COVID-19 offers many of us a chance for self-reflection

Long-time education expert Charles Pascal says that, if you can, you should use this time of self-isolation to do some deep thinking
By Steve Paikin - Published on Apr 27, 2020
Former deputy minister of education Charles Pascal has been journaling since 1982. (iStock/Cavan Images)



Let’s acknowledge right off the top that what I’m writing about today may be utterly useless if you’ve got young children and are at your wit’s end trying to keep them occupied and healthy during this pandemic. Or if you’re one of the thousands of Ontarians who have to go to work on the front lines.

But, for many, this time of forced isolation (and perhaps unemployment) does offer what may be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reflect and really take stock of one’s life.

Charles Pascal, professor of applied psychology and human development, and special adviser to the dean at the University of Toronto’s Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, suggests that now is the time “to develop ourselves, so we learn lessons to move toward the perfect us — or at least get into the neighbourhood of perfection.”

For going on four decades now, Pascal has been one of this province’s most influential educational advisers. Numerous premiers, from Bill Davis to Kathleen Wynne, have called on him for guidance. In 2007, Dalton McGuinty made Pascal his early childhood education czar, and it was Pascal’s report that led to the implementation of full-day kindergarten, one of Ontario’s most popular and ground-breaking initiatives. Before that, he was deputy minister of education in the 1990s.

Back in 1982, one of Pascal’s colleagues gave him a book on journaling, and, ever since, the professor has been making daily notes on his continued pursuit of four particular goals. He shared them last Friday in a Twitter webinar for the OISE Stay at Home Club. Despite virtually no advance publicity, the speech had 1,000 viewers during its mid-day live-stream, suggesting that there is an appetite for this message.

An early riser, Pascal says he takes time every morning to write something in his journal about his four key focuses: vision, dignity, passion, and setting an example. He reviews the details of his life from the day before and asks himself several questions about whether he reached his potential in those four areas.

“What did I do that connected the dots?” he asks himself on the issue of vision. “Or what wasn’t I particularly smart about?”

Second, “What did I do during the day that reinforced the dignity of the people I live with or work with?” He also forces himself to reckon with the other side of the coin: “Or how didn’t I contribute to it? Could I have done something better?”

Third, “How did I contribute to having fun?” Essentially, did I squeeze every drop out of the lemon that life has to offer, “or did I sabotage my own way?”

And, finally, “Was I a good example to others?”

Pascal told his audience that those were his four core values but that others should take this time to explore what their core values might be. He also urged people to take 15 minutes to write down the names of three to four people who have inspired them, be they family members, friends, teachers, or famous people, living or dead.

“Beside each name, write down why you nominated them. What were the characteristics they had that you found so appealing?”

Pascal has gotten into the habit of doing his journaling each morning, rather than in the evening. He finds he’s less likely to play “the blame game” after a good night’s sleep and has had some time to reflect. He’s been doing this faithfully for 38 years and urges those who can to take advantage of the COVID-19 crisis to do likewise. (Pascal, who turned 76 last week, will share further reflections in Confessions of a Public Servant: Hard Earned Lessons about Leadership, slated for publication this fall).

Practising self-isolation with his wife and 25-year-old daughter in Prince Edward County, Pascal gave his 20-minute talk while wearing a cap with the words “Baseball Guru” over the bill. “I happen to know a lot about the most important part of the human condition — and that’s baseball,” he said, smiling. “And if you want to know more about that, I’d be delighted to talk about that, too.”

I can vouch for him on this. Pascal adores baseball, got a scholarship to play catcher for the University of Michigan Wolverines from 1962 to 1966, and spent six weeks with the Davenport Angels in Iowa’s Quad Cities league in 1966.  He can also tell you seven different ways to get to first base. (I can, too, but it is the mother of all baseball-trivia questions.) 

“Journaling is a high-impact habit,” he told his audience. “It’s a gift you can give yourself.”  

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