March 23, 2022
Let the Light In
By Dr Kathy Weston
If, like me, you feel rather emotionally drained and fatigued by the catalogue of outrageous atrocities and injustices streaming out of news channels, you might join me in wanting to take some time to recalibrate somewhat.
To remain resilient and focus the mind ahead of each day, I often find myself internally repeating the lines of the twentieth-century poem, “Desiderata“, by American writer Max Ehrmann. The lines are endlessly relevant to whatever circumstance one finds oneself in and the poem contains many soothing affirmations and wise nudges. A line that always gives me a metaphorical stroke on the head is this one: ‘with all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world’. There is something grounding and incredibly hopeful about these words. During these times, where we might feel helpless, disempowered or outraged by evil, it is good to focus the mind on the goodwill and altruism that peppers our everyday life.
Research by Dr Jess Datu and Professor Robin Banerjee consistently points to the fact that if we notice acts of kindness and begin to physically count them in our everyday life, or in the world around us, it can have a tangible psychological impact and enhance our own wellbeing. In doing so, and in encouraging our children to follow suit, our perception of the world can shift. We can start to feel encouraged and heartened, conscious of our own personal agency.
Yesterday, I tried to listen out for everyday acts of kindness. I spoke to a teacher who proudly recalled witnessing a pupil kneeling down to tie an opponent’s shoelaces during a sports’ match. On my school run later, I witnessed a gentleman leap out of his car at traffic lights to assist an elderly lady who was struggling to cross the road. By evening, I had read about an extraordinary act of generosity on LinkedIn, as child psychiatrist, Dr Dennis Ougrin, spent £20,000 of his own money, buying an ultrasound machine for a maternity hospital. When he asked for contributions from contacts, 800 friends donated £70,000 in three weeks, which Dr Ougrin has been able to use to purchase much-needed medical supplies. The BBC covered his endeavours here. Watch this clip from about 1 min, 33 seconds in and be inspired!
Upon reading this, you will readily be able to articulate and count many acts of kindness that you have been the recipient of, or witness to. We need to let the light in, turn the volume up on positive stories and remind ourselves that, as Nelson Mandela recounted in his inaugural speech, “our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure” and that our “playing small does not serve the world”. We should know that small acts of kindness collated and celebrated can snowball.
About two weeks ago, I started to keep an email folder containing stories of hope, which I re-read when the news seems overwhelming and alarming. Why not try it?
Turns out there are actual websites that collate positive news stories that you can subscribe to and a fantastic prize-nominated book for children which alerts them to all the amazing things going on in the world. Who knew? So, by focusing our minds, ensuring that we watch our own digital diets, protect our mental health and choose to amplify the good, we can stay afloat more easily.
Teenagers are choosing the same route and are leading rather than following, as they increasingly recognise the power of unsubscribing from websites and social media profiles that detract from enjoyment or compromise their wellbeing. Seventeen year old Londoner, Robin West, is hopefully trail blazing, having decided to ditch the smartphone for a ‘dumbphone’; a basic handset with very limited functionality. In this article, she talks about how she felt her smartphone was taking over her life and now feels much more proactive and able to spend her time more wisely. What a girl! What a role-model! What an article to show and use as a springboard for wider discussion within family life!
Her demonstration of ‘digital resilience’ is awe-inspiring and the more we can encourage our teens to self-protect in this way, the better. Your teens may not be ready to ditch their smartphones, but they might be amenable to unsubscribing or unfollowing things that don’t make them feel good, that they find anxiety-inducing or that drive them towards demoralising comparisons with others.
In the spirit of letting the light in, who has noticed that spring may have sprung? A season that brings colour into our lives and, with it, a sense of hope and renewal.
I have to admit that the cherry blossom and daffodils that have suddenly bloomed around my home are welcome harbingers of hope and bring to mind the beauty and goodness in the world. What is all this juice and all this joy? (Gerard Manley Hopkins).
The benefits of appreciating nature are firmly grounded in both poetry and in research. My interview with autism expert and Forest School leader, Samantha Friedman, last week, was a timely reminder of the huge benefits of engaging with nature. For children, being connected to, or even just having access to nature has been found to reduce stress, is associated with fewer emotional and behavioural problems, provides an opportunity for social development and increases their capacity to focus. Feeling part of something bigger than ourselves can also help all of us find a sense of perspective when we are faced with challenges.
Whether we live somewhere urban or rural, there are numerous ways that we can bring nature into our family life and excite our children about the wonders all around them.
Nudge young children to interact with nature by providing them with their own basic gardening tools, encouraging them to dig in the garden or plant seeds in a pot on the windowsill, and nurture their plants as they grow. Did you know that to avoid plastic waste, you can even make your own pots out of newspaper? If you have outdoor space, encourage wildlife with bird feeders, bee and butterfly-friendly flowers and bug hotels. Volunteering at community gardens or participating in a local litter clean-up are both fantastic ways for children to learn about nature, whilst also instilling the altruistic joys of giving something back to their local environment. When you are out and about, why not make use of the many apps available that can encourage our appreciation of the world around us? This clever tech can help us to identify trees, plants, birds and even decipher the constellations in the night sky!
Taking time to watch and listen to the changes in nature with our children is a direct investment in their resilience, mental health and wellbeing. Being together, connecting with one another and taking in the beauty that surrounds us, is one antidote to the stresses and strains of modern day life. Happily, there is no waiting list to enjoy the natural world. It is ours for the appreciating.
Are you a Tooled Up member?
If your school subscribes to “Tooled Up”, you can learn more about the benefits of kindness and listen to interviews with Dr Jess Datu and Professor Robin Banerjee. We know counting acts of kindness matters, so use this resource and see how many you can tick off from our list over Easter. You might also like to peruse our list of books which can cultivate kindness and empathy. Over the last couple of weeks, we’ve also been thinking about the qualities that make a good friend. New additions to the library are the Yay or No Way! Friendship Quiz and some social scripts designed to help children navigate tricky situations with peers.
If you want to know more about the nature apps that are available, we’ve put together a little list of our favourites, and if you are interested in finding out more about the season of spring and its associated folklore, have a read of our fascinating ‘Did You Know?’ article, from the meteorologist and Latinist, David Bowker. For those of you interested in the benefits of outdoor learning and nature, grab a cuppa and sit down to enjoy this webinar with Samantha Friedman.