Seeking the Simple in the Complex
Complexity raises anxiety. That anxiety is hovering close to the surface at this time cannot be deemed surprising. We have never done this complex form of living before and thus drawing from past experiences, or trying to control the shape of things, is simply beyond our fingertips. Brene Brown writes of ‘the courage to not know’. Similarly, Organisational Psychologist, Dr Michelle Mulvihill, in addressing a large group of Independent School Principals in a webinar on Friday said, ‘Somehow, we need to pay more attention to adaptive spaces, or at least to make ourselves more comfortable in places of ‘unknowing’ rather than futilely clinging to the known’. Easier said than done, Michelle.
Nonetheless, her words of wisdom did bring some reassurance, a reminder that we are all grappling with seeing the world one way but experiencing it in another way. We are all so used to school operating in a particular paradigm that when it can’t, or doesn’t, it is unsettling, or frustrating or for some – the source of anger. I have never seen this space before, nor has any of us. Even small things, like a squeeze of hand sanitiser on entering a classroom, have become commonplace; standing at a distance in a queue or zooming in to a conversation have become standard practice and they need to – inconvenience cannot override safety at this time. I was asked quite a genuine question this week, ‘When’s all this COVID stuff going to finish? When can things get back to normal?’ At first, I was mildly flattered; imagine – someone really believed that I had the capacity to predict accurately the future of our newly formed world, one shaped by a pandemic. Confidently, and without apology, I was able to say, ‘I don’t know.’
We don’t know how to do this.
We don’t know how to social distance and stay sane.
We don’t know how to stay socially connected but stay far apart.
We don’t know what to tell our kids.
We are anxious, we are uncertain, a lot of us are afraid.
(Brene Brown, 2020)
At school we do continue to plan into this uncertain future, well aware that much of this planning could become redundant in a moment and that a pivot in a new direction may come unannounced but be required in an instant. Simultaneously, we are savouring the special moments that occur ever day. Classrooms are a sanctuary. Learning is more precious than ever before. An Assembly performance, albeit to a smaller gathering and live streamed, seems so much more special than in the past, or spending lesson 5 on a Friday with a Year 12 English class wrestling with ‘Macbeth’, or a session in a Year 11 Thrive class focused on perspective - it is as if I have been given the opportunity to see the world differently, if I so choose. And I am choosing, with a great deal of deliberateness, to absorb and enjoy those moments, to draw strength from the familiar in an unfamiliar time.
Dr Mulvihill urged the principals to whom she addressed not to metabolise uncertainty as a threat; rather, to acknowledge the new space which schools inhabit, and to suspend judgement where we can – in a sense, to step into the unknown without the emotional baggage of, ‘but we’ve always done it this way, why can’t we do it that way still?’ Quite frankly, because we can’t. We can’t do school the same way and that has to be OK – for now and maybe for longer. There is disruption for everyone, and the vast majority of people don’t understand their resilience until faced with extraordinary circumstances (Southwick, 2020). But Southwick also cautions that a pandemic is ‘less visible, less predictable, a creeping threat rather than flying debris — a marathon, psychologically, rather than a sprint to safety.’
So, where that anxiety simmers or bubbles fiercely beneath surface we do need to acknowledge its existence, it is a very human response to experience fear. Each week I find myself online buying a box of fruit and vegetables to have delivered to my daughter in Melbourne – it’s my way of extending care at a time when care must look different. I’m not sure if it helps her as much as it helps me – just to do something practical when there is so little I can do. And whilst I challenge myself to embrace Mulhivill’s ‘not knowing’, I am also deeply cognisant of the need for self-care in this time of complexity. Pray. Exercise. Diet. Sleep. Read (anything non-COVID 19 related). Tune out of the statistics from time to time and, importantly, be grateful for that which is in front of me; these things matter more than ever before. I am reminded that our students, our teachers and our parents inhabit the same uncertain space as me, that they, too, are part of this marathon that does not have a clear finish line. It’s essential to look beyond my perspective. Yes, complexity does raise anxiety.
So, it is healthy to seek out some exciting, rather than stress-filled, anxiety in this season of COVID: the exciting anxiety of seeing the Brisbane Lions triumph over Essendon, for example. A game of Netball. Performing on Assembly. Preparation for a piece of assessment – yes, if we stretch our thinking hard enough, we can deem it exciting. It’s important also, to show compassion to others and to ourselves. We’ve never done this before and we can’t endure the marathon, especially the one that has no clear finish line, without acknowledging our own anxiety, working with it and through it, and perhaps being just a little more patient with our world which may look the same on the surface but isn’t so. Let’s step a little more gently, perhaps with a little more kindness, and remember to enjoy the things, no matter how small, or simple, that do bring us joy.
Dr Linda Evans | Principal
Batucan, J. (2020). Accessed March 30, 2020 10.17am ‘Famed Author Brené Brown on Courage During COVID-19’
Brown, B. (2020). ‘The Courage to Not Know’
Carey, B. (2020). ‘The Pandemic’s Mental Toll: More Ripple Than Tsunami’ The New York Times.
Mulvihill, M. (2020). ‘Surviving to thriving in an age of uncertainty and anxiety’. Australian Heads of Independent Schools – Queensland webinar 31 July. 2020.
Sethi, S. (2020). ‘10 Ways to Ease Your Coronavirus Anxiety’ The New York Times.