Updated: Jan 10, 2022
“And I think it’s gonna be a long, long time ‘Til touchdown brings me ‘round again to find I’m not the [wo]man they think I am At home, oh no, no, no. I’m a rocket man Burning out his fuse up here alone.”[i] These are lyrics most of us have heard somewhere - at a wedding perhaps, or maybe in a car-seat, while grandma rocked out at a stoplight. But then my 13.5-year-old son requested Elton John’s “Rocket Man” the other evening, before proceeding to highlight a prescient realism linking the words of the song to the current, shelter-in-place, COVID-19 world, and the words took on new meaning. We have entered a new realm. Handshakes have given way to elbow bumps, which have given way to video conferences. Lunch dates are out and rowing machines - the ones that are buried beneath last month’s clothes, (if you are fortunate enough to have a fancy machine-turned-clothes-hamper) – may finally have their day in the sun. Human connection, which is vital to our well-being, and to our brain chemistry, will have to be reimagined for now[ii]. And while the Rocket Man’s words seems to conjure the image of a troubadour who has resigned himself to a lonely reality - life on Mars as it were - most of us will “not go gentle into that good night”[iii]. On the contrary, humans are social creatures. We seek connection and belongingness[iv]. Some of us are introverted and others are extroverted. None of us, however, will flourish in a vacuum, sealed away from human interaction. Never mind the lonely resolve of the Rocket Man. And so, what now?
First, we must begin by reappraising our current situations. We must dust off our metacognitive skills (I promise, you have them). What do we know? We know that “all new learning passes through the filter of prior experiences”[v]. So, what has been YOUR prior experience? What do you already know that might be applied in this situation? I am fairly confident that nobody knows how to handle a pandemic in 2020. But maybe you lived through a rotten hurricane or survived as a NYC resident during 9/11. Maybe you had a really tough classroom of kiddos last year in your teaching job, or your neighbor relentlessly challenged you because your sprinkler watered her lawn. It honestly doesn’t matter. The point is that most people are resilient, and our past experiences will help us again, here. We must pause, reflect, and ask “what do I know”. The next thing we need to do is to ask ourselves what we need to know...and then begin to brainstorm just how we are going to fill-in the blanks. In doing this, we will take something that is threatening, and transform it into something that is challenging instead[vi]. And who doesn’t love a good challenge?! The challenge in the near term, will be to stoke our creative fires. We need to come up with new ways to connect with other people, despite the time and space that, for now, must stand between a handshake or a hug. Afterall, social support is often key to generating a resilient outcome.[vii] No idea should be summarily dismissed, and no “Eeyore”-style pessimism permitted. Say what you like, but the human race depends to a certain extent, on our ability to positively adapt to these unfortunate circumstances. Stop and ask yourself what you know, then ask yourself what you need to know, and finally, explore how you can begin to obtain the needed skills or knowledge that will get you there. We know through the studies of mind, brain, and education, something very hopeful about the human brain: that it is plastic. Our environments literally help to shape our brains, and our brains help to shape our environments. And this process persists – whether adaptively or maladaptively – throughout the lifespan[viii]. What that means is that you have a choice about how you are going to respond to this situation, and the choices you make will be reinforced through your brain’s plasticity. So, what kind of neuronal activity do you want to practice and fortify, until this all passes? If its “gonna be a long, long time...”, what do you want to spend that time cultivating? Here’s an idea: reframe this moment from apocalyptic to rapturous, perhaps. Yes - rapturous - as in a feeling of intense pleasure or joy[ix]. Embrace technology optimistically, as your children do. Invite someone to meet you in a video chat to watch a movie or practice your new scene for your acting class with friends in a digital room. Give yourself over to your imagination and allow yourself to consider why this new way of life just might work, rather than lingering in the recycle bin of reasons why it will not. If you are teaching online now, revel in the fact that you can teach a class while wearing your pajama bottoms, and no one will know! And when the virus is eradicated or we have a vaccine, and the price of hand-sanitizer drops through the floor, you will have a vast knowledge of your own dignity, and also of your own strength. Honor your individual humanness, and you will not end up like the Rocket Man, “burning out his fuse up here alone”.
[i]Taupin, B. (1972). Rocketman [Recorded by Elton John]. On Honkey Château. Uni. [ii]Carson, S. (2020). Extra slides for social support lecture. [PowerPoint slides]. Canvas@Harvard.edu. [iii]Thomas, D. (2003). Do Not Go Gentle Into that Good Night (W. Davies & R. Maud, Eds.). Phoenix. (Original work published in 1936) [iv]Baumeister, R.F., Leary, M.R. (1995). The need to belong: Desire for interpersonal attachments as a fundamental human motivation. Psychological Bulletin, 117(3), 497-529. [v]Lewis, C.C. (1994). Experiential learning; Past and present. New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education, 1994(62), 5-16.
[vi]Tokuhama-Espinosa, T. (2014). Making classrooms better: 50 practical applications of mind, brain, and education science. W.W. Norton. [vii]Blascovich, J., Mendes, W.B. (2000). Challenges and threat appraisals: The role of affective cues. In J.Forgas (Ed.), Feeling and thinking: The role of affective and social cognitions (pp. 59-82). Cambridge University Press. Sankaran, S., Grzymala-Moszczynska, J., Strojny, A., Strojney, P., Kossowska, M. (2017). Rising up to the ‘challenge’? The role of need for closure and situational appraisals in creative performance. Personality and Individual Differences, 106, 136-145. [vii]Carson, S. (2020). Social support and resilience across the lifespan - revised. [PowerPoint slides]. Canvas@Harvard.edu. [viii]Costandi, M. (2016). Neuroplasticity. MIT Press. [ix] Rapturous. (n.d.). In Lexico powered by Oxford. Retrieved from https://www.lexico.com/en/definition/rapture __________________________________________________________________________________
Danielle Batchelor is a mind, brain, and education (MBE) researcher, educator, and coach. She serves on the faculty for The Neuroscience of Learning: An Introduction to Mind, Brain, Health and Education at the Harvard University Division of Continuing Education, and maintains a website designed to deliver MBE resources and services to parents and educators at www.neuroflourish.com. She holds a master’s degree from Harvard, a bachelor’s degree from Northwestern University, and is a Certified Health and Wellness Coach with a focus in Lifestyle Medicine.