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  • Writer's pictureMaxime Fern & Michael Johnstone

Adaptation is both fast and slow

Lessons from family life during the Covid-19 world


We were reminded during a webinar with international colleagues, about the power of relationship and how we all are both yearning for connection and somewhat overwhelmed by it.


We also reflected on the arc of change. How adaptation is always with us but progresses unevenly and slowly over time, even though during certain moments, change is evident to us. We are all experiencing some fundamental shifts to our way of life at the moment. Like all adaptation, we have to refashion our adherence to many of the fundamental principles which guide our way of life: for example, personal freedom and liberty, how relationships with others get expressed, and what it means to work.


Whether the current changes are long-lasting is another question. There will be pressure to return to what we were familiar with. There is also emerging pressure to ensure we capitalize on the adjustments occurring now for the betterment of our communities and the globe.

However, the pressures and demands of the now, getting through another day at home, another day in the home-office on zoom, or being a surrogate teacher with small children also hide trends and movements that will only reveal themselves further down the track, with the benefit of time and hindsight. Adaptation is both fast and slow.


Jarod Diamond, in his excellent book Collapse, shows how societies collapsed gradually over generations due to adherence to long-held traditions and practices. He explains, for example, how a rich and vibrant culture on Easter Island slowly disappeared even though some voices tried to point out the degradation the community was inflicting on themselves and their environment. The islander's addiction to the status quo lead to the death of a society.


But the reverse is also true, as David Brookes describes the changing nature of the American family. He helps us understand that what is considered a family is continually evolving, and without taking a longer-term perspective, it is easy to misunderstand and misdiagnose what is happening in society. Keeping perspective is critical.


The nuclear family (two parents with 2-3 children) is a relatively new construct and has been under constant pressure with new forms of family and kinship groups emerging. New forms of the family provide the same functions as the more traditional nuclear unit but are responding to the changing circumstance of society. The family as a basic unit for living has been undergoing adaptation and adjustment for hundreds of years, even though at any particular point in time, it is hard to see the changes, to have any real perspective.

The nuclear family was founded on a particular set of values, which may have varied across communities and countries, but all of which have some typical coding built around affiliation of biology, kinship ties, loyalty, and proximity. But as society changes and other values such as convenience, mobility, independence, and self-fulfillment become more central, the earlier compact was disturbed. When you change one part of the ecosystem, or when you violate the protocol, the whole system changes. The idea of the family has changed underneath us as we all have begun to experience new possibilities and the pressures of daily life. Adaptation in this way is ongoing and slow.


The idea of the family has changed underneath us as we all have begun to experience new possibilities and the pressures of daily life. Adaptation in this way is ongoing and slow.

The current Covid19 crisis is forcing us to spend more time in our family units, whatever form these take. But we all need to reexamine how our family units serve us and what other services and functions are required. Attitudes and processes that were part of pre-coronavirus life are up for grabs as family members are starting to renegotiate how things need to be done in lockdown conditions. Unlike the inhabitants of Easter Island, family members know, at least intuitively, that life during COVID can't remain the same because we spend so many more hours together than before, and this additional time is putting pressure on old ways and behaviors.


We are even more aware of how precious our children and grandchildren are to us now and, because they are spread across the globe, how fragile even the most important relationships can be. Different kinds of attention are required. It is not enough to act as if established ways of interacting are sufficient. We can feel the demands of the Covid19 world requesting some different responses, and yet we are still unsure of what they are. Our family coding and our status quo are disturbed. We can hear and feel it and know adaptation is required from us, from all of us, but knowing which of our current experiments will yield results is difficult. Here our adjustment needs to be fast so we can be together in this new corona world, and we need to allow for slow change as well. And we may not like the results!


We are even more aware of how precious our children and grandchildren are to us now and, because they are spread across the globe, how fragile even the most important relationships can be. Different kinds of attention are required. It is not enough to act as if established ways of interacting are sufficient. We can feel the demands of the Covid19 world requesting some different responses, and yet we are still unsure of what they are. Our family coding and our status quo are disturbed. We can hear and feel it and know adaptation is required from us, from all of us, but knowing which of our current experiments will yield results is difficult. Here our adjustment needs to be fast so we can be together in this new corona world, and we need to allow for slow change as well. And we may not like the results!


We all yearn for connection. Michael certainly does despite his well-developed introverted tendencies. Does this mean his idea of family is evolving? We don't know. We certainly think of our old tribe as part of an extended kinship network that has always mattered even when we paid it no attention. But the current circumstances create pressure and the opportunity to think about what family and kin mean. We need to consider, in adaptive terms, what is precious and needs to be continued and what is no longer required and can be discarded. Our family, in its varied forms and with the usual pressures and tensions of a life of shared experiences and ups and downs, is continually evolving. What is required from us emerges as the circumstances evolve? Divorce of one’s children or close friends , for example, affects not only the couple involved, and their children, but also ripples through the whole family system, and thus we all change in some way.


Our roles change with age and responsibility. We remain a father /mother but have to refashion what shape the role takes, what it means to be a parent now compared to before because your early models are just less relevant now. Our children don't need us in the same way they used to when they were little, and as ourson likes to remind us, we need them more than they need us! He's right, of course, and so the role of who is wise, who has the expertise, who provides care and help, shifts among us all.


There are many stories at the moment about the generosity and kindness of neighbors and strangers as the services usually offered by kin members come from elsewhere. How will this phenomenon impact on our understanding of and expression of family and kin? Perhaps we will forget these Corona experiences, or maybe they will underpin the constant adaptation of this core unit of community and family.


We will not be certain what we are creating until we look back at what we had. Or we could amplify and reinforce new and emerging forms of behavior that give expression to what family and kinship mean rather than what we thought it was supposed to be. In this way, adaptation will continue to be both fast and slow.


What kinds of fast and slow adaptations can you see at the moment? What signs are there that fundamental change is occurring that will be lasting and hopefully for the better? Let us make sure that the Corona world doesn't create another Easter Island.



First published in LinkedIn on 18 May 2020

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