Freedom From Fear During Covid-19 Quarantine

First of all, it’s ok to be feeling fearful right now. Whether that’s because you are physically or mentally vulnerable, concerned about the virus affecting your loved ones, worried about your finances, stressing over a trip to the shops, frightened by the Draconian changes to the law, or contemplating the possible fallout of this situation; there is a space here for you.

As an asthmatic single mother who has also been side-tracked by dystopian imaginings due to China’s social credit system and last year’s Event 201, I have gone through a range of these fears. The words to note there are “gone through”. For, although we remain in lockdown and still have no idea when or how this will end, I currently reside in a state of equilibrium and remain informed by new developments without feeling emotionally swayed by them. That does not mean the fear will not arise again, but that I can take joy in the moments of taking pause and noticing that – right here, right now – all is fine. There is food in the shops, the children are playing, the earth keeps spinning, and – if you’re reading this – here you are blessed with another day in this crazy world.

Anyway, I hoped to share with you a few of the ways I’m staying calm and collected during this global crisis. These will not be right for or applicable to everyone, but if just a few of those who need these ideas find them, my job here is done.

I write this from the perspective of an ‘unsupported’ lone parent to four children, the eldest of whom is autistic and the youngest breastfeeding. By ‘unsupported’, I do not deny that I have some incredible friends who step up to help me when they know I need it, but that on a day-to-day basis I cannot assume help from anyone. I am self-sufficient to a fault, but this has also made for some pragmatic and philosophical crutches that I share below.

1. Compile your hospital / grab bags

My main fear as a lone parent – even before Covid-19 – is that I will become severely ill and have to figure out at what point I call for help. I long ago reached the conclusion that “Who would have the children?” is a pointless worry – if I’m that ill, I’d shed my pride to call friends, or social services would deal with them.

So, apart from that, experience tells me that when I or one of my children has had to be admitted to hospital in the past, I have been let down by my lack of preparation for unforeseen circumstances. If there is one lesson we perhaps all learnt from the panic-buying just a few weeks ago, it is that it pays to be physically prepared in advance of a crisis hitting.

Something that puts my mind at rest with regards to the scenario of being rushed into hospital is that both myself and each of my children has a bag prepared for a sudden change of scene. There is nothing worse than being told you have to immediately leave your home yet having a mad scramble for all the things you might need whilst simultaneously feeling emotionally charged – I know this due to being evacuated from my home due to a sinkhole scare when my youngest was just 10 days old.

What people put in their grab bags is unique to them, but there are some obvious necessities: a change of clothes, basic toiletries, any regular medication, a notebook and pen, important personal documents, non-perishable snacks, a bottle of water, a little cash, and something to keep you occupied.

With regards to the children’s bags (and taking this preparedness task beyond this pandemic), you will want to factor in an annual refresh for age-appropriate needs, correctly-sized clothing, and to ensure that snacks are replenished for those with a longer shelf-life.

It also makes sense to keep a short list of daily-used items which you still need to grab separately as you leave, e.g. your mobile phone and charger, the kids’ favourite cuddly toys (or, more likely, electronic devices), and spare house keys for the person who may support your family during your time of need.

This simple task can go a long way towards maintaining peace of mind despite an unknown, unpredictable future.

2. Know your support networks

Admittedly, at the best of times I’m not great at making the most of the support on offer to me. ‘Official’ support services have often seemed patronising and perfunctory, and the selfless support of friends leaves me feeling indebted, however much they protest that I needn’t feel that way.

But times have changed and we all need to be helping and accepting help at every opportunity – building connections and community even while we can’t socialise (especially while we can’t socialise).

When we went into this crisis, I dropped into worst-case scenario thoughts. I imagined civil unrest and extreme isolation. I became anxious about the authoritarian policies we would be living under. I couldn’t stop thinking about what would happen to those people already suffering from mental health problems or trapped in abusive relationships. I projected my worries of a future not yet here right into my present reality of peace and plenty. I had to allow these thoughts full expression in order to relinquish them and move into a more mentally-healthy state.

An important part of letting go of unconstructive thoughts is to recognise what is actually happening in your immediate here and now. For me, that was seeing all the helpers appearing, even if just through the window of social media. There have been so many people offering friendship and support to one another, so many willing to step up and help people they have never met before, so many friends checking in and sending love, so many local initiatives arising to fill the gaps that neoliberalism has created in our communities.

There is so much order arising out of what could have been disorder. It fills me with hope that, whatever happens, people will come together to look after one another. And it makes me realise that, however unsupported I have felt as a single mother in the past, I am currently recognising and appreciating all the options I currently have to seek support should I need it. And there is such freedom from fear in that.

3. Relax about ‘schooling’

As an ex-home educator, I really must make the distinction between ‘education’ and ‘schooling’. Between ‘learning’ and ‘curricula’. It has saddened me to see how many parents are struggling to adjust to lockdown, not only because they are suddenly yanked from their own routines, not only because their children are suddenly yanked from their routines, not only because the whole family are suddenly foist together 24/7 without a their usual breaks or freedoms – but on top of that they feel pressured to replicate school at home and ‘keep up’ with schoolwork.

Stop! So many people have just been told their jobs are not really that important. So many people are recognising that the sociopolitical paradigm we have been living in is not necessarily that which supports human flourishing. So many things are being turned upside down, that perhaps we can question that which we took for granted – not only those things which are precious and deserve deeper gratitude, but also those systems and institutions we are conditioned to that may not be strictly necessary for our family’s health and well-being.

For some children, continuing with the routines, schedules, and activities of school will be their sense of normality amidst this chaos. If both parent and child are able to work together with that, that’s great. But for many children and parents, this time at home with family will be a precious breather from the pressures of school and after-school activities. It is a chance to step back and appreciate the moments we may usually have to rush through.

This is a chance to create a rhythm tailored to your own family. To focus on creating a nest of love, safety, and security. To witness that which truly lights up your children and allow them freedom to explore those things while the demands of school don’t call. And you will find that – amidst the lie-ins or late nights, the lack of interest in reading or writing, the ridiculous amount of screentime, the times when you worry that the kids “aren’t doing enough” – there is learning, there is connection, there are realisations, there is growth.

Children are ‘learning all the time’ (that is also the title of an appropriate and inspiring book by the educationalist John Holt). Please don’t worry about them ‘falling behind’ or ‘missing out’ – the priority right now is our health, both physical and mental. The most valuable things we can teach our children right now are equanimity, resilience, and refuge in the face of struggles. And that love is always the answer to the most important questions.

4. Recognise your simple pleasures and mini freedoms

While here in the UK we are currently allowed our daily fresh air to get our exercise, I am well aware that this isn’t true for countries in strict lockdown and that stricter restrictions may be coming here. In light of this, I have already started planning for the things I will do or notice to secure my little freedoms during lockdown.

We have communal outdoor space here, and I will be cherishing the sunny days that I can go and put my washing to dry on the washing lines, even if that is a mere 5 minutes of outdoor time. I love springtime laundry airing most years, but this year it has a bittersweet poignancy from which a keen appreciation arises.

We have a double-aspect south-facing living room, and I will be lifting my blinds and opening my windows to let the sun and air stream in. I will sit in the sunlight even as I sit in my home (and will be encouraging my children to do the same to get their natural vitamin D).
Your living situation will be different to mine – for better or worse – but I hope you can also find the nooks in your day and your home that give you opportunity to momentarily taste the outdoors.

I will also be giving thanks for the simple pleasures that we so often take for granted. The whole-hearted hugs of my children. The sloppy kisses of my 2-year-old. The fresh fruit and vegetables provided by local businesses. The private messages to and from friends that have taken on such significance in this physically-disconnected yet emotionally-connected crisis. The running water, electricity, and emails of reassurance from food stockists, that tell us that we are safe and abundant – times are strange but the infrastructure on which we rely for survival is still ticking over.

This is, relatively speaking, a comfortable crisis for most people in the Western world. While it is usually considered crude to pull the cards of having it better than people in warzones or famines or shanty towns because it diminishes our valid concerns about the difficulties of those who are vulnerable in our own locales, I think there is no better time to be grateful for the basic necessities of life than during a global crisis. Our true needs are brought into stark relief.

I do appreciate that not everyone is as privileged as I am to have a comfortable life in the UK, and that many people are in less than ideal domestic situations. However, if you have your own home to sit in, with food in the fridge, energy and water on demand, people to love and be loved by (whether near or far), and something to entertain you, you are doing pretty well in the grand scheme of crises.

It is hard – but it could be a lot worse.

5. Develop and cherish your intellectual and spiritual freedom

It’s ok if you’re not interested in the positive psychology of ‘self-development’ and would rather watch your favourite TV series, play games, and enjoy goal-less chill out sessions with a beverage. The self-development industry has a lot to answer for in rallying people to thrive despite their outer circumstances – we’re not all in the financial or psychological position to do that, and spiritual ‘quick fixes’ are rarely quick for those new to such mindsets.

However, I will say that – when physical and external circumstances are beyond our control – having the time and space to think for ourselves is where our true freedom lies. Whatever the media narrative or mainstream social discourse, ultimately only you can control what you think. We might be stuck within the walls of our homes, but mind, imagination, and spirit have no such restrictions. Be free!

This is the perfect time for the realisation of those oft-quoted ‘spiritual truths’ that tell us our only boundary to inner peace and enlightenment is the monkey mind. We can rail against the practical and mental frustrations of social distancing and self-isolation, but where does it get us? It is evidence that, so often, our felt ‘reality’ is not about our physical circumstances but how we conceptualise those circumstances.

If it wasn’t for having 4 children to care for, I could well see this period of isolation as the silent spiritual retreat I have long sought after. For others, maybe it’s time to escape into the things you really enjoy or have long aspired to do – things that will divert you from the fear-filled and fear-fuelling news reports and transport you to the internal place from which joy and creativity arise. From meditating to reading to playing guitar to painting to gardening to studying to doing messy crafts with the kids – being in the moment with what you love is the key to taking this indefinite period of quarantine one purposeful step at a time.

Above all, you didn’t choose this. There is no part of this for which you can turn the blame on yourself, as we are apt to do when our lives don’t go according to plan. This awareness of our lack of control is a wonderful portal into the spiritual or philosophical equanimity this situation can afford us. If we can let go of what April 2020 was ‘supposed’ to be, we can be present and loving with what actually is.

What is freedom?

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What is freedom?

What does freedom look like to you? Should we all seek to have the same concept of human freedoms or are they always going to be culturally-relative? Perhaps there are different levels of freedom, all equally valid yet some more fundamental to the entire human race than others?

Freedom takes many forms

For as I talk about ‘freedom lifestyle’ (such as the ability to travel when and where you want, to educate your children as you please, to trust that you will always have enough financial and material resources to get by, to engage in mutual relationships with whomever you choose, to simplify your routines that you may do more of what you love, and to construct whatever personal image you desire), I am also aware that the idea of freedom takes on a much different form for many people of the world.

The ‘freedom lifestyle’ I so enjoy discussing is a prime example of the privilege of WEIRD societies (that is, Western, educatied, industrialised, rich, democratic societies – but certainly quite weird too). It is painful and sickening to see the injustices against human rights taking place on a daily basis across the globe – yet rather than be wholly ashamed at our unconsciously colonial concept of freedom and personal autonomy, I wish that others had the opportunities that I have had for self-actualisation. This is not about throwing the baby out with the bath water.

Speaking from this place of privilege, I can see how strongly our concept of freedom is interlinked with the individualist ideology of neoliberalism. Whilst having such personal autonomy is a huge luxury, it can also be a curse – for in seeking this autonomy, we inevitably disconnect in some way from the community, the collective, ending up in our own little bubbles in which the freedom to seek personal gratification detaches us from the needs of the ‘tribe’.

This is one of the cons that many full-time worldschooling families find – enjoying independence yet yearning for deep human connections. Whilst the culture of the internet is quickly creating ‘global communities’, I wonder at how much strength and integrity these actually have in the rootless, fluctuating nature of them (and I’m referring to those communities that actually end up having physical meetings, not just online communications). Or is this just an extension of the idea of being free to choose our friends if not our family – choosing where we go to if not where we come from, yet never quite sure how strong the new bonds are until something tests them?

While I can thus tar the love of travel as weakening social bonds even as we develop cross-border friendship, the versatility and survival mechanisms of humans that have resulted in the anthropocene are what drive us to seek to explore new terrain just as much as we seek to set down roots.

It seems freedom is a spectrum – whilst I write about our adventures as a family that enjoys to travel, I also write about the basic universal freedoms that human beings should have, but are kept from through apartheid and denying freedom of speech.

But does ultimate personal freedom come at an expense, discarding the very values that have bound human beings together in kinship through the ages?

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Freedom is choice

Of course, not everyone can choose freedom – let this not play down the struggles of those who are oppressed, wrongly incarcerated, or living with war. And the spiritual freedom which often gets people through such trials needs another post entirely (in the meantime, read Victor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning as an example of the spiritual resilience of survival). Yet you know you have freedom when you have choices – when your life isn’t mapped out ahead of you just because of where you were born or who you were born to, when you know you can choose to stay or go, when you know if you don’t like something you can change it.

We should be so grateful for all the freedoms we have in a society such as ours – to not take them for granted and neither to eschew them (I absolutely believe you should take advantage of any new opportunities that life offers you, even if it does make you more self-conscious about your privileged status in the world – perhaps a necessary realisation to make to truly appreciate our rich lives and respect the lives of those born without the same status?).

However, our freedom to make such choices puts us under other psychological pressures. What if you make the wrong decision? What if you regret the choice you made? What if your choice as an individual has repercussions for the lives of others? What if? What if?

It seems that the more personal freedom we have, the less we rely (or are able to rely) on interpersonal relationships to guide us – that we are free precisely because nobody else necessarily relies on us in a physical manner, that we may not rely on anybody else to provide for us, and that no other can make our decisions for us. Yes, often our choices will seem conflicting and indecision will loom precisely because we are weighing up what the best thing is for our families and other loved ones, and others’ opinions certainly abound, but ultimately we make the final decisions – and then individually shoulder all the blame when things go wrong or take all the praise when they work out.

Yet in a society where you have less choices available and therefore less decisions to make, you also have less stress relating to indecision and whether or not you are really “following your heart”. We are indeed blessed by having so much say over the direction of our lives – and then cursed when the analysis paralysis kicks in! The social conformity of collectivistic culture is not necessarily a bad thing, especially for those who recognise the beauty of the simple life.

What we sometimes forget is that, much like we limit choices for a child so as to not overwhelm them, we are also free to limit our own choices. Just because an option is available doesn’t mean it has to end up on your plate. In a culture of sensory overload and information overload, it becomes all the more important to engage in activities that simplify and streamline our lives. It can seem like an uphill battle at times but, as counter-intuitive as it seems to those who have grown up under rampant consumerism, minimalism is a lifestyle that invites in many freedoms. Less really is more.

We are sold the same options when it comes to embarking on relationships – I’ve come to see this freedom as inherently tainted with fear, because we’re all just one out of “plenty of fish” that could be discarded as “too this” or “too that” barely seconds after being caught. All the tears shed and days wasted trying to decide whether to leave a relationship or “is this really an expression of love?” – only to find myself in my mid-30s and a single parent to 4 children with the grand realisation that love isn’t a feeling, it’s a choice. It’s a state of being.

Yet the wrong relationships can significantly limit our freedom, and there may be occasion to choose personal independence above the desire for relationship. Despite this, freedom should always have a synonym in love, and freedom does not have to be at odds with commitment. Human mothers are not supposed to raise children in solitude, and this is one reason why social contracts of wedlock exist. While they may have different social issues to address, I can understand why so many cultures remain stable through the practice of arranged marriages. Unfortunately, individualistic independence and relationships of codependence seem more prevalent than freedom-granting relationships of interdependence.

Freedom is love

If love is freedom, freedom is love. I believe that those who truly love are not afraid of others’ freedom.

I believe freedom is always fought for from a place of love – that I will campaign against the oppression of strangers in other countries because I actually love the human race, for all the misdeeds we commit and quirks we have.

I believe that anyone who seeks to oppress others – restricting the freedoms of other human beings due to their ethnicity, religion, class, or any other socially-constructed label we use – is an agent of fear who is deprived of love and seeking to deprive others in turn.

I believe that freedom is the state you find yourself in when your first port of call in each moment is to tune into the love that resides within yourself (it’s never really about what other people are doing). Wherever you find yourself – as a willing hermit, in an unhappy marriage, or alongside your soulmate – true love within yourself creates spiritual freedom, and this is such pure freedom as it does not depend on any other human’s approval or affirmation.

Unfortunately, human love may come up against policies that restrict freedom, something that has become more of a headline story since EU nationals have started feeling the effects of anti-immigrant sentiment in the UK.

I also believe that freedom is the ultimate test for any human relationship – that as soon as we cling to another person or rely on them or their actions for our happiness, we are living in a state that is not actually conducive with real love. Relationships grow because they have room to grow. Only when we can give one another this space and still find one another on the other side are we ready to commit in confidence. Because if love is the basis of your relationship and if love is freedom, then so too should your relationship be one of freedom.

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Freedom is not opposed to commitment

Of course not, for I am committed to freedom!

So, I have learnt that I deeply respect those who find comfort in marriage and in making the choice each and every day to work alongside another person, finding their mutual balance between freedom and security.

I used to be something of a commitment-phobe – this doesn’t just apply to intimate relationships, but to ideas, interests, plans, and places. I’ve only been in my current hometown for the length of time I have by taking one day at a time and interspersing the past 14 years with lots of travelling, lots of visitors, and lots of daydreaming about emigrating – if someone had told me when I first moved to Weymouth that I would still be here over 14 years later, I would have laughed!

It’s not in my nature to settle – and certainly not for less than I deserve. We need the freedom to discern when we should persevere and when we should let go.

At the beginning of 2017 I finally put a full stop on an abusive relationship (one of our freedoms – indeed, rights – must be the power to walk away from dysfunctional relationships). I then focused on all the things that would make me feel ‘free’ – paying off debt, enroling on business and psychology courses, reconnecting with old friends, making new friends, pursuing minimalism, having live-in helpers through Workaway, and chasing our worldschooling dreams.

The freedom to step back and take refuge from a bad situation is necessary in order to remember your light – in the midst of something, you cannot see the woods for the trees. The combination of utilising my power to walk away and recognising the dynamics that had been at play was a huge lesson about freedom and choice. Only by having the freedom to get out of a negative situation, find myself in a contrasting situation, and therefore take on a new perspective did I realise what I actually wanted to commit to.

I found myself committing to a path with my self-development that I am still walking over 3 years later.

I found myself making a significant financial investment into something that I would have to follow through to make it worth the cost.

I found myself gaining comfort in routines and schedules, and putting procrastination into the past due to a commitment to just getting things done as they needed doing.

When you’re not fully committed, you do things by halves. A person or an employer or a project will never get the absolute best of you when half of your heart is elsewhere – and neither will you necessarily see the best of yourself (even if you know your ‘true potential’ – knowing what could be is no substitute for acting upon it).

Hence, I recognised it was my commitment to freedom at all costs that prevented me from making the most of what the previous few years had offered me – that stopped me from learning my children’s Imazighen family’s first language (“What’s the point if my future isn’t here?”), that took goal-setting as a contract against freedom (“But if I commit to this I won’t be free to discover what other paths could have been!”). Options are freedom but inaction is a cage made of fear.

Freedom is emotional freedom

When I’m happy and full of energy, everybody knows about it – I’m sharing my new ideas, connecting with friends to arrange meet-ups, being generous with my time, and possibly recounting not-so-happy moments because of the spiritual and psychological revelations that have dawned on me through them (yes, I’m happy today!).

When I’m not-so-happy, I hide away until the storm has passed, making sure no-one ever takes pity on me or sees me tearful. Much of 2017-2018 was spent in this state as I slowly recovered my sense of self and dealt with another unexpected pregnancy that coinciding with moving into a brand new chapter.

I have lost count of the number of times in my life when I’ve bluntly been told to stop crying because the person I’m with can’t handle my emotions. Too many of us have been taught to lock our feelings away, restraining ourselves lest we make another person feel uncomfortable. However, I know that it takes great strength to be vulnerable, and that we will never be free for as long as we keep things bottled up inside – prisoners of our own making.

I sincerely tell my friends to see me as a shoulder to cry on and to never go it alone if they don’t have to (I have often found this offer taken up, touched by the trust shown in me in being the person they open up to) – yet do I take my own advice?

Part of my reticence to discuss big emotions as they happen is that I also believe we can choose how far to head into our emotional responses – we should never deny or repress our emotions, but neither should we feed them or be governed by them. We should be mindful when they arise (“Oh, hello anger!”), but do we need to act on them and allow them to consume us? No. No, we really do not need to announce things to our entire Facebook friends list each time something remotely shitty happens – let it go. Meditate instead.

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There is a great freedom to be had by not feeding the negative thought-forms and nurturing the positive instead. I’m not naïve about the pitfalls and oversights of positive psychology – not if it buries things that need expressing or expects individuals to put on a brave face when they genuinely need the support of a fellow human. Yet if we approached our mental health like our physical health, we’d maybe be more conscious of what we put into our minds (and the minds of others) and the control we actually have – and enjoy the freedom that is found through regaining that control.

So while we should feel free to be open-hearted when things are difficult we should also endeavour to reclaim our power from negative emotions – it is so liberating to realise that changing how you feel is often just about changing the way you think about something.

This is about all the big emotions, whether we label them good or bad. Don’t be afraid to show that you’re hurting. But also don’t be afraid to tell someone you love them, that they light up your life, that your day has been made thanks to their very presence. True emotional freedom does not fear rejection because it is all about the expression, not the outcome.

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Freedom is cultural

Do not think you understand the full concept of freedom coming solely from your own cultural perspective. This point is well-illustrated by the somewhat simplistic but thought-provoking image of a bikini-clad woman and a woman in Islamic hijab, both pitying the other for what patriarchy has done to them.

Both they and every opinion in between come from different cultural perspectives. Certainly some people will be wearing what they do because they are expected to, whilst others have made a conscious decision through their own free-will (or think they have; the concepts of free will and subjectivity have less to do with personal autonomy than we tend to assume). Deciding that one style of dress is about freedom and another about oppression is not helpful in unravelling what’s at play – looking at the bigger picture, you’d start questioning uniforms of any kind.

Depending on the inherent values in your culture of upbringing, you will have different notions of what freedom entails and whether it is more or less important in the grand scheme of things.

As an educated woman, I often find myself feeling conflicted by the imperialistic push to grant a Western-style education to underprivileged women in developing countries. We should only go into such endeavours with a full understanding of the impact it has on the societies as a whole – an easy oversight to make if you go into it believing your own cultural background is the ‘right’ one.

This is where the individual and the collective comes into play. How much should we put individual self-actualisation on hold for the good of the collective? When are we actually just sacrificing traditions that bind communities on the altar of the West’s latest social paradigm? When is what we think is good (education) actually bad (indoctrinisation)? As usual, balance should be the operative word here.

I write this considering the impact of state education in Morocco on the country’s indigenous heritage – as soon as you encourage the indigenous Imazighen women to become Arabised by the state education system, you encourage them to leave behind their culture. And with that comes the death of indigenous languages and a further move towards cultural hegemony – and I tend to feel that reduced diversity in a country ultimately leads to reduced freedom of expression, one of those freedoms we are so quick to defend.

These women may not have financial or academic capital, but they have huge cultural capital – as with most women’s issues, where their power lies is also what society will try to undermine and distort. To truly honour and emancipate them would be to enable them to gain literacy in their own language first and foremost.

We can see in our own society how the ’emancipation’ of women is turning in on itself, leading to less freedom of choice – honouring those who try to be everything (wife, mother, career woman, fun-loving friend, and preferably on the PTA too) and undermining those who believe that their 24/7 role as a mother, homemaker, and wife is quite enough (and not just enough, but exactly where they feel their purpose lies). If emancipation means freedom, it should always be about the freedom to choose. This also goes for bikinis, burqas, and anything in between.

Also, I have learnt that when your Muslim partner wants to accompany you on all your outings, it is not because of a lack of trust in you or with the intention of limiting your freedom – it is a matter of honour, of being seen as a protector and provider, to be there for you if anything goes wrong or anyone tries to hassle you. Forgive me for using an analogy of a child in this case (quite enough infantilising of women occurs), but I shall relate it to being the relaxed parent in a park full of helicopter parents – as soon as your child falls off something because you were 3 metres away letting them get on with it rather than right under them waiting for them to fall, you’re going to be seen as the one in the wrong. Likewise, a shame-based culture, such as those in the Middle East and Asia, will try to limit problems by not letting them happen in the first place. I’m not saying I like this (although it was often reassuring) or think it’s right (I am that relaxed parent) but so could someone question a guilt-based culture, which places a higher value on autonomy yet in which it is increasingly difficult to feel a sense of shared social values.

Talk about culture clash. However, it has helped me to understand how stressful mixed-heritage relationships are upon people, quite apart from the usual pressures of relationships. And that whilst we may have the freedom to travel and to pursue a relationship with someone living in another continent, that very freedom brings the sharp contrast of shortcomings in social capital to the partner who has a less privileged passport.

Conscious freedom

Our freedom should be used to understand and enhance the lives of those around us rather than be solely about personal autonomy. Rob Greenfield is an example of someone who possibly lives the ultimate freedom lifestyle, using his lack of attachment to money, property, and possessions to serve people and the planet.

Though I warned against our attempts to ‘fix’ developing nations and am also sceptical of certain forms of voluntourism, there are always ways in which we can use our freedoms to benefit others – whether our financial freedom allows us to help those less well-off, our emotional freedom allows us to support those going through dark days, or our physical freedom allows us to assist those who are dependent on others to care for them.

Whilst we can be conscious of our privilege in ‘free’ nations (I use that term tentatively in regards to the lack of psychologically freedom of those bound by consumerism and the false narratives of mainstream media), are we conscious of how our background influences the way we think about freedom? And what do we miss out on if we put freedom on a pedestal above other aspects of a well-rounded life, such as community and security?

Our pick ‘n’ mix personal freedom replaces solid communities with disparate networks – it does not make meaningful human contact impossible, but it makes it more difficult. Networks facilitate connections – but it is community that supports those connections.

Over recent weeks I’ve been given a reminder of how selfish Western individualism is. And how isolating. And how my “Woohoo, freedom lifestyle!” smile hides the reality of suffering from strong, independent woman syndrome. I found myself nodding in recognition upon reading an article about how individualism results in social isolation and another about how mothers suffer with the lack of genuine community.

Yet herein is the dichotomy and a reminder that we cannot have our cake and eat it too. Spiritually and emotionally we may be as free as our thoughts allow, yet physically we are bound by more than we care to admit, always subject to the laws, traditions, and social code of wherever we find ourselves – and always somewhat drawn to conform and fit in. But that very desire to fit in and create shared values is what binds us to others and fosters the solidarity of community.

Conscious freedom not only means recognising our place amongst others in the world as a whole but also recognising if we are remaining centred in ourselves in a mindful way that seeks connection with other people or in an egoic way that ends up isolating us from other people.

Freedom is planning

In my new-found security of sticking to my plans and projects, I’ve been starkly aware of times when I’ve let go just before achieving a goal, or dishonoured myself by refusing to make a commitment. The freedom to change is responsible for many an incomplete project, meaning I have few finished products to be proud of despite being a self-confessed ‘idea machine‘.

The freedom of not planning too much too far in advance becomes a ball and chain when we notice that the years have gone by and there is so much we could have achieved if we had our eye on the long-term goal rather than pursuing the freedom of total spontaneity. That pursuit can cost your dreams, which you shall receive a rude reminder of when the ultimate freedom of death comes knocking.

To achieve our true potential we must sometimes shelter what we have sown when the winds of change blow rather than taking to our wings and abandoning our seedlings to the storm. The grass can never be greener if we do not stay to watch it grow.

So, I resolve to integrate these lessons – to move into tomorrow appreciating how much choice and variety my freedom affords me whilst being mindful of the decisions I then make. To know that the privilege of freedom should not be taken for granted and squandered, but used to promise ourselves to the greater good. To focus on choosing commitment when it is called for and choosing love in all situations.

This has just skimmed the surface of the various layers of freedom and how it can be conceptualised – do let me know in the comments below what resonated for you, and which aspects you may like to explore more.

 

16 Decluttering Tips for Families

There is a common struggle that arises when it comes to trying to simplify our lives, and it comes in the shape of other family members. Decluttering may make perfect sense to you, but do your loved ones agree?
In my journey towards becoming a minimalist, I have had to accept that the stereotypical image of minimalism is not what you will find in my home (see second photo below) – not with three children aged eight and under as my companions in life. However, chances are these days that if you give me a 15 minute warning that you’re going to drop in for a coffee, I can get my home looking reasonably ‘guest ready’ by the time you arrive.
This is one benefit of decluttering that has been apparent to both myself and my kids when it comes to tidy-up time, so my path towards minimalism is one that I feel able to continue walking down with their mutual awareness of the ease it is bringing.
Yet creating a new family mindset does not happen overnight – there must be a mental readiness to let go of our possessions before the physical letting go even happens, and just the idea of getting rid of something that has potentially been in your lives for years (even if has been unused and unloved) can come as a shock to some family members.
Considering the varied reactions to the idea of decluttering, I have compiled a few ideas to get your family into the frame of mind for the task ahead – practical solutions for the child who might not know where to start, through to deep and meaningful discussion points that can help you understand why both children and adults alike struggle with the idea of parting with their possessions.
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Family Clutter
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Family Minimalism
1) Easing in
Firstly, see what your family members are prepared to part with without much fuss – some items will be obvious to them once they realise they don’t have to keep something just because they can (e.g. toys that are broken or defaced).

You yourself must be open to modifying your view of ‘quality’ where children’s toys are concerned. When your 4-year-old wants to get rid of the expensive, wooden play sets (that they rarely play with) but keep the cheap, plastic one (that they frequently play with), your view of quality may have to reflect the value of their play rather than the value of the item – there will be plenty of occasion to discuss the concept of quality and environmental concerns further down the line when it comes to gift-giving and receiving (see point 3).

Grab a couple of bags, give everyone an incentive (one that works for us is promising to snuggle up on the sofa for family film night in our less-cluttered living room that evening) and ask the kids to fill one bag with anything broken or otherwise not suitable for donating, and another bag with items to pass on to the charity shop.

2) Give logical incentives where possible

My son was aware that he no longer wanted some of his Lego sets but the thing that helped him to let go of it was telling him how well it holds its value – that if he sold it, it would help him save up for the new computer he wanted. He didn’t look back after that!

Where you can, find other logical incentives to lend inspiration and reasons for your family members to join you.

A couple of ideas:

Perhaps your child wants somewhere to display their nature collection yet has a shelf or chest of drawers covered in clutter in their room – is this the space they seek?

Maybe your child has been asking for new clothes or shoes even though they don’t really need any (like my 4-year-old daughter!) – could you get rid of a whole bag of old or unworn clothes in exchange for one special item of clothing they really want?

You are sure to find a logical incentive that works for you and your child.

3) Discuss big concepts like ‘need’, ‘enough’, ‘abundance’, ‘poverty’ and ‘quality’

When we start decluttering we quickly realise that we have much more than enough. Just because the issue of clutter may be a ‘first world problem’, it doesn’t mean it isn’t a problem – and this first world problem is often the result of third world problems (and vice versa).

There is a balance to be had, and accompanying the physical act of decluttering is a lot of reflecting on what is really important in life and how privileged we are in a consumerist society.

When we reflect on aspects of consumerist culture, we find ourselves in discussion about huge global issues – environmentalism, throwaway culture, cheap labour and quality rather than quantity, to name just a few.

Once they’re aware of the level of lack that some children in the world live with, you may be able to encourage your child to part with some toys for charitable causes – they may recognise their abundance and be more willing to part with it if it is about giving. This would work best if passing on directly to children – such as to a local women’s refuge or to children fleeing war.

This isn’t about instilling guilt for their privilege (like the proverbial “You should eat up your dinner – there are starving children out there who would love that meal right now!”), but about recognising our true needs, our impact on other people and the planet, and how we can therefore make wise decisions about what we choose to own and de-own.

4) Be brutal!

If the mess = stress, let your family know that you WILL be removing items from your home for the sake of your health and well-being. I correctly identified clutter as being a huge cause of daily stress that I could no longer sweep under the carpet.

At one point I became so overwhelmed with the mess in my home that I had to lay down the law and openly accept that my well-being (and therefore my children’s well-being) depended on decluttering.

This directly works for the children too, even if they don’t recognise it as such – quite often the mess is because they have so many options for what to play with, yet the options become overwhelming and lead to distraction. Which means you’d be well advised to . . .

5) Limit your options

It’s the difference between owning two jigsaws at a time or ten. I’ve found that when the children have two to choose from, they sit and complete them – and when they have ten, they end up tipping all the puzzles out onto the floor and then become too bewildered to do anything. Just like how I feel during the rare occasions I step foot into Asda and freeze up in the face of too much choice – how many different flavours?!

Choice is not necessarily a luxury – it can be an enemy of efficiency.

We can give our children plenty of opportunities without overwhelming them with choice.

6) New for old
Relating to the above – yes, they would get bored with just the same two jigsaws or board games to choose from all the time. Hence, once in a while, we will donate one to a charity shop and buy another in its place (preferably also from a charity shop to limit the consumer demand for brand new toys).
This is one way we can start turning around the novelty that comes with consumerism – rather than accruing more and more, we donate and swap. The novelty is no longer about getting something new just for the sake of it, but in getting something new-to-you in a conscious manner.
We still consume but in awareness and with intention: do we really need what we buy? Does what we already own still fulfil its purpose? What buying choices can we make to limit our consumer footprint?

Try implementing this ‘something in, something out’ rule, so that at the very least the number of possessions you own isn’t rising. You might want to tailor this  – “Something in, two things out” can also be a manageable challenge, especially during the early days of decluttering.

7) Clear the clutter before birthdays/Christmas

Similar to the last tip, these are good occasions to think about what you already have, think carefully about is needed and/or wanted, and make space for the new.

I do not worry about the influx of new items that is likely to end up in our home over Christmas or birthdays if we’ve ensured that everything we already own is being loved and utilised, and that we are creating space where possible.
Anything that is broken or in otherwise unacceptable condition can be thrown away or recycled; we discard duplicate/similar items where one alone would suffice; as the children grow, we pass on anything that seems too young for them; if things are unused, we can donate or sell them.
This also allows us to receive graciously from those who do want to give physical gifts as part of their celebrations – while it is nice to have other people understand our lifestyle decisions, we do not need our friends and extended family on board with our minimalist lifestyle if we’ve done the real work at home and within ourselves first.
8) Gifts for minimalists
The above said, it helps to signpost people if they do want to honour your lifestyle and give something appropriate.
If asked what the children want for birthdays or Christmas, I think carefully – yes, there are some physical possessions we all still desire, but these are limited where possible and we think carefully about the value they will have in our lives (e.g. this Christmas I have just bought my children one ‘big’ present each – my 8-year-old son a Nintendo 3DS, my 4-year-old daughter her first proper cycle, and my 2-year-old daughter her first scooter – things that will last and be used well beyond the festive season!).
I’m finding I’m having to be increasingly creative about giving presents to other people seeing as it fills me with dread to think that I might be cluttering up someone else’s home.
However, there are so many options these days and my preference for both giving and receiving is in experiences and consumables. Consumables could be a luxury food hamper, an eco-friendly toiletries set, homemade sweets or chocolates, a gift voucher for a favourite supermarket or clothing for the kids to grow into. Experiences might be days out, an annual pass to your favourite local attraction, a theatre trip or money towards an outdoor activity residential. These are just a few of the many and varied things that could be enjoyed.
And what are we more likely to remember? A token gift for the sake of a gift that didn’t really mean anything to us, or something that creates joy and lasting memories?

9) Space-saving

Allocate a certain amount of space that a child’s personal possessions can take up and place limits on what is in your home at any one time. If their possessions start encroaching into places they’re not supposed to, discuss what needs to be done about it.

Some families ask children to limit things to their own bedroom, whilst others keep the bedrooms clear of toys and have a dedicated playroom where toys must generally live and stay. Others again (as we do) keep toy storage in the general living area but have a set of storage cupboards or drawers that must keep everything contained when tidied away.

As we progress on our decluttering journey, we may find that we have an abundance of storage solutions that were previously full of stuff. This means that those items we do decide to keep can have their own home and, ideally, be hidden from view until required.

10) The myth of “I might need it someday!”

No and no again. If stuff is encroaching onto your sense of calm and happiness, this scarcity mentality for what you might (but probably won’t) need tomorrow doesn’t help your peace of mind.

In most cases if we need an obscure or little-used electrical appliance, we can probably borrow one. This is where community organisations such as LETS (Local Exchange Trading Systems) come in, where people share both skills and goods. Having less may make us occasionally more dependent on others, but this is a factor of community-building.

I also recently came across the 20/20 rule – that most things we get rid of today can easily be reacquired in less than 20 minutes for less than £20. This makes all the more sense if the thing you’re dithering over can be sold on in the first instance and you might not ever need it again anyway.

There are just a few things that I rarely use that I DO keep just in case I need them tomorrow – a small tool set, a sewing kit, a limited supply of stationery. These are things that you KNOW will be required one day in the daily wear and tear of life.

As for 101 glass jars to re-use or something that “looks like it might be part of a craft project” – unless you’re going to make everybody jam for Christmas or are an avid crafts-person who is regularly utilising random bits of shiny card and off-cuts of ribbon for your creations, just ditch it (please read this as: recycle or pass it on to someone who really would use them).

11) Travel!

Or just get out of the house as often as possible. It’s hard to let the clutter weigh you down if you can’t see it!

But seriously – travelling isn’t just about freedom in terms of escaping the daily grind of a 9-5 job or the school run, it also teaches us how little we really need to get by and be happy.

When you’re living out of a suitcase in simple accommodation and focusing on exploring the big wide world, it really puts our home lives into perspective. And if you’re away for more than a couple of weeks, you actually start to forget what you own at home – truly breaking the grip of the sense of ‘possession’ over these inanimate objects that are not actually adding any value to your life.

Draw your children’s attention to this as well – maybe even while you’re away! See what both you and they actually miss from home. I bet neither of you can actually remember what all of your possessions are – thus, are those things truly loved and needed?

12) Suggest a trial

If you’re finding some of your family are particularly resistant to the idea of decluttering, you could suggest a trial period where you store little-used items away for a set period of time. You might want to box things up and put the boxes out of sight (therefore out of mind) in an attic, spare room or garage – just make sure they don’t stay there! Put a note in your diary for 3 months, 4 months or even 6 months down the line to move them on.

Try to do this with items belonging to every family member, rather than just those who are finding the process challenging – it’s not about putting anyone on the spot and it shows that you’re all in the same boat.

If the items are not needed or wanted during that trial period, you can then make the joint decision to part with them. Don’t go back through the box again though (only the person in charge of sorting the items for charity, selling on or the bin should see the items again) – invariably, children will say they really want the thing they haven’t even noticed was gone for 3 months.

Be conscious at the start that the things you box up to potentially get rid of are already unloved or under-used items, and 3 months without them should prove that is the case.

13) Celebrate your wins

If one of your children seems keen and another doesn’t, be grateful for engaging at least one family member!

In our household, if my son gets rid of something it can inspire my 4-year-old daughter who is usually more reluctant: she may say “Actually, I want to get rid of this!”. Alternatively, she may say “Please don’t get rid of this, I love it!” If it’s the latter? Rejoice that she’s able to discern what really makes her happy (even if a 4-year-old’s choices sometimes seem odd to us!).

Rather than looking at what still needs to be done, give thanks every time an item is parted with and with each bag that goes to the charity shop – it might be a low process but at least there is progress!

14) Find your ‘Why?’ together

This is not about throwing perfectly good things out, it’s about moving towards something better.

There are lots of reasons why you might want to declutter your home. Perhaps your large house is unmanageable and you want to downsize? Perhaps you want to travel full-time? Perhaps you need to free up an extra room to make into a studio or guest bedroom or in preparation for the arrival of another baby? Perhaps you just want more space to build dens and engage in rough and tumble play? It probably has something to do with your inner vision of what an ‘ideal family life’ looks like.

Whatever your why is, deciding on it as a family or discussing the benefits of it as a family can help you all join in on a shared goal. Whenever there is resistance to the process, you can return to your reasons why and find renewed motivation to work together towards your aim.

15) Dig deep
There are many psychological barriers to decluttering and minimalism that people may not even be aware of, subconscious beliefs that drive the course of our lives without us even realising we hold those beliefs.
Those who have had to scrape by just to pay their bills or who have lived through a dramatic economic downturn may have adopted a ‘scarcity mindset’, holding onto things today just in case they should fall on hard times tomorrow.
From a young age, children are taught to use comforters to satisfy their basic needs – utilising an inanimate object for their emotional comfort rather than seeking the warmth of another human being.
These barriers can generally be ascribed to fears of loss (conscious or subconscious) which lead us to cling to anything we can attach emotional or economic significance to – and whatever sentimental or financial labels we attach, if the underlying feeling is anxiety rather than joy, there is work to be done.
So is it any surprise that the idea of parting with our possessions can cause such resistance?
The good thing is that we can make these barriers conscious, question their purpose in our lives now, and break the cycle. Whether people are ready to hear this or not is another thing – I offer this as an idea, but will leave you to decide if your loved ones are ready to reflect on such matters.
(Please note, if you’re concerned that someone close to you actually suffers from obsessive compulsive hoarding, this is another matter entirely that needs to be dealt with by a qualified mental health practitioner – bringing up the issues above may be very distressing. If in doubt, err on the side of caution and urge them to seek the help they may require).
16) Be the change you want to see!
 
If you’re really in it for the long game, this is above all the best way to inspire solidarity. I have read stories of some spouses taking over 5 years to catch on to the benefits that clutter-clearing brings.
So, if all else fails, continue to stay on top of your personal path and where you do have authority over an area to declutter (e.g. maybe you do the most cooking, therefore require the kitchen to be as efficient and uncluttered as possible).
Decluttering isn’t just about making space in our homes – it affects the way we look at all areas of life, seeing where we can simplify in order to experience more physical, mental, emotional and spiritual spaciousness.
When you have successfully completed your personal declutter of physical possessions, move onto digital clutter, then mental clutter and social clutter. Be the example and enjoy your own simplified life as best you can even in the midst of others’ stuff.
When those around you notice the rewards you have reaped from your decision to live more simply, just maybe they’ll catch on?
Do you have any of your own experiences or tips to share? Have you successfully (or unsuccessfully?!) put any of the above suggestions into practice? Feel free to let me know in the comments below, I’d love to hear from you.