Sahana Arun Kumar

Elephant in the Room

In R. J. Pallacio's Wonder, one of Mr. Brown's precepts goes as follows: "When given the choice between being right and being kind, choose kind." It means to appreciate that everyone has a history, and their present is a product of their struggles, either active or passive. What we say then could come from kindness or a point to be proven. It is with the people we live with and see everyday, whose histories we recognise, that we don't always shy from being brutally honest. Now, while we're all stuck at home, wondering when the end is in sight for Covid-19, what would kindness look like?

Social distancing means physical coexistence at home. Prior to the pandemic, a home worked well through the optimum avoidance of each other, in the form of sleep and professional engagements. Children spent time in school till midday, spouses were at work till evening, and if one was working, the other had complete control over the house. There were parties and social gatherings to attend, that limited the amount of family time. Now, however, love is not simply about who you carry in mind when you're away, but feelings that emerge in the physical presence of the other. With nowhere to go, we are faced with the permanent people in our everyday, not only in thought, but in visceral, sensorial experience. And the experience isn't only one of relief and stability, as in returning home from a long day to the arms of familiarity and comfort. New facets to the same people are being forced on us - the habits they developed in our absence, their forgotten quirks we can't relate to anymore, their eccentricities that we may find unnerving as we've evolved. They exceed our expectations like they hadn't in so long, overwhelm our senses with their totality that we had merrily forgotten, much like we overload them with our totalities. It is an experience of (re)discovering too much. They are everywhere, in their total existence!

When we live at home all twenty four hours of a day, every day, we see a lot more. The house no longer operates backstage, and the drama of what makes the house tick unfolds before our eyes. From cooking, cleaning, washing, to billing, repairing, and decision making, all are part of an established smooth running system. With the pandemic, we have had to give up the luxuries of outsourcing housework, and house members have pitched in to run a house together. Those who remain home on a daily basis are as distraught with a house full of people, as those who leave the house for a few hours everyday. Each one's usual routine looks starkly different now, unfurling within the confines of a single house. We are in each other's way. We all think we know better. There ensues impatience and restlessness and some blunt exchanges. After a showdown with the household members, where do we go to cool off? Where are the distractions of space? The heaviness of the argument and the bitter words exchanged hang in the air, a palpable elephant in the room.

Earlier, we had developed a way of coexisting, together and apart, respecting our individual and collective spaces. We were content with their eternal presence in our life, that gave us our space to be. We could reach out to them when we needed, and not bother about anything beyond that which was necessary for love. We were sometimes kinder by staying out of the way. But the lock down has changed life, and the meaning of coexistence. How does one remain kind while feeling frustrated and trapped?

Real relationships are with real people, with the good and the bad, the beautiful and the ugly, the sorted and the messy, the hidden and the revealed elephants in the room. We are total beings, with flaws and imperfections, kinks and oddities. Conversations we worked hard to avoid through our everyday routines and by surrounding ourselves with validation and positivity, are now exposed. Living with others means having to figure out boundaries between who I am with them, and who I am without them.

Being with real people in the house invites a process of being with our internal realities. Faced with the real, we have to face the real within. The more we embrace our present, the deeper we reflect on ourselves, and the more we face our shadows. And it's these messy, disorganised, unresolved sides that cannot be silenced anymore. In the stillness of current life, the repetition of days, the endlessness of time, our minds are uneasy, and thirsty for stimulation within. There is nowhere to run from our darkness anymore. Those parts invite censure, and strong feelings towards ourselves. We are harsh, inflexible, and punitive about our mistakes. How can we resist being real with ourselves, if we are forced to reckon with the real relationships around us?

And being real is difficult. Sometimes impossible.

Which brings me back to Mr. Brown's precept. While the right thing may be to psychically undo the past, to break the pattern, to change the result, it is setting us up for failure. It happened, and it cannot be unwritten. But can it be acknowledged, remembered, even forgiven? Forgiveness, without necessarily forgetting. Compassion is to acknowledge the non-linearity of our life cycle and engage with the ensuing feelings. It is to take responsibility for change, and begin the process of learning from the experience. You have a choice - to keep pretending like the shadows don't exist, or to engage with the process and change. The lockdown has given us the golden opportunity to stop time and reflect on where we are, and how we would like to move forward. We have the choice to take forward and leave behind.

Coexistence is the coexistence of the paradoxes of life. Hate blooms in the same place as love. Anger comes from disappointment in love. Courage emerges in vulnerability and fear. Strength emerges from weakness. Can utilise this time? Can we take responsibility for what happened, for change? Can we take responsibility for ourselves? The difference between admonishing ourselves and holding ourselves accountable, is kindness. If we can acknowledge our own history and its bearing on our present, we can acknowledge our humanity - that we are not meant to be perfect. Our past is beyond us, and our present is now. How do we want to move into our future: by being right or by being kind?


Sahana Arun Kumar works as a psychotherapist with children, adolescents and young people, in New Delhi. In her spare time she enjoys working out, pursuing classical dance, and singing with her friends. She is hopeful that the pandemic has brought a change for the good in the world, and wishes to be kinder to herself and her world. Instagram: