THE WORK OF SURVIVING, DEVELOPING AND TRANSFORMING
"There is no power for change greater than a community discovering
what it cares about.” Margaret Wheatley
Whenever I hear the John Lennon song, ‘Beautiful Boy’ the lyrics always make me smile. They seem to capture something universal about the human condition, especially in this modern age. However, they’ve never seemed more timely and wise than they do in this very moment. Over three months of ‘global pandemic’, ‘social distancing’ and ‘sheltering in place’ exemplify that, “life is what happens to us while we’re busy making other plans”. It was unfathomable earlier this year that our lives could shift to this extent. That our economy would grind to a halt, our borders would shut down, international travel would completely cease, and our schools would close.
SIMPLY UNFATHOMABLE … and yet uncertainty has emerged as our new reality.
Throughout this turbulent time, conversations with my colleagues from the Toronto Institute of Group Studies have provided a soothing balm. We’ve shared our personal fears and struggles as well as any resources we’ve found to inspire and support each other (and hopefully you our readers) in making meaning of our experience. In our most recent conversations, systems theory and the work of the
Systems Centered Training and Research Institute
has come up repeatedly in our conversations. It has provided us with a helpful perspective as we navigate
‘the edge of the unknown’
and has helped clarify our individual roles and responsibilities as a member of a global community in total upheaval.
It has also been helpful to us when we’ve utilized our unique vantage point as group therapists to examine our current reality from the perspective of group dynamics.
Utilizing the developmental model that scaffolds our teaching in group therapy has allowed us to locate our collective struggles in group development and by doing so has activated feelings of compassion for ourselves and others while instilling much needed hope for transformation and growth.
We’ve shared this perspective in previous newsletters as we investigated the engagement and conflict phases and we’re now looking into some of the tasks, challenges and potential gains of the working stage of group development.
REFLECTING ON OUR COLLECTIVE RESPONSES
Turbulence at the edge of the unknown …
Before we move on to a discussion of the working group as an arena for resolution, we need to look further at the issues of conflict and polarization that have arisen within society.
We have settled into a climate where attitudes toward COVID-19 are often characterized as a face-off between the “nervous Nellies” (anxious and fearful) and the “yahoos” (uncaring and selfish). At the same time demands to focus on the economic impact of COVID-19 coupled with the lack of absolute scientific certainty, and the patchwork nature of government responses around the world, encourage a challenge to authority.
In this unsettled climate other issues of polarization have also emerged. This time of introspection reveals that although we share similarities with each other, we live in a world with substantive inequities. The recent murder of George Floyd in the United States has once again brought to light the tragic consequences of the ongoing systemic racism and oppression faced by the Black community worldwide and highlights our own abysmal treatment of Indigenous peoples in Canada. The devastating loss of lives of our elders in long-term care facilities during this pandemic, reveals to us the degree of ageism and neglect faced by our older community members. The socio-economic oppression of marginalized groups is also manifested in the pattern and spread of this lethal virus, highlighting the cracks and inequities in our social structures. While COVID-19 can impact anyone, statistics clearly show that those who face housing, food, or health insecurity are least likely to recover.
As citizens, we look to our leaders to ‘solve’ these problems for us. From our perspective as group therapy leaders, we note the emergence of sizeable subgroups challenging the group’s collective boundaries. And the need, at this time to come back to our guiding principles – our group norms. What has become so apparent is that these
existing ‘norms’ do not serve the needs of all our citizens and community members.
And yet what may have seemed impossible to change several short months ago, is now possible. We have witnessed the world literally come to a halt in the face of this pandemic… so it is possible to change our collective norms. It
The transition from ‘living in fear’ to ‘living with fear’
Our discussions have focused lately on the levels of uncertainty we are witnessing. As scientific research continues to reinforce the many unknowns, and the economic push to ‘re-open’ increases, we are each navigating in our own ways, to the best of our abilities. Some people have become hyper-vigilant, some very judgemental of others who choose to relax their boundaries in ways different than our own, and through this protracted crisis, some don’t feel the same strength as they initially had to keep up the protective measures …
We agree that it is much easier when the rules are clear… when we can all agree on a common set of guidelines. We are witnessing a large-scale transition from ‘living in fear’ to ‘living with fear’, and hopefully engaging common sense and a sense of agency. We are relying on each other – trusting each other.
A meditation metaphor that seems very appropriate is that of the passing clouds… we observe our fears as we observe a passing cloud, we witness each cloud pass without letting it inhabit our bodies, and we breathe.
Two meditation apps we’ve found so very helpful are Headspace and Calm.
One of the things we’ve become more aware of with both our work and social lives moving onto social media platforms is how much more exposed we feel. We are entering each other’s homes and personal spaces in a way we never have before. We see each other’s living spaces over Zoom, and our family members and pets enter and exit our screens, exposing more of our lives than we ever would in our more ’professional’ office settings. These ‘intrusions’ and ‘distractions’ have the potential to create barriers… and the equal opportunity to move us toward greater authenticity. This experience parallels the emotional connections we are navigating. Some friends and colleagues want more ‘Zoom’ time, while others of us feel overloaded and overexposed.
THE VALUE OF RELATIONSHIPS AND CONNECTION
The slowing down and stillness created by the social distancing measures brought on by this pandemic, affords us the opportunity to keep observing our individual and collective experiences. Our capacity to see this moment and record our experiences enables us to increase our awareness of day to day happenings and discover what the pandemic is revealing about us.
This season of slowing down has created a reflective space to notice the rays of light amidst the darkness and ask ourselves what gives us hope right now?
Living with purpose in these uncertain times is challenging and yet we are summoned to open our eyes to both the bold and courageous things being done and the cracks in our relationships and social systems.
Notice the acts of humanity and kindness in our efforts to take care of each other by wearing a mask, giving each other space and finding strength in our interconnectedness. Although staying home and away from family and friends is difficult, it’s actually a way to show that we care for others. This spirit of mutuality also lives in the way that restaurants struggling to survive have stepped up to feed those dealing with food insecurity. It is echoed in our language with inspirational statements like, “Let’s do it together”, “Mutual Aid”, “What keeps us healthy is helping someone else” and “No way out of this except together”. Losing the privilege of person to person contact has made gestures of friendship all the more precious.
Who can we be as individuals and as a society after this?
We are called to examine our individual and collective contributions to the social inequities and systemic oppression that reside in our communities, in order to confront our blind spots and attitudes that perpetuate human suffering. This introspective work can inevitably lead to developing a greater commitment to connecting and taking care of each other. Our awareness of personal responsibility in identifying and resolving the power differentials, exploitation and inequities inherent in our human family has the power to transform the world as we know it.
As we move beyond our introspective reflection, we recognize as individuals and therapists the need to highlight these conversations that move us toward action. In a recent article in The Faculty Publication, Jasmine Roberts writes an important article,
White Academia: Do Better
We will end this newsletter with the words of the great poet, Leonard Cohen, in his Anthem…
Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in…
ADDITIONAL RECOMMENDED READING
Standing at The Edge
Finding Freedom where Fear and Courage Meet
by Joan Halifax. The author explores five qualities she calls
: Altruism, Empathy, Integrity, Respect and Engagement, needed to deal with human suffering with compassion and courage.
Respectfully submitted by,
Aida Cabecinha, Susan Farrow, Allan Sheps and Terry Simonik