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The Day it Became Okay to Just Be
Learning to just be during quarantine.

I‘m not sure if you’ve noticed, but things seem to have come to a standstill in much of the US. Our day to day lives are usually pretty chock full of expectations, especially for kids, but now it seems as if those expectations have been put on indefinite hold. The long, lazy days of summer seem to have come early this year and many adults find themselves in a state of uncertainty, having long ago forgotten how to let days slip past in sweaty slowness. It’s an odd moment to be standing in this world of halted expectations and slow moving days.

As much as our SDE community has railed against the standard set of cultural expectations, those expectations have actually always been rooted in hope- the hope that some of these kids will somehow, someday change the world. It’s not a thing people say out loud very often but all the pushing and the encouraging is a manifestation of genuine hope; the hope that if we do this right, our kids just might make the world a better place than we have been able to. With the arrival of a pandemic, the game on what changes the world has been completely turned on its head. Now, to actually and literally change the world, all anyone needs to do is... nothing. It’s suddenly, and most wonderfully, ok to just be.

As the world around us had pulsed on expectation and ever higher reaching goals, we SDE people have always been the weirdos in the corner telling our kids they don’t have to change the world to be worthy. We’ve accepted their need to quit, their lack of enthusiasm over pre-screened opportunities, and their precocious ability to set boundaries- and we’ve done so with joy. We celebrate their messiness; we cheered on their experiments; we watched with pride at risky play; we protected them–sometimes physically–from well-meaning adults concerned about their lack of willingness to perform on cue. We’ve never, ever needed them to be anything but themselves and we’ve created ample time and space for them to just be. We’ve never needed them to change the world to be worthy but, if we’re honest with ourselves, our hope isn’t much different from the rest of our culture; it’s the process that’s different. Our hope is that we are changing the world by shifting our perspectives. Even if we don’t admit it, there is also another quiet hope lingering in the background: a quiet hope that even though we don’t expect them to change the world, they just might anyway, by virtue of being given the freedom to be exactly who they are.

Just be. You are enough”, we tell them. We teach them this concept in story, song, and meditation. We create islands of peace in a sea of chaos and demands. We grow communities seemingly out of thin air, determined to do this differently. “Just be. You’ll be fine.”

And then, Covid-19 hit the scene. Suddenly, the entire world it seems has come to a grinding halt. All the things that felt immovable have shifted in ways we never expected. We are no longer the only ones embracing the idea that it’s ok to just be. Not too far into this experiment, the grown-up fatigue is quickly setting in. Apparently many adults are realizing just how exhausting daily life is for their kids (and themselves). It seems a little collective downtime is causing a major perspective shift in our culture.

For many, it’s suddenly become crystal clear that expecting young people to be constantly engaged or working on academic pursuits is unrealistic. Forced to be in close quarters indefinitely, the collective need to collaborate with these young community members has just intensified in a very real way. The negative consequences of not allowing children to truly dig deep into that which interests them are being felt by every parent trying to get 20 minutes of uninterrupted work done at home. There is a clear and collective request for the kids to just be for a little while so everyone can get their needs met.

And so, we sit. All of us. Humanity is relearning how to just be. We’ll rediscover whatever helps us pass the time peacefully. We don’t even dare to think about what comes next yet because we don’t know. Slowly, slowly people all over the world are learning how to be present and how to let go of all expectations- except, of course, the expectation that we be still.

It’s simultaneously a novel and familiar world for self-directed learners. As our new collective normal emerges, the ability to just be has become the best way to change a world threatened by illness. Showing up just as we are is suddenly the only way to show up in a world distracted completely by a pandemic and functioning almost solely online. An awareness of who we are, how we function best, what our needs are, and how to draw boundaries are some of the most important areas of knowledge a person can possess in these unprecedented (in our lifetime) times. Being comfortable with being present and digging deep into projects that bring us joy can be sanity saving when we’re all homebound. A fluent comprehension of technology (like that gained through many, many hours spent gaming and socializing online...ahem.) can make the difference between staying connected and feeling emotionally isolated. All of the real world learning we’ve celebrated and protected while the rest of the world has focused on academic achievement, are suddenly the very tools, skills, and awarenesses that will allow people to get through this relatively well. It’s almost as though the self-directed community has been practicing for this our whole lives.

What’s novel about all this of course is that we are no longer alone in our pursuits. The usual onslaught of cultural judgement and pressure to do something is just...gone. Overnight our place in the world has shifted from one of “outsider” to one of “role model” due exclusively to our daily practice in just sitting still and being present for our children. Not a single one of us expected this shift. And yet, here we are, hoping together that we can change the world really, really quickly by sitting still and focusing on an ability to just be.

This time is a gift; all time is a gift. Self-directed learners know this. In stillness and with presence we will find our solutions and our way- but that stillness and slowness is hard earned for some. While we await the final toll this takes on humanity, I hold onto one other hope. I hope that if anything positive can come of such an uncertain moment in history, perhaps it could be that speaking our hope out loud gets easier.

Just be.”, we tell them. “Just be because that is how we can all change the world right now.”