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.
In thinking through my contingency plans for the next few weeks of the Covid-19 crisis I have realised something about myself:
I have a high level of tolerance for risk taking
BUT I also feel a high level of responsibility for those around me.
The nature of risk
We tend to talk about risk as if it is a constant, easily verifiable thing that applies equally to all people in all situations. But it isn’t: what might feel risky for me, may not feel risky to you. Gambling on ‘risky’ investments might be a reckless thing for a person on a low income, but be a reasonable gamble for someone with enough savings to mitigate a loss. But what if that low income investor had chanced upon some information about that ‘risky’ investment that proved that it was actually a safer bet than it appeared to be to everyone else? Would this make that investor more or less of a risk taker compared with other investors who were not privileged with that data?
What fascinates me is how different individuals take risks in different parts of their lives. We tend to talk about people who are risk-takers as if that’s who they are, across all functions, all the time. But we all know people who take risks in some parts of their lives and not in others. Who are politically and intellectually conservative, but who engage in the physical risk of extreme sports. The cardigan-wearing accountant who nicks of to a B&D dungeon for his weekly session of sexual risk taking. The responsible school teacher who takes party drugs on the weekend. Back in my performing days, I used to know a couple of playwrights who were shy, quiet, and earnest to talk to – not social risk takers. But their creative output was risky in the extreme; there was no taboo they wouldn’t tackle, no one these gentle, sensitive men wouldn’t dare to offend. I used to wait for the cops to bust into our performances and arrest them.
Who gets to weigh up what constitutes risk anyway?
When I wrote the first draft of this blog in mid-March (and – God – that feels so long ago right now), my perception of the pandemic was one of crisis, but there were those who thought differently. My Twitter feed was full of people duking it out as to whether it is too risky to send their kids to school or not. I work in the tertiary sector part of the time; many in that sector felt that our society was running an awful risk in boosting the numbers of community transmission of the virus by letting campus life go on as normal, but our government steadfastly maintained that it was safe to keep schools and universities open (at time of writing Australian universities have switched their teaching delivery to online). Who you believe – and therefore what you see as a risky idea – depends on which politicians, experts, or news platforms you trust.
In many areas of my life – career, politics, creatively – I am a calculated risk taker. I weigh up my chances, make a conscious decision to own the consequences, and try stuff where – yes – I am prepared to cop a failure if it all doesn’t work out. Curiosity is a strong hallmark of my nature, and compels me to try different things. Socially, although I still find interactions with people interesting and enriching, I am becoming less of a risk taker as I get older; my essentially introverted nature is far from being misanthropic but is running out of puff as far as putting myself out there. I now feel social failure more badly than I ever have and, as a result, tend to play it safer.
Risk versus responsibility
In weighing up whether or not I should be exposing myself to Covid19 by going into crowded public places, I find that, while acknowledging that there is a fair and growing risk that I could be infected, I am not especially frightened of being so or of the consequences to me if I am. I am happy to fancy my chances. BUT the very idea that I could turn into a walking contaminant and pass the virus onto others terrifies me. What if I infected someone elderly or immunosuppressant with Covid-19? What if they died?
My father, who is 88, has practically begged me to go and stay with him and my sister in their quiet country town until this all blows over. The notion has its temptations – they live a cruisey and quietly comfortable existence. But no way am I going. If I transmitted Covid-19 to my Dad and perhaps to others in their town I couldn’t live with myself.
So this has had me thinking that many of us are probably faced with finding this balancing act between what our personal appetite for risk might be and our personal values about what we owe to our community. This might be further complicated by choices forced by external conditions: the casual worker who needs to do shifts to pay the rent, but who feels that they owe it to everybody else to stay at home alone; the parent who doesn’t want to send their kids to a potentially infection-rife school, but who can’t find anyone to mind them while that parent is at work.
It seems to have died down now, but the shoppers who pushed their way past other consumers so that they could pile their trolley high with hundreds of toilet rolls, what drove them? To so greedily and frantically hoard stuff suggests thinking that must be compelled with some kind of fear, some perception of risk, although I don’t pretend to understand what that might be. But their selfishness suggests a low level of responsibility to others in their community. I don’t know.
So as you make your plans, and consider the level of social distancing, or plan your activities for self-isolation, reflect on where you are at as a risk taker. And reflect on how that influences your decision making.
I was motivated to write this series of ‘Solitary mind’ blogs because I was concerned that some people would find social isolation hard: disorientating, unsettling, or even depressing. So a lot of my writing is about unpacking the nuances of that, and thinking about ways to survive the experience.
Alongside the challenges there could be positives to having a period of aloneness. The tedium and uncertainty of self-isolation or social distancing can make the experience feel interminable, but it won’t last forever. So for a pocket of time we have the opportunity to experience something unique, if somewhat discombobulating. For better or for worse, normal life has been suspended, something that is rarely inflicted on, or gifted to, us.
We are not just quarantining ourselves from catching or spreading the coronavirus; we are also quarantined from the world outside. Yes, news and perspectives can trickle or, depending on how addicted you are to news or social media platforms, flood in, but we always have the choice to filter, ration, or switch off these communications*.
We are living in a state of suspension. The ways in which each individual influences their own little corner of the world has changed, as has its influence on us. If we take the opportunity to tune out all but the most necessary interactions – for information and emotional connection – we could afford ourselves the opportunity to exist, for a while, in a liminal state; a state where things are on the cusp of emerging, of being consciously identified and understood.
Our instincts can form to become ideas or settle to underpin habits of thinking. There is risk attached to this; if we are finding our time alone an ordeal of isolation then our feelings can be ones of anger, gloom, pessimism, anxiety. Of course, these feelings are perfectly sane responses to a strange and stressful experience, but if they harden into clinical depression then that’s obviously a problem. Instincts for wariness, doubt, paranoia (of the government? of other people?) can also form. If the conditions of our isolation overlap with conditions of poverty, illness, or relationship breakdown then the ideas and instincts we will be grappling with will present us with the challenge of finding the resilience to survive this ordeal.
But if our isolation is less beleaguered by adverse conditions, then our challenges are of a different nature. One challenge we could choose is that of re-setting some of our thinking. While we are sitting in this space of not being seen or heard as much, how are we going to use it?
For this to work to our advantage, we have to commit to allowing our personal psychological space to be decluttered: don’t mess it up with mental busyness. Take plenty of breaks from work. Turn off Facebook and the TV. Go and sit in a different room from the one containing your housemates.
In our activity-obsessed society – where bustling is so often mistaken for productivity, confidence, or dynamism – doing nothing can feel weird, even decadent. But it is into the idling mind that insights and inspirations steal. The strange outlier thoughts slide in, and these are the ones that can lead to real originality. We can view our previous ‘normal’ lives afresh, start questioning that which had been the status quo. And it is these original thoughts that can lead to a refreshed connection to our sense of creativity or even identity.
This is a remarkable time, not an easy one but remarkable all the same. Allowing yourself to sit in the absence of the normal external and internal expectations that inflect your normal day-to-day life isn’t easy; it can feel odd or even uncomfortable. But try to savour the oddness of it all. Give yourself permission to try out new trains of thought, to ask ‘what if’? This is an adventure that we may never have again; it can yield its own unique treasures.
*For the sake of your mental health, please do access digital information discerningly.
If you don’t know about it already, theOpen Culture website is a treasure trove of free online courses, audio books, eBooks, movies, colouring books.
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I was in an old house that was initially accommodating other people but which, by the climax of my dream, seemed to be deserted. At the point at which I realised that I was alone, I also became aware that my room was haunted by an ancestor of mine called Elsie. The ghost wasn’t malevolent in intent, but she was overwhelmingly sad. The atmosphere she spread was so heavy it was debilitating and I didn’t want to be around her, but there was nowhere else to go and no-one to help me. I knew the ghost was terrifyingly alone and somehow her haunting had cast a pall of repulsion over the whole house that repelled other people. It was just me and her. Isolation begat isolation.
It was easy to interpret this vivid dream when I awoke. Like many other people, I am anxious about how the Covid-19 crisis is going to play out. I am currently self-distancing and working from home. In one way this makes me feel calmer. Perhaps it just gives me the illusion of being in control, but I also do believe I am taking practical action to care for myself and my community.
But in doing this – and therefore thinking deeply about what it is to be isolated and also possible consequences of the pandemic – certain other thoughts and memories are being flushed to the surface as my brain scrambles for a point of reference in amongst the different ideas, opinions, facts, and speculations that are bombarding us all via our employers, governments, news organisations, and social media networks.
These memories sit alongside any other intellectual objective thinking I might be doing. As we all socially distance or self-isolate, memories and the visceral or emotional reactions they can inspire can have real power, especially in the face of the distortions of a disproportionately high exposure to the online world and less face-to-face interaction than we are used to.
We are at risk of being triggered.
The dream I recounted above is connected with past experiences I have had of being severely socially isolated. The ghost of an ancestor represents a former existence of mine; the dream evoked a link between being shut away from people and feeling a terrible and debilitating sadness about that. When I have dreams this easy to interpret I actually feel proud of my subconscious for its nifty work, even if the dreams are not fun to experience.
The favour my subconscious has done for me lately is to let me know that this present situation is triggering my fears of isolation possibly engendering sadness, even depression, at feeling cut off. That’s fine. Forewarned is forearmed.
What do you do with these triggered feelings or memories?
Consciously remind yourself that they are just feelings and memories. They are not an indication of your ability to survive this; they do not predict your future. This can be very hard to believe if you are experiencing depression or anxiety – believe me I know just how hard – but it’s true.
If you are struggling with mental health issues then please do ring someone who can help you – not someone who will tell you to get over yourself but someone who can listen with compassion. Perhaps Google phone services that offer trained counselors, such as Australia’s Lifeline.
Analyse what your reactions to your current experiences are telling you about yourself and your journey through life: do you fear poverty, abandonment, uncertainty? This stuff is hard to sit with, but once you have some insight you can start thinking about how to respond constructively.
Use this stuff. Express it. Let the feelings and memories inspire some writing, or drawing, or singing, or whatever takes your fancy.
One of the best things about being creative is that you can use the worst bits of your life as fodder for your work, and, in so doing, transform what was bad into something that transcends that.
One of my first pieces of performance work, made many years ago now, was inspired by my experiences with a prolonged and crippling bout of depression I had suffered as a teen. Making and then performing this work in front of an audience – connecting with those people – felt alchemical. I took something ugly and nihilistic and made something communicative and beautiful out of it; what had been an isolating experience for me reached other people and moved them.
Even an upsetting dream I have had recently has served as the inspiration for this blog. People often talk about creativity as if it is just a state of play and disinhibition. While these things are important components of being creative, there is more to it than just that. What I love about being creative is the sense that your imagination, emotions, and intellect are all at play together. Creative thinking works in harmony with critical thinking; there is an interplay between instinct and choice making. You give your imagination a workout, but also your ability to make choices about how you might like to frame or work with the deep, raw, messy insights that come seeping out.
The On Being Project has put together a Care Package for Uncertain Times. It contains poetry and podcasts; you can find it here.
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This morning I found three tweets that delighted me.
The first was someone tweeting an idea suggested to them by a friend as a way to pass the time during isolation or quarantine:
Our friend Fiona has started giving us a daily challenge to keep up entertained during the lockdown. Today was Day 1. The challenge? Recreate famous works of art using only clothes, towels and bed linen. Our submissions: #CoronavirusLockdownpic.twitter.com/L3CgPMctXK
This is probably not something that most of us could reproduce precisely, although, again, it could be a prompt for a fun exercise for kids to experiment with making music or even basic instruments out of household items. But I love the way this sound artist has highlighted the extraordinary quality of sound that can be produced by ordinary objects.
The third tweet left me gobsmacked by its ingenuity:
We’ve all seen other clips of people who have used household items to make a domino effect, and they’re always fun to watch, but this was an especially witty attempt. I loved how several times, for example when the glass is spilt or the baby appears, things seem to be about to go to pieces but it turns out that these apparently random elements are part of the choreography. The design has a neat juxtaposition of mess and precision, which is apposite at a time when people, shut up in doors, are forced to micro-manage their environment but, in coping with a pandemic, feel subject to chaos.
The thing all three of these tweets show is people responding with creativity to the theme of being constrained to interacting with mundane objects. This reminds me of Xavier de Maistre’s A Journey Around My Room. Published in 1794, and written while de Maistre was under house arrest for 42 days for his part in an illegal duel, it parodies travel diaries of his day by taking a tour of his room and going into rhapsodies on the ‘sights’ he sees.
Although she wasn’t imprisoned in her room, and therefore able to write about a set of people and not just items, another person who lived a more physically constrained life than we are used to was Jane Austen. In the (pre-digital) times in which she lived, people, and especially women, did not travel far or often and were limited to much smaller face to face networks than we have available to us. Austen’s writing focused minutely on her small social world, but she did so with an acute eye for human nature that makes her writing still dynamic today. Austen said of her writing that she was working with “the little bit (two inches wide) of ivory on which I work with so fine a brush, as produces little effect after much labour.” I’m not suggesting that you pin your hopes on churning out something like Pride and Prejudice during your quarantine, but why not find your own precious bit of ivory to whittle?
It’s tough being cooped up in the same old place with the same old company day after day. The tedium, alone, can be disorientating and even depressing if it goes on for long enough. Our challenge will be to allow ourselves the psychological space to connect with our feelings, whatever they may be. Emotional denial leads to the festering and building up, pressure cooker wise, of truly dark thoughts and moods; denial is not your friend when it comes to sustaining your psychological resilience. You need to allow space to be real to yourself, otherwise you court psychological disorientation.
At the same time, it is vital that you don’t allow yourself to slide into gloom and a sense of hopelessness either. And, given that normal life has been disrupted, and that our previously habitual range of social checks and balances have been distorted by a lessening of face to face interaction and changes of scenery, your challenge of resisting this slide falls disproportionately onto you and your frazzled brain and whatever your cordoned off environment provides.
What resources do you have to work with? What ‘ordinary’ things could you be looking at from a new perspective? A towel, a baby, a glass of juice, a candle, a pencil holder full of springs? The three tweets above show creative people working with things in such a way that explores different visual, aural, or tactile textures. Can you play with your stuff and discover things that delight your senses?
The same applies to the ‘stuff’ that lives inside us. You have your own imagination and curiosity. Take a look at the workaday thoughts and reactions that trudge through your head every day. These have probably now been jolted off piste; what is their trajectory? Where have they fallen? Observe them where they lie, watch where the light hits them and where the shadows are cast. Mentally pick them up and turn them this way and that. What haven’t you noticed before? And what can you do with these new insights? Write them down? Draw them? Sing them?
This weird time we have at home will be over one day. When we are allowed a bigger physical world to roam in, what highly worked little bits can we take with us back into it?
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