I have a list of ideas in a notebook that I want to share with graduate students and their mentors. I’ve been kinda stuck with writing this post. There’s a traffic jam in the flow between what my mind thinks is important about graduate student support – which is easy and safe – and what my heart feels is important to say about this moment – which feels challenging and risky. So everything is stuck and nothing comes out.
I want to integrate my heart and mind conversations here to share the ways I see graduate students struggling with many emotions through the current Omicron COVID wave of Dec ‘21-Jan ‘22. I want to validate our experiences and share my language for that emotional struggle. I also encourage you to check out these resources from IU’s University Graduate School’s extensive Trauma Resources page.
NB: I am sharing my experience to offer language and ecosystems/liberation frameworks; I hope it resonates with you. I acknowledge that my social position informs my perspective, my examples, and who I reference. I know my view is partial. I understand that I will inevitably have gaps and misunderstandings in relation to others’ experiences. I share my willingness to learn with you.
Naming the feelings and what they relate to
In meetings I’ve been in over the last three weeks (Last two years? Last five years?)) about graduate student stuff, I’ve witnessed a lot of distressing, prolonged, overwhelming, and inconvenient-to-productivity experiences among faculty, graduate students, and staff. And the feelings I hear in those conversations sound like:
- Lack of interest or motivation
- Bitterness, resentment, and contempt
- Anxiety and worry
- Depression and despair
These emotions are valid and reasonable responses to many system-level failures and oppressive cultural messages as I see it, including:
- Denial and misrepresentation of reality.
- Indignity toward the shared humanity of people’s experiences.
- Exceptionalism that somehow we’re different and special and we will beat this.
- Moving goalposts (or no goal posts at all) around public health measures.
- Ableist policy decisions that don’t protect the most vulnerable and at risk.
- Individualizing both the responsibility and the blame.
- Shaming people who need social supports and health care.
- Working harder, with fewer resources, to keep the (oppressive) systems running.
I hear my colleagues at personal and professional crossroads. We want to do liberating and humane work that makes a meaningful difference for graduate students. And we want to feel satisfied, fulfilled, and consequential in our work. Yet the ongoing surge capacity isn’t sustainable for us personally. And we are more aware of our own moral injury – the damage to our internal compass as we contribute to, witness, or fail to prevent actions that go against our own values. We are at a transition, personally and collectively. We are choosing not to “go back to normal,” but we are still figuring out “what now?”
Ethics of care and interdependence
These extreme and prolonged distressing experiences and feelings are shifting us into individualistic survival-mode mentalities and behaviors, which have overlaps with White Supremacy Culture (from Jones and Okun 2001). We fight by directing our frustration, irritation, blame, and anger at each other or inward at ourselves. We flee by numbing with alcohol, drugs, Netflix, doom scrolling, physically dissociating, and socially disconnecting. When we freeze, our body tenses and stiffens and we breathe shallowly. We submit by people-pleasing, overworking, and taking care of others to our own detriment.
We could instead be responding to our survival instincts in a collectivist, mutualistic, and interdependent way. The Peoples’ Oracle, Dayna Lynn Nuckolls, reminds us that survival is a shared burden. Mia Mingus in their blog post, https://leavingevidence.wordpress.com/2022/01/16/you-are-not-entitled-to-our-deaths-covid-abled-supremacy-interdependence/ says, “We should be framing this pandemic in terms of interdependence. This is the right political framing because it is the only moral and humane framing. Interdependence acknowledges that our survival is bound up together, that we are interconnected and what you do impacts others.” Here I want to share some trauma-informed practices that promote individual and community healing and support interdependence.
Ensuring safety: Boundaries as politics of consent and refusal
Ensuring safety and re-establishing structure is a trauma survivor’s first priority. They retain the power and authority to decide what that safety and structure looks like and on what timeline (Judith Herman, 2015, Trauma and Healing). In our covid-times, I see graduate students, faculty, and staff clarifying what is truly important to them and making firmer choices in their boundaries of TIME, SPACE, and ENERGY. They are reframing their boundaries from how much something takes from them to how much they consent to give to that thing. They are also reframing boundaries from how much they allow themselves to be squished to how much they refuse to let something squish them anymore. People are consenting to themselves: what they need to be truly expansive, to be true to themselves and their priorities, and to maintain inner frameworks of peace, safety, and security. The Feminist Theory of Refusal comes to mind; not just declining to participate in unjust systems or withdrawing, but also transforming those systems – at first with your own private, day-to-day systems – to more just, self-governing, and humane systems.
Reflection: What is something you can do in your own private day-to-day that moves your life a little bit closer to being more humane for you? What would it take to make just a little more time/space/energy for you and what you care about – radical simplification? How could you share that consent/refusal boundary ethic with others you care about?
Grief and mourning
Recognize and honor the losses (grieve). Engage in collective, social acknowledgement of remembering and memorializing those losses (mourn). Some of these losses are very real and tangible such as the deaths of friends and family and the relationships that did not last because of a lack of mutual consent.
Some losses are more abstract:
- Your intuitive, natural proclivities toward trust, care, compassion, and kindness.
- Your hopes and dreams for work, careers, school/education, exploration and travel, family/friend visits, vacations and rest, and play, laughter and joy.
- Before Times timelines that are now delayed.
- Faith and trust in institutions: government, healthcare, work, school, family, marriage, religions, and religious leaders.
- Certainty and predictability of everyday life.
- Naivete and innocence as more people join a precarious existence.
- Disillusionment in who and what will take care of us when we need help.
Reflection: What do you need to grieve from the Before Times – objects, ideas, illusions, habits, relationships, roles – in order to make space for the “what now?” How could you mourn with others who can share that grief experience with you?
Connect with a Life Doula/Be Each Others’ Life Doulas
There are aspects of the term “life doula” that very much ring true about how I show up and am present for others at their transitions and at this particular transition. A birth doula helps a mother bring a baby into the world. A death doula helps a dying person transition to the next life. A life doula walks with people through difficult journeys and experiences, supports the transformations, helps the person mourn the identities of themselves they must part with, and helps them welcome and integrate the new identities. Life doulas create space for the process, and witness and name the pain, transitions, and phases. Life doulas resource the person and help them call in specialists, help them stay conscious and present during the painful process, are curious and patient, help them trust their own wisdom and inner knowledge, and ensure they are not alone.
Reflection: Who are the people – mentors, guides, friends, allies – you can count on for support in your life transitions? What are the resources you need that a person in a life doula role can help you with? In what ways can you be a life doula for someone who needs companionship in their life transition?
Final reflections: Going back to commitments
In an earlier post about Finding Your Voice, I wrote about clarifying your commitments (from Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey, in How the Way We Talk Can Change the Way We Work). This period of transition is a good time to examine and clarify those commitments. “What sorts of things – if they were to happen more frequently in your work or life – would you experience as being more supportive of “what now” for you? What commitments or convictions are implied in that response? What do systemic failures and moral injuries reveal about your commitments and what is important to you? What is the next smallest step you can take to living into those commitments for yourself and others? How can you live your commitments in public and encourage others to do the same?
I hope that your commitments lead you to actions that respond to (rather than ignore or squash) the big feelings at the beginning of this post. And I wish you restorative feelings as well, including: