Perhaps the most crucial gift that culture can give us at this point in time is to remind us of our intrinsic resilience as human beings.
The COVID-19 pandemic is here to stay, at least for the foreseeable future. But while the uncertainty that surrounds it may be tough to deal with, Matthew Bartolo, counsellor and founder of online therapy platform Willingness Team, is quick to offer some advice on how to remain psychologically afloat during this trying time.
And experiencing arts and culture can play a big part in our ongoing efforts to remain level-headed and internally coherent while we hunker down to wait for the storm to pass… but let’s get through some of the more immediate concerns before getting to all that.
“First, we have to acknowledge that yes, all of this uncertainty causes anxiety for many of us,” Bartolo says. “We don’t know how long the virus will remain among us, and neither do we know what the world will be like once all of this is over. But there’s also an uncertainty on a more fundamental level, since we’ve been told that we may end up getting infected without even knowing it. So, we’re not even sure who to trust anymore…”
It’s no stretch to imagine how such a state of mind could foment widespread feelings of alienation and loneliness. Bartolo cautions against allowing such a headspace to fester, flagging up the free-of-charge online services offered by Willingness Team themselves, while also stressing the importance of remaining in touch with our loved ones, all the while still following the physical distancing protocols put into place.
“It’s worth remembering that Prof. Charmaine Gauci says that we should practice physical distancing and not social alienation. We are social animals, so we have an intrinsic need to spend time connecting with others.” Though all forms of communication are valid, Bartolo states that video calls are the most psychologically beneficial, since they offer the ‘next best thing’ in the absence of ‘real-life’ face to face contact.
“Looking each other ‘in the eyes’ is very important at times like these,” Bartolo says, bringing into focus the importance of empathy – not just as a social obligation but also as a salve against the worst psychological dangers we face right now, loneliness being chief among them.
Beyond the intimate sphere of our friends and family, Bartolo says that one can also find solace in helping their wider community, since “the act of helping others is very psychologically beneficial”.
But apart from the very real interpersonal dynamics that can come to our aid, the various fields of art and culture can also provide a legitimate mental uplift during the COVID-19 crisis.
“Through culture and the arts, society externalises what it is feeling and going through. This is why I believe that artists have a very important role to play, at any given point in time, but even more so now,” Bartolo says, adding that the arts can give vent to our fears while also offering hope. But perhaps the most crucial gift that culture can give us at this point in time is to remind us of our intrinsic resilience as human beings. “Art and culture can be used to remind us, that as a nation we have been through similar, if not worse times, such as the plague, the Great Siege, and others,” Bartolo says.
"We have hindsight and precedent on our side, because the way we’ve dealt with these episodes mirrors what we’re asked to do right now: pool our resources, come together and do whatever it takes to survive as a collective. Our cultural experiences can remind us of this.”
To this end, Bartolo offers some direct, categorical advice: “Ditch the scaremongering social media groups overwhelming your feeds with statistics and stories that increase your fear and anxiety. Instead, cast your attention to groups and platforms that are streaming performing arts, shows, or any other kind of cultural productions”.
Annabelle Stivala, director of Festivals Malta explained “This is exactly why Festivals Malta decided to step up. We have just launched the Għanafest Online Festival with an exciting programme of activities, competitions, music, workshops a culinary segment with a local celebrity chef and much more. With plans in development for a street festival various broadcasts on national television and an online version of The Malta International Arts Festival and The Malta Jazz Festival, the summer season is still packed with events, they’re just of a different format than we’re normally used to!”
If you’re in need of support or you need to talk to someone reach out to The Willingness Team on https://www.facebook.com/willingness.com.mt/ or www.willingness.com.mt