had long been stripped off me. I couldn’t even remember what those things felt like; they happened to other people. I didn’t have a reason to live, I just didn’t die.
A couple of years ago I realised what it was: this innate quality that didn’t feel like strength but which had kept me being, not choosing not to be, to paraphrase Gerard Manly Hopkins in one of his Terrible Sonnets.
The thing that kept me alive was resilience. And here is why resilience is different from toughness: everybody has their breaking point, even tough people. In fact, find a tough person’s Achilles’ heel and they can be surprisingly brittle. I have known gritty types who looked awesomely staunch through many hard experiences and who, one day, when things had finally overwhelmed them, had fractured spectacularly. Everyone has a breaking point. But resilient people keep going even after they are broken. They mightn’t be happy, they might keep going as a tear-stained hyperventilating snotty-nosed mess, but they keep going.
In these ‘Solitary mind’ blogs I use the word ‘resilience’ from time to time; I wrote this because I wanted to make clear what I, personally, mean by this word.
We are all being challenged by the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic: the concerns about health, anxiety over the state of the economy and our ability to earn, the grinding tedium and, perhaps, loneliness of self-isolation. Over the next few months – maybe even longer – our resilience will be tested. In being shut up in our homes with our own selves, we are about to find out what our own personal resilience looks like (hint: it differs from person to person).
Choosing to be positive, on the days when we have the energy for that, is fabulous. Highly recommended! And, hopefully, for those of us who don’t have to freak out about adverse home conditions (poverty, domestic violence, actual illness), it may be possible to, at times, actively enjoy ourselves by making a point of sleeping in, binge watching stuff on DVD or Netflix, or curling up with a good novel.
But on the days when you feel fragile, unhappy, or disorientated just remember that you don’t have to spend your energy being brave, or tough, or positive, or productive. No one sees you; No one is keeping score or rewarding points on how square your jaw is. On those dark days, just spend your energy on existing; don’t waste energy on asking yourself any more than this. And know that this, too, will pass.
I got these wise words in response to this blog on Twitter:
Sending you all the hugs. It's good to know we can go on while feeling broken. not either-or. And we are all going to need those holding spaces, and figure out how to have and hold them ourselves. Also, to ask for help, there often is holding in places where we weren't looking.
Like just about everyone else on the planet, I have been swept up in preparing for, and trying not to panic about, the Covid-19 pandemic. Alongside working through practical considerations affecting my home, work and finances, I have been thinking about how the adventure of social isolation will affect my creative practice and mental wellbeing.
There are people out there who seem to think that prolonged periods of minimal or no contact with their networks will be a bit of a bore, but no worse than that. But I think these people underestimate how impactful isolation or distancing will be. We are social creatures; even introverts like me need some sense of connection. An unvaried diet of social media, or none at all for the digitally excluded, in addition to the absence of meaningful face-to-face interaction will hit many people harder than they expect. While a stretch of solitude can be restful, solitude experienced under duress isn’t. How does a herd animal sustain their psyche under these conditions?
I have written a series of blogs that I have grouped under the title of Solitary mind and which I am about to start posting. These pieces have been inspired partially by my need to manage my own expectations around how I will navigate my inner world during periods of minimal contact, partially by memories of past episodes of social isolation and what I learnt from that, and partially my desire to feed something that is, hopefully, helpful into my online community as they, too, face these challenges.
At the end of each blog I am going to post a resource – an article, a web page, an online archive – that I think might be useful, as well. You can find these, and others I have collected in my travels on the internet, in this Wakelet collection I have made. I will try to add to it from time to time. Please feel free to pass on recommendations of anything you have found to be informative, or reassuring, or inspiring during this time.
Please, also, forgive my typos, my appalling punctuation, and the strange sentence construction in these blogs. I don’t usually end my pieces with a naked plea for forbearance, but these blogs have been written in a hurry. I don’t know why, but I feel a strong urgency to get them out there.
And if you do read them, please leave a comment to let me know how you are supporting yourself or a loved one during this discomforting, dangerous, but remarkable time.