Wood's Homes Blog

Looking for silver linings on cloudy days: Could there be an upside to all this social distancing?

June 11, 2020
By Dr. Angelique Jenney, Wood’s Homes Research Chair in Children’s Mental Health
Looking for silver linings on cloudy days: Could there be an upside to all this social distancing?

It’s been 12 weeks since I stepped inside my makeshift home office. I’m keeping a calendar and marking it with X’s, and maybe you have been too. I’ve limited my social media exposure because honestly, it was hard enough to manage the reality of what is going on in the world without having to also manage conspiracy theories and the vitriol of what I can only describe as (in)human selfishness taken to the extreme. For some reason, I kept thinking of Dicken’s famous opening, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”  And indeed, if we look closely for the good in this, I think we might find some (granted, we might have to look really hard).

Don’t get me wrong, there is nothing good to be gained from the unnecessary loss of so many lives. I’m also thinking of my 102-year-old grandfather trapped behind a plate-glass window, whose caregiver is masked and routines of social mealtimes with fellow residents, arts/crafts and physio sessions have disappeared. I think of him having to look at his daughter on a computer screen or through a windowpane as she stands outside.  I am grateful for the health care workers who are caring for him as if he was their own family member – this is caring work for which there is no adequate wage, because it is actually priceless.

This will not be a time that we look back in retrospect and say, “that was good for us.” In fact, as a family we’re coming to terms with the realization that we might never be able to touch him again before he, quite literally, dies of a broken heart. There is nothing good about the rise of domestic violence, and the countless numbers of children whose monsters are real and don’t just come out at night. Children who are currently spending their days scared, hurt or hungry, without the much-needed reprieve of going to school or daycare. For some children, not being seen in the community could be a death sentence. These and other social fractures occurring around the world will never be fully mended.  But there are still workers out there who are desperately trying to keep women and children safe.

But in these surreal times, when the spread of a deadly virus is also resulting in a rise in community mental health issues, with an equivalent reduction in traditional mental health service provision, we are all being forced to step outside of our comfort zones to embrace new ways of being in the world. I, for one, have been looking for an upside of down, and this is what I’ve be thinking:

  1. We’re learning that we are vulnerable and fallible, and that is a good thing. Growth only comes from discomfort and resilience from adversity, and it can make us better people.
  2. We’re learning about privilege and inequity. Although the virus does not itself discriminate, social inequities do – and they magnify the risks to many – and we need to be paying attention to whatever role we might individually and collectively play in addressing that.
  3. We’re learning that many of the things we undervalue – such as service work – are actually the essential services, and that we need to pay more attention to those sectors that keep our communities livable and nourished.
  4. We are re-learning what matters most. Basic necessities, human connection, eye contact, spontaneous smiles and physical affection. We miss hugs.
  5. We’ve learned that we are adaptive beings by staying inside, sewing masks, cooking meals (with only half the ingredients), making bread, and finding alternatives to toilet paper and hand sanitizer.
  6. We’re learning how to decipher fact from fiction when faced with myriad mixed messages about how to stay safe. We’ve stopped taking knowledge for granted.
  7. We’re learning to be alone. Some of us are lucky enough to find time for creativity and trying new things, or for revisiting older versions of ourselves. I watched one of the young adults in my household paint a picture using an old paint set from grade school and the cardboard from an empty cereal box. Her sibling read an entire book in a few days. Being able to be alone and entertain oneself is a gift that will never stop giving – my hope is that many children and youth are slowly unwrapping this gift as the days drag on.
  8. We’re likely learning that some relationships have always been the right ones, some might need saving and others are now ending. We’re also learning that ‘family’ means many different things and the relationships we nurture are the ones that last. We are now finding time to connect with loved ones and renew old friendships, and we’re realizing now that we’ve always had that time – we just simply used it differently.
  9. We’re learning about time, and what it means to have too much or too little of it.
  10. We’re learning about losses and gains. Perhaps the loss of a daily commute has meant gains for quality time with children, time for exercise or nutrition goals. Perhaps the loss of freedoms has gained us an ‘inner world’ that we’d previously neglected. Maybe the loss of personal spaces and time apart has made some of us closer.

“When this is over” seems to be the new refrain, despite the gnawing possibility that the future we are waiting for may never actually arrive. I hope that perhaps we will learn the benefits of babies being born into family units that are always together and/or how having both parents at home will shift the way domestic and caring work gets done. Patterns of inequity may become apparent and generations may be impacted. 

I was recently discussing the hardships of balancing working at home with parenting and home-schooling, as many parents are struggling and working hard together to create new routines.  Some parents are thriving, having always wanted to spend more time in their children’s lives, while others are watching their career aspirations go down alongside their reduced productivity. Some are saving the lives of strangers, while living apart from their children in hotel rooms and only communicating via screen time. Depending on who you are and what you need to be doing at this time, that is how you will be impacted. 

For some, the silver-lining will be thin if present at all, and for others, this life event will serve to be the wake-up call they have been needing to start themselves on a different path.  Whoever you are, wherever this pandemic finds you, you are learning something about yourself and the world you are a part of right now. Not all of it good – but some of it might be.  

The next chance you get, ask the people you love most what they’ve been learning. The answers might surprise you and you might find your own silver lining on this cloudy day.