For so many students sitting in their homes and not knowing when the lockdown will end for their particular schools or colleges, this is a difficult time. Opening up has risks. Not opening up has other worries. Some have lost a loved one to Covid-19. Others have faced severe restrictions due to quarantine, or are helping family members struck by the disease, or just anxious about what will come next.
There are harrowing stories emerging of some who are unable to cope as they are couped up in their homes. You can be among family and still be very alone. Worse, people get on each other’s nerves. There is a fight for space, for hogging the bandwidth and actually on every trivial matter because it is not the reason that is important. It is that the nerves are frayed. The cohabitation stress is taking a toll.
Young audiences, all a bundle of youthful energy, desperately want a way out of this situation that has snatched them away from friends and locked them in with parents. Oh, the horrors! The pressure to break out is therefore the most for college students. Hostel life beckons, friends are waiting…how much can a phone make up for a lost, late evening dinner, a missing handshake, a warm hug? A recent survey by ‘YourDost’, a Bengaluru-based online mental health platform found that college students were the most affected by the pandemic and lockdown. The survey showed that “students registered 41 per cent increase in emotions of anxiety/fear/worry, 54 per cent increase in anger/irritability/frustration, 27 per cent in hopelessness, sense of sadness was increased by 17 per cent, and 38 per cent increase in the feeling of loneliness/boredom.” This is a worrying state of affairs.
Difficult as it sounds, we would want young audiences to pause and approach the challenge with ways that are simple and potentially powerful. Call it a strategy, if you will, but it is more than that because it will help us manage not just the immediate but also cast a long shadow on how we shape up and emerge from this situation. Can we come out of the lockdown as citizens who are smarter, wiser and equipped with at least some tools and experience to manage change of a high order? That would be such an asset.
The story we need to tell ourselves is that six months, even a year, is not a very long time in our long and happy lives. This may not be easy to young minds to fathom as many of us grow with the idea that a year, particularly an academic year, is too much to lose. This is the Indian context. Globally, many students do take time off to travel, to do projects elsewhere, and away from their universities. It becomes a source of good learning that is a very different form of academic achievement. So think of this as an opportunity where you can use your head, heart and hands to nurture the self. When we are 50, 60, and 70, we can hopefully look back to these days and tell our children and grandchildren some powerful stories about how the world changed one fine day in March 2020, when an unseen, unheard of and unknown species wrought collective havoc on mankind by the changing the way we lived, dramatically, drastically and maybe decisively. So what is that story of the lockdown that you treasure?
A good way to begin is to make a new friend, a very different friend, a close person who we live with but don’t know fully and well enough. This is yourself, the inner self, the ocean that is embodied in you. Think about you – do you know yourself, do you really understand yourself, do you really “meet” yourself? Let this be the beginning of a new enquiry.
The first problem: We don’t know about classes, exams, jobs, placements and a host of other things. Nothing is predictable. But look again, and think again. Is this really new? Uncertainty was always there – right from our birth. That this uncertainty is manifest today in itself makes it less uncertain. The bigger problem is the uncertainty we don’t see and don’t know. The author Naseeb Nicholas Taleb gives this example of a turkey that is sure of its next meal – it is so certain because food is good, and it is growing fat, actually being fattened for the Thanksgiving dinner. Come one day, and there will be a nasty surprise. We are in waters we know are uncertain. This is better than being in waters that we know and understood when often we do not. In sum, don’t take the standard prescriptions for granted. Instead, Enquire. This is our head at work.
Second, amid this uncertainty, what is it that brings me joy, happiness, and an element of playfulness. Books and certificates apart, it is good to pick up an activity that is a source of joy, a new discovery, an element of fun – and usually something we have never tried before. Is classical music a source of joy, or painting, or singing, or just dance? Or could it be listening to distant radio broadcasts or reading the classics? Explore. This is our heart at work.
It is not easy to always talk with meaning and connection to our loved ones. That is easier said than done. But we must equally know that one of the biggest regrets of many successful people is that they did not spend time or talk or listen in to what their loved ones had to say. Do you have a parent, a grandparent, a sibling, who you haven’t sat down to listen to in years? Do it now. Make something out of that conversation. Make it an ongoing discussion. Write it as a diary. These treasures will hold out for a long time, and become your support on many a wintry night. Engage. This, too, is our heart at work.
Many youngsters know that stress at work and in school means that they eat in not very healthy ways. Their sleep habits are equally unhealthy. Here is an opportunity to govern these two. One of the best diets offered is the one that probably your Mom follows – eat as much, as long as you cook it yourself. You know the ingredients, you understand the oil, you know the masalas. Pick up cooking as something that will stay with you forever – whether you are a boy or a girl. Prefer traditional, Indian, food. Roti-daal or idli-dosa is preferred to pasta and pizza. Why? Because, in the former, you usually start from scratch with the most fundamental ingredients. Let your family senior be the guide. Then, with everybody around, and to your heart’s content, Eat. This is your heart and your hands at work.
Enquire, Engage, Explore, Eat. This will also drive a routine that can regulate the day and help us sleep well. Sleeping well and deep of course will help give the energy to exercise till you break out into a sweat, with mindfulness in every breath. Open small niches of conversation, share your thoughts. And build it up to an experience that this lockdown can be a memorable one, hopefully leaving all of us richer and ready to be a fuller participant in the world whenever business is back.There will still be some who need help to do this, and if you feel you are anxious, feeling low or easily disturbed and often not in the mood, do not hesitate to reach out to your trusted friend or adviser – in the house or outside.
Dr. Saamdu Chetri is the former executive director of the Gross National Happiness Centre in Bhutan which he popularised globally as an alternative to GDP as the only metric of growth and wellbeing.
Jagdish Rattanani is a journalist and a faculty member at SPJIMR. Views are personal)
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