Emotional whiplash and the productive struggle of shelter in place

Well hello again after another week that has felt more like a month. How is everyone? I already have a fairly good sense of the answer to that question. In an effort to bring some levity to the heaviness of the past week, I stole a friend’s idea and posted one of those silly “what is your quaratine name?” posts on Facebook. Friends were supposed to write how they were feeling plus the last food eaten to create their name. It was a fun little peek into our various edible provisions while we’re stuck at home trying to flatten the curve. But it was the wide variety of emotions being felt that struck me on a deeper level. Here’s a look at the 60+ responses I received on that post (some words that were repeated appear larger).

Extra credit to my friend who responded with “gassy” and gave me one of my best laughs of the week.

Talk about emotions being all over the place! As comments popped up on the post, I found myself thinking, “Yep, I’ve had that feeling this week. Uh huh, that one, too.” At times this past week I’ve experienced many of these divergent feelings within the space of a single hour. The phrase emotional whiplash would describe what I’ve been experiencing as I try to process all that has happened over the past two weeks. You, too?

Another thought that has been crossing my mind is, why on earth did it need to be the month before the announcement of a global pandemic that I finally decided to get off my duff and commit to the practice of writing consistently? When I named this blog “Where Is My Mind?” I had so many other directions I expected this would go. I even have several posts started from weeks ago that I expected to develop/revise/publish over time, and I am just not in the head space right now to return to them. Part of me decided that with the crazy turn the world has taken, it would be perfectly acceptable to forego this experiment for now and get back to it another time maybe when the world has returned to normal. After all, the only person to whom I promised I’d do this was myself.

Aaaaaand, that’s why I’m back here writing again for week number five. With everyone emphasizing the importance of self-care during this unprecedented time, keeping this promise to myself seems to be of the highest order. (By the way, unprecedented seems to be my new least favorite word that makes me cringe each time I hear it. I will try to use it sparingly.) Coherent thoughts are not always coming easily, but I’m purposing to look for them and to see what I can glean through all of this. Which brings me to this idea of productive struggle.

Educators (teacher trainers especially) love this term, much to our students’ chagrin. And by “chagrin” I do not in any way mean in the sense of humiliation but rather the natural (and hopefully temporary) distress that struggle inherently brings. As a part of best teaching practices we are coached to allow students time to explore new concepts and ideas; to fail; to make their own meaning without stepping in and “stealing their struggle.” We want to normalize failed attempts so students understand it is all part of the learning process. This isn’t easy for teachers either. Any educator can tell you the questions stirring through our minds as we actively monitor this process in class. How much time is too much time before students get frustrated and quit? Am I wasting instructional minutes letting them flail uselessly? Is this really even productive? Teachers love to talk, so stepping back and allowing the struggle is no easy task.

It seems to me we are collectively finding ourselves in a time of productive struggle. We have a task before us. We don’t know what the solution is exactly. We have some clear directives along with other suggestions of things that should be done to help. And we’re left to explore, fail, try again, do something different, possibly fail yet again, come up with another plan, and so on. Life is our great teacher stepping back and letting us figure it out without intervening. This new reality plays out in so many ways right now: for teachers trying to set up remote learning opportunities; for parents trying to get their kids into some kind of routine while possibly spending their days at home for an undefined amount of time; for employees trying to adjust to working from home; for essential workers still having to report to their places of employment in uncertain times; for those who are now finding themselves without employment and facing a world of financial uncertainty on top of everything else. These are huge factors to try to figure out! But then there are the additional more personal experiences to navigate, like spending long hours in a confined space with a limited number of select people when you’re used to more time spent apart and engaged in other pursuits that are now suddenly unavailable. Even when those people are the ones you love most in the world, it can be a lot. It is a lot!

So this is a very unique time in which we find pretty much every person in our sphere struggling in one way or another, to both small degrees and large. Each and every one of those emotions in that word cloud are totally valid. As a Facebook friend wisely wrote the other day, we need to give ourselves (and each other) grace to feel our feelings and to manage through this time in the ways that are best for ourselves and our families. I entered the month of March feeling tired and ready for spring break (even though it was still 5 weeks to go for my district), so when the schools closed my family immediately went into unstructured break mode. We needed that. The thought of attempting any kind of schedule or remote schooling for my own kids like I saw so many others dive into was completely overwhelming to me. Now as we head into our second week at home, it’s time to introduce some structure and routine into our “shelter in place” days. I have a plan A ready to go tomorrow, and we’ll see how that goes. I expect it will be a lot of trial and error. By next week, I may already be on to plan E. I know there’s definitely a learning curve ahead.

One of the reasons I love teaching is that I love the idea of life-long learning. I am enriched in the company of educators who always remain curious, who continually seek to know more, and who are aware of the fact that the more you know, the more you realize there is so much yet to learn. Those are my kind of people, and there are many who share that mindset who are not themselves educators (so some of you non-teachers are ok, too — and while we’re on the subject, not all teachers share the belief that they have more to learn, I suppose). At any rate, I’m struck by how much there is to learn through this whole experience in which we find ourselves. And to learn there must be struggle. It’s all part of the game.

I’ll leave you with something I learned this past week that got me on this whole productive struggle train of thought in the first place. I was discouraged to find that I couldn’t concentrate much on any of the books in my huge to-read stack. Each time I’d sit down to crack open a book, I became distracted by something, scrolled on my phone following news updates way too much, or simply fell asleep from the exhaustion I was feeling. Three days into this new stay at home experience I did something I haven’t done in as long as I can remember (if ever?). I pulled out a puzzle. Last month for my birthday my mom gave me a puzzle with a charming picture of the inside of a quaint book store. In her retirement years she’s grown fond of puzzles. I loved the image and appreciated her thoughtfulness, and I wondered when (and if) I’d ever get around to actually working on it. This seemed like the perfect time.

It didn’t take long before it dawned on me just how long this puzzle would take to complete being that no one else in my house expressed one bit of interest in working on it along with me. I went through the box of 1,000 pieces, pulling out all the border edges to work on the outside first. It was not particularly fun nor satisfying at all. That first night, it was an exercise in irritation and frustration more than anything else. I was asking myself why this was something anyone found particularly enjoyable, and I debated whether or not to just put the pieces back into the box and shelf it. What was the point if it wasn’t even a fun diversion? I was ready to chalk it up to my seemingly underdeveloped spatial intelligence and decide I just wasn’t a puzzle person after all. Then I thought of my students that I am missing so much. I thought of a couple of students in particular who approach math on a daily basis the way I was approaching this puzzle. I heard my own words that I’ve so often said to them, “Stick with it, you can figure it out!” And I remembered all the times I have told them that math is really fun when you push yourself through the challenge, the productive struggle. I grumbled to myself that I was doing it alone and thought it would just go quicker if someone helped me. How many times have I been the one holding back in those important moments when they’re about to break through on their own? I felt pretty hypocritical in that moment and decided to stick with it.

Four days later I finished that 1,000 piece puzzle and am now officially hooked. I came to love the challenge. As I finished each small section, I couldn’t wait to get to the next. To my amazement, I was spending hours at a time and enjoying the process. I especially love how engrossing this activity can be when you just want to get your mind on something other than say the threat of a global novel virus. I may have just ordered 6 more puzzles on-line today.

This is the kind of place where I’d like to go when the world is back to normal and we can once again shop for more than groceries.

I think that very simple example of my puzzle experience can illustrate in the most basic way how uncomfortable challenges can be faced, and we are most certain to confront more and more challenges in the days ahead as we try to establish some sense of normalcy while in this shared state of limbo. Not knowing how long our lives will be interrupted, and finding the circumstances changing so much even from one day to the next, presents dilemmas from which we won’t have the luxury of stepping away. We will have to struggle through and find what works and what doesn’t work. There will likely be a lot to learn. And we may just find some unexpected blessings along the way.

I was encouraged to see that one of the emotions that came up the most often and appeared largest in the word cloud was hopeful. Here’s to holding onto hope and giving ourselves grace as we face our productive struggles in the days ahead.

Published by kathryngrace

I am a wife, mom of two, educator, Christ-follower, avid reader, music lover, and social justice seeker who constantly tries to balance my desire to stay informed and involved with my need for sanity and solitude. It's a juggle.

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