Four Weeks in the Human Terrarium

Four weeks in a Human Terrarium: 

When I was a kid I was fascinated by terrariums, which were trendy at the time. A glass globe would contain soil, plants and rocks and sometimes sandpainting underneath. It would receive a dash of water and then rarely needed more because it was a self-contained eco-system. The water would be soaked up by the plant roots, exuded as vapor by the leaves and condense on the glass, falling back to the soil to be used once more. Too much water and it all would rot. Too little and the plants would shrivel. Just the right amount and it would thrive indefinitely.

I am checking in today from my human terrarium, my house which I have left for only a few essential errands and many walks in the last month. I share it with my husband and young adult son who is stranded at home after an exciting international adventure was postponed indefinitely due to the coronavirus pandemic. We are privileged in many ways and have so far been spared the painful losses and frequent exposures that many have not been able to avoid. I therefore speak from the perspective of someone who has had the good fortune to shelter in place with family and am sharing some insights gleaned from spending more time together in a contained space than we ever have before. (In another post I will address challenges for those sheltering alone.)

  • Our moods and behavior directly impact everyone else in our closed system. While I always kind of knew that, it has become very clear since we can’t go anywhere else that we are all responsible for the emotional climate in our home. If one person gets really grouchy or negative, it affects everyone else. We can’t help what our feelings are, but we can choose how we share them with others.  The more mindful and self-aware we are, the more likely that we can express the feelings without acting out in a way that feels toxic to others.
  • We may not agree on what goes in and out of our ecosystem. One person’s “essential errand” is another person’s “unwarranted risk of exposure to the virus.” Under normal circumstances, we make many small decisions throughout the day and nobody else is the wiser. And any mistakes made usually only impact ourselves. Not now. With public health warnings about the highly contagious nature of COVID-19 and directives to stay at home, it is possible that great minds might differ on what merits a special trip to the store, and if it is worth the shared consequences. How would you categorize running out of popcorn, fixing a (mildly) leaky faucet or needing batteries for the remote? Learning to speak from the feelings underneath the stance you take can help to reduce conflict, e.g. “I’m scared you will get sick and I am willing to do without now so I don’t lose you,” may go over better than “Don’t be an idiot!” Or “I am climbing the walls and don’t want to lash out, so I really need to run an errand” might lead to more understanding and maybe some additional options like taking a drive as compared to “You can’t tell me what to do!”
  • Be patient and don’t intervene unless you really need to. As a kid I always wanted to open the terrarium, wondered if it needed a little more water or an adjustment. I had to learn to watch and trust that it would be okay. And in the family terrarium, especially with fewer demands to keep everyone moving through a hectic schedule, perhaps we can be more patient with each other and see what happens without our intervention first. Maybe someone will actually wash all the dishes in the sink without being told many times over, or will stop fighting with their sibling without adult intervention. If the rules and expectations are clear, maybe people can figure things out. At some point you may need to step in, but it may not be as often as you think.
  • What has already been planted will grow. In the current climate, we will directly encounter the best and worst of ourselves and our family members. Our best habits and the relationships we have cultivated may bear fruit and sustain us. We may have a painful recognition of what has been neglected in our lives and ache for more connection with others or more fulfilling pursuits. Notice what has value under the current circumstances. What is lacking can be planted now for the future.
  • We are all part of the same larger ecosystem. While we have our own family habitats, we also live in shared communities, states and nations and are seeing through this pandemic how closely connected the whole world is, for better and for worse. Perhaps this period of staying at home and tuning into the internal environment will train us to be more aware of how our choices sustain or compromise the external environment that we all share, the terrarium that is our planet and from which we have no other option than to shelter in place.