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Why take care of the stayers?

Updated: Jun 14, 2020

In the next ten paragraphs, I'm going to attempt to place the experience of the stayers in context, practically, historically, psychologically, and even biologically. Addressing transitions is complicated. I'll probably make it even more so.

When people first start working on transitions, they usually focus on the arrivers. After all, these are the people who are new, lost, bewildered. It feels gratifying to help people who are new, lost, and bewildered, right? They need help, right?

The first paradigm shift occurs when you remember that people had a life before you met them. They had to say goodbye to that life. The quality of that goodbye is the foundation of any new beginning. This is what I call the First Law of Transitions, which I attribute to David Pollock: you have to say a clear goodbye to say a clear hello.

So as people become veterans of working on transitions, they know they have to help people get their goodbyes right. They help them with the Reconciliation, Affirmation, Farewells, and Thinking Ahead of building good RAFTs. Only then can the RAFT land safely on the other bank of the River Styx, and all the transformations that river symbolizes.

But these veterans eventually run into a problem—even if they've read Safe Passage. On page 31, they're invited to consider this image:

People staying in one place feel as if their hearts have been turned into soil. Those arriving are trying to plant roots in these hearts. Those leaving are trying to pull roots – down to the tiniest capillaries – out of these hearts. This process can feel agonizing, exactly because ‘stayers’ have to support both arrivers and leavers, while they themselves don’t appear to be going anywhere. They feel they’re simply undergoing the process. Constantly.

Almost as logically as a mathematical proof, veteran transition workers are confronted with the need for a second paradigm shift, namely that attending to the leavers isn't even where one must start. It's with the stayers—because they have to do it all. If farmers don't take good care of their soil, they deplete the nutrients and there's nothing to feed the plants. The stayers are the soil. So people with experience in transitions decide to attend to the stayers.

But that's a lot of people. In fact, if you work through these paradigm shifts and resolve to take care of not only the arrivers, but the leavers, and now also the stayers, you're essentially talking about the entire school community! 

The whole world is already talking about the difficulties in finding or producing sufficient numbers of corona-proof protective masks. Imagine if we needed an oxygen mask to pop out of the school cafeteria ceiling for every member of your school community!

Just as you were getting your head around this second paradigm shift, a third one begins to dawn on your consciousness. You're tired. You're dizzied by the scope of the task. Taking care of people is hard work. Does your brain at this point have space for another paradigm shift, namely that you're a special category of stayer, namely a carer, and that your care for others depends upon first caring for yourself? Does your brain have space to realize that your own metaphorical cabin has lost pressure at 10,000 meters, and that your entire being desperately needs oxygen, too? Did you ever hear a flight attendant say, "In the case of the loss of cabin pressure, attempt to place an oxygen mask on everybody in your local school community and place your own mask over your face last"?

So the third paradigm shift is that transitions care starts with yourself, with caring for the team you collaborate with to do this work and allowing yourself to be cared for. This is a high risk profession. Don't try this at home alone.

Feeling dizzy? Take a moment to take a deep breath. Breathe in for a count of seven, and breathe out for a count of eleven. Breathing in activates the fight or flight branch of your sympathetic nervous system. Breathing out activates the rest and digest branch of your parasympathetic nervous system. Doing so for seven in, but eleven out, produces a net gain on the rest side of that equation, leading bit by bit, to some inner calm. In for seven. Out for eleven.

And on we go.

Our bodies and psyches evolved in small group environments. Oxford evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar has found that human beings are at best capable of tracking about 150 meaningful human relationships. So much for having thousands of Facebook friends. 150 relationships appear to constitute the outer limits of what human cognition can handle. In fact, dolphins and cetaceans are believed to have larger brains than humans because of their larger social networks. They remember others after one encounter, and even their name, after a single chirp. Now that's smart.

Thousands of years ago, 150 was plenty. We lived in small groups. New arrivals were few, purely via birth or marriage, and departures were due solely to exploration, defection, or death. The group—that number of 150—changed relatively slowly.

Fast forward, and in education, we have faced two time warps since World War II. The first was globalization, which created the very phenomenon of international schools in the first place, launching millions of children, parents, and staff into a world with a different clock speed. People at international schools came and left faster. People didn't arrive together, move through an educational journey together, and leave together. They arrived, and left, and arrived, and left, and arrived, and left, incessantly. We were not wired for this rapid-fire making and breaking of affectional bonds. Somewhere deep in our psyches, I believe we're looking for our stable 150.

The second time warp is more recent. Adjustments to the human genome are slow. We require an entire generation before even a small tweak or change to our DNA can occur, and then the next generation experiences where that change leads. In that same span of one human generation, viruses undergo millions of generations, tweaking and adjusting their DNA in ways that outstep ours. The novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19 has forced us to adjust to its sense of time. Human society has literally been propelled to a rate and scale of change that nobody alive today has ever experienced. Covid-19 makes a Tesla feel slow. Our only advantage in viral warfare is our creativity and flexibility, and our boundless capacity to change the software between our ears.

What do these two accelerations mean for stayers at international schools? Post World-War II stayers were first subject to rates of goodbyes that their psyches couldn't fathom. And now transitions are occurring on Covid's timescale—which is, quite literally, not human. Arrivers have left, leavers have left before they were supposed to leave, and stayers didn't stay. To quote Aleka, "Stayers became leavers, and they're going to become arrivers." Who is at the school? Or are there two kinds of stayers, the kind I write about in Safe Passage and the kind who come from the school's actual host country?

These are questions we'll ponder in our breakout rooms. But first, let's place the stayers in more of a psychological, or even existential, context.

Why are transitions so hard? Why is it so difficult to be left behind by someone we care about or love? The educational world is becoming more comfortable with the words like "loss" and "grief" lurking just behind this curtain we perhaps euphemistically label as "transitions."  But words like "loss" and "grief" are themselves possibly euphemisms, or at least derivatives, of what this all is really about: death. Having somebody leave us feels like having somebody die. Our minds know it's not really a death. But the longer I do this work, the more I'm convinced our bodies aren't so sure. Think about how you feel when you bring somebody you love to the airport, at the end of their visit. God willing, you know they'll land safely on the other side, and life will go on. But it hurts.

I believe this is because we're not evolutionarily wired for airports, but for births, lives, and deaths. Our DNA is looking for our clan of 150—but these double helixes have been around long enough to know that these 150 will gradually, one by one or group by group, die. And that loss will hurt, and we will grieve, and this is how it should be.

So stayers, in their bodies, know what's at stake when somebody they care about leaves.  It hurts. They grieve. This is how it should be. But international schools turn stayers into warp-drive stayers. More people leave. It hurts. They grieve. More people leave. It hurts. They grieve. More people leave. It hurts. They grieve. More people leave. It hurts. They grieve.

Do I need to go on?

Is this how it should be?

And then along comes corona. The coronavirus has turned warp-drivestayers into hyper-warp stayers. Who is leaving? Who is arriving? What is staying as it was? There is no fixed ground.

Welcome to life in a centrifuge.

Let me explain the two reasons I do this work.

The first is humanitarian. Research over the last decades has made unequivocally clear that human well-being is intimately tied to relationships. Those who can lean into and enjoy relationships with others live happier, healthier, and more fulfilling lives.

The wear and tear that a mobile lifestyle places upon our faith in relationships is considerable. It seems entirely reasonable to me that, left to their own devices, students in high-turnover situations—together with their teachers and their parents—would logically conclude that it makes sense not to deeply connect with others because that will ultimately hurt. To many, holding back in relationships would seem as logical as math. But what could happen in situations where people are helped to process the grief and loss? Like any skill, couldn't Dunbar's number be grown, such that people can lean into—and if need be say goodbye to—more than 150 souls?

We have big problems in the world, and we need our students to be positioned to bring their gifts to these problems. They're not going to be able to if their hearts get trampled by moving feet. On the other hand, when their experience is named, honored, and validated, they can handle more. The greatest expander of capacity is empathy.

The second reason I do this work is generative. I want this world to be around for my grandchildren's grandchildren. One of the problems we need our students solving is the very sustainability of life here on this earth. Somehow, I simply trust that the work we do as SPAN will trickle down through our students into the soil of this beloved Earth in a way that will help. My talk today has been about caring for the stayers. Is not the earth the ultimate stayer? I do this work for the ground that sustains us.

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