Schools are closed. College students have returned home. Libraries shut their doors. Banks and restaurants are drive-thru only. Government guidelines limit groups to ten or fewer. We’re told to practice “social distancing” to slow the spread of the virus. We might be distancing from the rest of the world, but that means a new level of closeness with our families at home. After only a few days, social distancing is feeling pretty antisocial and crowded. We’re crammed together like a school of salmon swimming upstream to spawn and die. I might not eat sardines again for a while after this is over because of the close-packed inference. If we’re already feeling the effects of cabin fever, what will it look like a month from now?
To make the most of this season, we need some tips and strategies to fight cabin fever that aren’t just about survival, but about winning, about coming out of it stronger as a family than before. How do we do this? Let’s start with an example.
Fighting Cabin Fever
In August of 1914, Sir Ernest Shackleton and his twenty-seven crew members set sail to become the first people to cross the continent of Antarctica. After many weeks of sailing and stopping for provisions, they finally had land in sight. They started through the ice toward their landing spot, and that’s when everything turned for the worse. The temperature changed, the current shifted, the wind picked up, and the ice, formerly fluid and free-flowing, now froze their ship in place. So they waited, and waited, and waited some more. Days turned into weeks. Weeks turned into months. Winter arrived in full force and the reality settled in that they would be there a while. What started as an expedition had now become a survival mission, as those men would spend the next two years stranded in Antarctica, the most “socially distant” place on earth.
Routine: The Key to Survival
Shackleton knew that if they were going to survive they had to be careful with food and shelter. Those were critical. But there was something more sinister than starvation: “of all the enemies—the cold, the ice, the sea—he feared none more than demoralization.” Shackleton employed two key strategies to keep his crew from succumbing to cabin fever: The first was optimism, which Shackleton had plenty of. His vigor and belief in life were infectious to all who spent time around him. He was absolutely convinced that they would survive and kept passing this belief on to the rest of the crew.
The second was busyness. Minds tended to tumble toward the worst outcome when idle. Shackleton knew that without something to do, people lose a sense of purpose and lose heart and enthusiasm for life. He set about creating structure and routine to keep his crew busy. He assigned jobs: Some cared for the sled dogs and their harnessing. Others inspected the ship for leaks or areas that needed repair. Everyone had a time slot to be on lookout for open water or land and to track their movement. Others went on seal hunts to supplement their dwindling food stores.
But it wasn’t all work. He also kept them busy organizing dog sled races, hockey tournaments, nightly card games, and chess competitions. There were weekly lectures on various topics to enrich the mind. Most nights involved the public reading of various books. And then there were the special holiday celebrations when shows or ceremonies were performed full of music, plays, and dancing. All of this lead to the crew not just surviving, but flourishing.
Routines for your Family
It’s astonishing how quickly a family can slip into boredom and despair without a sense of direction or purpose. This can wear on Mom and Dad and lead to everyone getting short with one another. Shackleton knew he needed to take the lead to build a routine and sense of purpose for his men, and as parents, we can too.
Start with a Family Meeting
We have kids ranging in age from first grade to a sophomore in high school, and we wanted to be sure each child had a chance to chime in and feel a part of the process. So we started by having a family meeting and asking what everyone wanted to do on a normal day. After that, I built a schedule and tried to include as many of the things mentioned as possible.
One of the best things we do is start each morning together with a big breakfast. This helps us all connect and talk about the day. It also helps ensure the kids are full and aren’t stopping to snack all morning. Then we have a clear start time for school so that we jump right on it and not let it drag out. Having set hours for school also help helps Mom and Dad know the clear windows we have to get our work done.
Right before lunch, we have our first “recess.” We all get out and move around together for at least 15 minutes. This looks different every day. Sometimes it’s bike riding. Sometimes it’s push-ups and pull-ups in the garage. Sometimes it’s a walk down the street or just goofing around in the yard. Sometimes it’s kickball. Yesterday our oldest built a small bike course through our yard and a neighbor’s yard with jumps and obstacles. He made it so the younger kids could go around any obstacle too difficult for them. Then we raced for time. I won’t say who won every single time (not Dad). After that, we have lunch and then reading time. Everyone reads for an hour (or continues school). After that, we might do an activity for younger kids like art or write a letter to family or friends. Then it becomes free time/playtime/until our second ‘recess’ just before the evening meal. Again, the goal is to just move around, whether inside or outside. Mom and Dad squeeze in work when everyone else is working and quiet – or we trade off on being “point person” with the kids while the other works.
Filling in the Gaps
We’ve also made a list of other activities we can do to help fill in the gaps:
Choose a day for chores—we do some laundry and vacuuming.
Most days I find an interesting or educational video to watch as a family in the late afternoon.
Sometimes our younger kids put on a ‘show’ for us.
Try getting down on the floor and wrestling some with them. I’ve survived so far. It doesn’t have to be long. Just a few minutes is enough to break up the monotony of the day.
If you live near any parks where you can keep distance from others, try to go out for a hike one day a week. We’ve seen some beautiful parts of our state for the first time this week, even though we’ve lived here for over fifteen years.
You might see if there are online classes for one or all of the family to take. Learn a new instrument, or language (I’ve used the Duolingo app), or painting, or leadership skills (Masterclass). Or maybe there’s a topic related to your faith you’ve wanted to learn more about (MasterLectures).
If cash is tight in this season, try swapping puzzles with neighbors or swapping board games to try something new and save some money.
If you’re saving money on gas and eating out, try to bring a little surprise to life: maybe buy a lego or book or toy for each kid and bring it out as a surprise when they are especially bored.
Play Music Together
Try to find time to play music together once a week. Pick a night to make it your family worship night. Whoever has the best musical ability, have that person lead everything, choose the songs, etc. If you’re not musical at all, then you can play Seeds Videos and sing along with those. Seeds also has guitar chord charts for all the 20-in-2020 songs.
At our house, we encourage all the kids to get involved with the music; we hand out drums, tambourines, recorders, two sticks, pots and pans, whatever we can find that makes noise. But to keep it from turning into utter chaos, I put a few rules in place. I make sure everyone knows who the clear leader is. That’s the person we all follow, so it’s important not to play your instrument louder or sing louder than the leader. That might give us a chance of staying on beat and in tune. This also gives freedom for the youngest to enjoy ‘drumming’ without anyone having to depend on him keeping a rhythm. I’ve always loved this about worship at home—it really becomes a full family experience and the kids get a chance to be involved. Most churches have a polished and professional band full of skilled musicians, which is a must for leading a church full of people, but it can also feel more like a concert than a worship service sometimes. At home, the kids get a chance to play around and have fun and we don’t have to worry about it being professional.
Recalibrate to a New Normal
Some days you’ll have a great schedule. Sometime it will fall apart right from the start. The reality is our lives have been interrupted and it’s going to take some time to recalibrate and find a new normal. This is the first pandemic any of us have ever experienced, so give yourself some grace through it all. We’re all early into this new phase, and we’ve learned much along the way, but we might be here for a while still. I also realize that everyone else is going through the same thing. No one is accomplishing as much as they were a week ago, so if you’re feeling worthless for not getting as much work done, remember that part of your work now is to figure out a new approach to daily life.
Keep Things in Perspective
I read a post on social media along these lines: “If I hear one more person complain about being ‘stuck in the house with my family,’ I’m going to scream. I would give anything to be in the house with my husband again since he passed away earlier this year.” Ouch. That was a reality check I needed to hear. It’s easy to complain in the moment, but how can we take a step back and view the situation from a different perspective? Think of how you might look back on this a year from now. We have a chance to create some rich memories together if we take the lead with our family.
The men stuck on the ice with Shackleton looked back on those experiences as some of the greatest and hardest days of their lives. But even in the midst of the struggle to survive, they found moments of gratitude. After a particularly intense day of trying to provide the basic necessities of life, one wrote in his journal, “What an ingrate I have been for such jobs when done for me at home.” Another said, “One of the finest days we have ever had… a pleasure to be alive.”
Even though we’ll likely face real challenges in the coming days, let’s continue to pray for perseverance, kindness, and patience with one another (Colossians 3:12-17) and apply some of that resolute optimism Shackleton had to believe they would make it through.
Hold on to the Essentials
When it came time to abandon the ship that was crushed beyond repair, the crew had to make hard choices about what to take and what to leave behind. Everyone had to give up something because there was only so much one could drag across the ice. Shackleton set the example by taking his most treasured items from the boat and dropping them on the ice in front of the crew. He tossed some gold coins on the ground, also a gold pocket case, and then he held up the Bible the queen mother of England had inscribed and given to the expedition. In it she had written, “May you see the works of the Lord & all His wonders in the deep.” Before setting it down on the ice, Shackleton tore that page from the Bible. Then he tore out Psalm 23, and then a page from the book of Job with the verse: “From whose womb did the ice come forth? And who has given birth to the frost of heaven? The water becomes hard like stone, and the face of the deep is frozen.” He put the pages in his chest pocket, and on they went.
Don’t forget that in this season of change and sacrifice, a season that will require we act differently than before, don’t forget to hold on to the essentials of God’s word. Let Psalm 23 remind you, as it did Shackleton, “He restores my soul. He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.” And also remember that if Shackleton and every single member of his crew could survive two years stranded in Antarctica, we have a chance of making it through the coming days of our own isolation.
Quotes in the Shackleton story from the book Endurance by Alfred Lansing, p. 87 & 89