Motivation in lockdown

These strange times have led me to thinking how I can help, how I ordinarily cope with daily life and whether there are any lessons we can transfer to lighten the gloom.

I believe we all have a responsibility to inspire all those around us; and all of us have the power to do so.  In fact, we cannot avoid this responsibility and gift.  Anyone who is a parent knows the profound sense of responsibility of being a role model, brought vividly home when our children mimic our behaviour.

As an aside I must mention an anecdote from a trip pre-children.  My wife and I were in Canada, hosted by friends with young ones.  At a restaurant we couldn’t work out what their young boy was doing, until my wife realised he was trying to eat his supper – a pasta dish – using his elbows to grip the spoon, imitating me!  It wasn’t going well and threatened a major mess.  I had to point out that I had had a lifetime of experience of bringing my paws together.  It was an early lesson that I would be copied by young people from then on.

We try to use this responsibility wisely – the best instil great values, are wonderful role models and inspire their offspring to be the best they can be.  But it can work the other way around too: children inspire their parents, grandparents, teachers and elders.  Who is not inspired by the young person videoed doing something kind, generous or moving?

So, inspiration is for all.  I experienced a three-way version of this at a SEND school in the shadows of the old White Hart Lane, Tottenham’s former stadium.  I attended to do one of my 50 1,000m swims as part of the 50:50:100 challenge.  After I completed the 40 lengths in the 25m pool with the supporting company of about a dozen of the students, I was treated to lunch.  Over a welcome sandwich I was chatting with the head teacher when one student, with quite severe impairments, came and spoke to us.  What he said took about 3 minutes to say, such was his speech impediment, but he determinedly got through it: “Today, when I saw John swim in the deep end of the pool, I became inspired.  I suddenly knew I could do it too.  I went and did it for the first time in my life!” His grin was radiant.

His head teacher noted that the barrier to swimming in the deep end was due not to his (many) physical impairments or cognitive challenges, but to a mental block, that could be overcome.  I could see he was inspired to challenge other barriers that hitherto this student had displayed – were they real or imagined?  And I was inspired: completing the remainder of my 50 swims seemed far easier, far more purposeful.

During the “lockdown” I have been frequently asked how I am coping.  In many ways my working life has not changed: I work from home in more normal circumstances so that is basically the same; I have the advantages of my family all being around – company for coffee breaks and lunch; and I have a mindset that says this is an opportunity, what can I be getting on with.

I have been exploring this mindset.  My observation is that those who feel aggrieved at being restricted, are ‘grieving’ for the lost life that these 3 months (or however long we remain locked down) last.  I say grieving because I see the “Five stages of grief” in many responses: denial, anger, depression, bargaining and acceptance.  Being locked down means being denied the opportunity to do exams, play sport, go on holiday, gain promotion, graduate, the list is endless.  And we have all seen those refusing to comply (denial), those angry for no apparent reason, the rise of mental health issues is well documented (depression), the bending of the rules (bargaining) and fabulous front-line service (acceptance).

I look back and realise that I grieved for 24 hours when our PowerHouseGames at the end of term (20thMarch) with the Cambridge University Football teams was cancelled due to school students being pulled out.  I knew immediately what it would mean – that there would be no more PowerHouseGames until September at the earliest, because although this was before the lockdown, contact would be discouraged (even that recently we hadn’t learnt the term ‘social distancing’!) and our activities inevitably involve close proximity.  I denied it for a few hours, harbouring hopes that we could somehow carry on; I railed against the unfairness of it and strangely that the NHS was being put ahead of us charities – anger is often irrational or unrelated; was depressed for 24 hours until I bargained with myself that I could complete all those back office tasks that I had put off for months.  So, I accepted the situation and immediately started relishing the opportunities to ‘spring clean’ the charity’s processes, to learn new things (e.g. I had always struggled to make our Facebook page work the way it should) and get creative.

That led to our seat-based online classes being launched with Oak Activities.  It required a willingness to move fast, to learn, and to adapt.  And its success has been hugely rewarding.

But how was I able to deal with all these stages so quickly and before lockdown started?  Here I believe my disability has helped.  From a young age I was constantly confronted by situations where I was unable, not permitted or instructed not to participate.  I learnt by the time I was 6 to cope, to adopt strategies to make the best of things.  If I couldn’t play rugby, I could study it; if I couldn’t play cricket, I could be the school’s youngest ever and longest serving scorer for the 1st XI.  I could play chess, so I made it my thing.  I knew everything there was to know about the first division (there was no Premier League then) and that led to reading the paper and an interest in history.  Wherever I could be equal or almost equal I would try.  In simple terms, I made the very most of every situation I faced.  Lockdown is therefore just another opportunity to practice this.  And coping is I think mostly a state of mind.

In Viktor Frankl’s book, “Man’s Search for Meaning”, he describes the attitudes and behaviours of the guards and prisoners he witnessed in Nazi concentration camps and concluded that everyone ultimately has the ‘freedom to choose’.  He describes prisoners giving away their last piece of bread, forgiving their abusive guards, or stealing from fellow inmates.  However dire the circumstances only we can choose how to react.  No one else can do it for us.

I have always taken comfort in this.  Responding in the way I would like, not the way pain, selfishness, anger or hurt, tries to choose for me, is I believe a foundation stone on the way to a better and more fulfilling life.  Choosing how to react to the lockdown is within our gift, however appalling our circumstances, however hard the external influences (pain, crying children, an annoying housemate) make reaching for that choice.

I urge people to look around and find something to draw inspiration from: a newspaper reporting on Captain Tom, a flower outside, the song of the birds, a table gifted to you or bought for a special reason.  The opportunities are limitless: enjoy the time to think, imagine and please inspire someone close to do so too.

John Willis