For everyone Becoming better and braver

Recently, online, I came across a series of photographs of Philippines-born artist Bea Camacho crocheting a cocoon of red wool around herself. This work of performance art took eleven uninterrupted hours. In the final image, Camacho is entirely enclosed in her red woollen sheath, lying against a wall. Beneath the photographs, one person has left the comment: “This is what I wish I could do right now”. Others agreed. What a metaphor for so many of us in this strange year.

From the bushfires of summer and autumn, to the ongoing reverberations of the COVID crisis, is it any wonder that emotional exhaustion and a punch-drunk sense of disaster (actual or impending) became our new normal, and that we longed for it all to go away?

Like many others, I experienced brain fog, or ‘COVID brain’, a mental fuzziness induced by stress and anxiety. “Make lists so you don’t have to hold so much in your mind,” said one advice column. I’m not so sure. The final two items on my list – “write PhD” and “write novel” – certainly set my heart racing.

Soon, we may need to change our focus, open up and let the world in again.

Other columns suggested that we remove the things that wear us down. Writer Nikki Gemmell, for instance, advised that we should, “Seize the joy before it’s too late. Clear the path and just go for it. Those friends who don’t spark joy – ditch them.”

It’s understandable to sometimes withdraw into the comforting cocoons of the people we love and our favourite pastimes. Sometimes we’re like small creatures taking shelter at the back of a burrow. In the short term, it can help us manage the feeling of being overwhelmed. But I wonder about the long-term effects. Would a life consisting only of the pursuit of tranquillity and joy be truly satisfying? Where’s the shade to throw the good times into relief?

Many people have felt less than joyful this year. Some have felt grief: for loss of wildlife and bushland, missing people we love, our old lives, the innocence of last year. But should we abandon all the things that weigh us down? We can’t Marie Kondo our way through life, discarding people as if they were old t-shirts, only holding on to the fun ones. Instead, perhaps we could acknowledge that sometimes it’s OK, even healthy, to be sad. We’ve got reason to be.

I’ve learned that I don’t want to remain cocooned forever, tucked away in quiet safety.

A dear friend’s sister died this year, and my friend has not been joyful. Sitting alongside her sadness has reminded me of some hard griefs of my own. But I wouldn’t have it any other way. Part of the human contract is to be there for each other when times are bad, or when people aren’t at their best. Friendships grow stronger for these times, and we grow stronger, better and deeper.

I’ve learned that I don’t want to remain cocooned forever, tucked away in quiet safety. Through hard experience, I’ve learned the importance of pursuing things that I prefer to withdraw from, or that unsettle me. A life without risk or fear of leaving our comfort zones would be dull. Where’s the room for growth?

Soon, we may need to change our focus, open up and let the world in again. Courage comes in many forms, not all to do with battle or existential threat. It can be about facing the people, ideas, places and tasks that are hard work. Author Jane Rawson has described the “overarching project” of her life as “making herself safe”. But, in recent years, recognising the futility of that aim in the face of overwhelming odds, she has come to believe that it might be better to behave courageously, to make connections. Forming community is more important than withdrawing, as hard as that can be at times.

At a recent talk, Australian novelist Alexis Wright said something that has stayed with me: “We are all part of the grand humanity”. I wrote it on an index card and it floats across the surface of my desk with other notes, reminding me of two of the important tasks of being human: to be connected, and to reach towards our better, braver selves.

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