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  • Simon Lau

The gift of solitude and community in isolation

(First published in Linkedin March 18 2020)

The UK government has significantly stepped up its response to Covid-19 recently where now, over 70’s, are

eing asked to self-isolate for up to 12 weeks. They are also talking about up to 250,000 people possibly dying as part of a mitigation strategy. In the midst of this I have been struck by the fear and anxiety in the global narrative that is causing many people to panic as we lose sight of our perceived sense of control and certainty. I am not sure we were ever in control before to be honest but, at least we felt we had the physical and psychological resources to manage the anxiety life threw at us.  


It has reminded me at a personal level how I must remember to develop my own capacity to “Be Still” and a non-anxious presence in an anxious system. This is described by Edwin Friedman in “A Failure of Nerve” as a one of the most pure acts of leadership as we remain self-differentiated. I am also trying to frame moments of isolation as gifts of solitude in amongst the busyness of “normal” life and routines to reflect on what might be possible for humanity in the coming months, years. I am trying to be present to those around me especially my family and engage with creating a narrative and dialogue of hope for my own mental health and for my community. 

I had already been thinking about the cost to society of poor mental health after completing a Mental Health First Aid Course but it suddenly seems even more pertinent. A recent BBC report so clearly highlights this to be a major unseen challenge as we begin to enter the next phase of tackling the virus outbreak. As someone who has been living with positive mental well-being and diagnosed with bi-polar disorder for the last 15 year I am able to recognize when I withdraw or become over excited. More importantly so do the people who care around me as there is no longer a stigma or shame about my condition and I give them permission to speak into my behaviour. I wonder now how many people who live undiagnosed will be triggered by these events and who will be there to care.  Some studies have shown that 1 in 4 adults in England have been diagnosed with mental illnesses and that 75% of people with diagnosable mental health illnesses receive no treatment. Isolation is not mentally good for us so, how can we be present to the needs of those around us most vulnerable and, in the midst of government advice, reconcile the dilemma of isolating for safety and engaging for caring?

I have also noticed myself worry about my aged parents who have respiratory problems and are currently in Hong Kong. They left the UK to go to Hong Kong to celebrate Chinese New Year in January and got caught up amongst the initial virus outbreak. They were due to come back in April and at one point we wanted them to get back to the UK as soon as possible booking a separate flight out in March which we later cancelled as events unfoled across the Iran and Italy. It now looks like they may actually be in one of the safest places to be given the UK situation. The outbreak has abated in HK and the government response with lessons from SARS has been swift and effective. Now they are the ones who are worried about us. My son is also due to sit is GCSE’s this year which causes enough stress and anxiety for young people as it is. The prospect of schools closing indefinitely is another layer of uncertainty our youth of today really don't need.

What seems to be happening around us is increasingly making many people act in more and more individualistic ways as the narrative is driven by closing of national borders, self-isolation, lock down, avoiding, stockpiling and hoarding. There is an alternative which I am hoping more of us can be part of where we make conscious choices to bring different language to the conversation. I wonder how we may protect the gateways to our minds and soul by being careful what goes in through our eyes and ears in what we attend to, and what comes out from our mouths when we talk. We can either continue some of the fearmongering or we can be a beacon of hope.

The current crisis is a social experiment on a global scale never seen before and has the potential for us to bring out the best of humanity if, we can make choices that include and care for others. We can be the generation that learns from this and really takes a stand for the future by radically altering our behavior, choices and mindset to create a more collective and caring society. Pollution clearing in the skies of China invite the possibility we may even be able to save the planet and finally address climate change. 

In my personal time of solitude and stillness I like to spend time reading the bible. A verse in Esther struck me most recently.

 Esther 4:14 “For if you remain silent at this time, relief and deliverance for the Jews will arise from another place, but you and your fathers’ family will perish. And who knows but that you have come to your royal position for such a time as this?

Esther could have despaired when the decree to kill the Jews was announced and decided to only save herself. Afterall, she had a significant position of privilege. Instead she together with Mordecai saw they had been placed in their positions for a purpose and seized the moment to act and intercede on behalf of others.

During this time we all have small acts of kindness and care that only we can take to those most vulnerable around us. I am really encouraged by the grassroots activists forming community groups to help those vulnerable around them #viralkindness. A friend of mine shared a story of a person who owns a small Gin distillery repurposing her factory to produce alcohol-based hand sanitizer in her village and selling it at cost and giving it away to those more vulnerable who needed it.  This postcard is also going around as people create street communities.

Like many independent business owners much of my work has been cancelled or postponed leaving me with a choice to worry where the next pay cheque will come from or use my time differently. This article is one of those choices to trying something diffferent. Another is an experiment with hosting some “Dialogues of Hope” via Zoom with whoever would like to join. I am proposing either one-to-one's or some small group format conversations with 4-6 of us connecting to do some collective sense-making and explore how we are experiencing what is happening. How do we become a non-anxious presence? What might be possible in these times to build community? How do we envisage the future? What role can we play as agents of change?

If you are interested to talk leave me a comment and we can have a virtual coffee or beer depending on your time zone or share a story of hope from your community so we begin to shift the narrative.

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