Between the earth and the sky

Five and a half months into pandemic-style living, I’m seeing a parade of new memes and advice essays about how to cope. First we helped each other adjust to the sudden change to staying at home and avoiding social contact. Then we engaged in the euphoria of possible pandemic projects – Cleaning baseboards! Making sourdough bread! Learning a new language! That phase didn’t last very long. 

A couple of months ago we sent each other reminders to be gentle with ourselves. This thing we are all going through is stressful and it’s okay to be tired and anxious and overwhelmed. You don’t have to clean your baseboards with a q-tip. (Very glad about that advice since I never started.)

Now, we’re having local and national conversations about how to do very familiar things in a totally different way. School. Elections. Even hurricane evacuations. So five and a half months in, there are some new messages and some recycled messages that help us remind each other to have compassion, to be careful with ourselves and with each other. 

Way back in March, I participated in a webinar called The Psychology of Pandemics. The panel included Steven Taylor, a clinical psychologist who presciently published a book by that title in October 2019. (Can you imagine?) There were a couple of other psychologists on the panel as well and they had some helpful insights. I recently looked over my notes and it was interesting to see how what I heard in March is looking today. 

The first (and at the time most surprising) message was that the psychological foot print of a pandemic is much bigger than the medical or economic effects. I think we are seeing this all around us. Everything from fear to denial, anxiety to anger, depression to resentment. There is stress when we maintain social distance and stress when we try to gather. It’s a no-win situation. 

One of the predicted psychological reactions has played out all spring and summer: pandemic-related racism. It is a common human characteristic to find someone to blame for hard times; it helps us feel in control of a difficult situation if we can think that it isn’t our fault or the scary things can’t happen to us. This tendency is perhaps one reason that that most of our religious and ethical traditions teach us NOT DO IT. But do it we have. People of Asian descent have been targets of increased fear and anger related to COVID-19. People who are experiencing the disease at greater rates – African Americans and Latinx communities, for example – are blamed for their own vulnerability. Essential workers are stigmatized because of their exposure. (This is on top of the racism that already exists and affects daily life – but that’s for another post.)

The panel for the webinar talked about two opposite reactions that we have seen played out in our neighborhoods and on our TVs. One reaction is monitoring; these folks tend to amplify the threat and look for certainty in ways to protect their health and safety. The other reaction is blunting; these folks tend to minimize threats and ignore emotional appeals to follow safety protocols. It is important to note that both of these reactions are attempts to control an uncontrollable situation. Most of us have a little of both in us; both are expected in a crisis situation like the one we are in. 

I am not qualified to give medical or public health advice, and besides there’s plenty out there if that’s what you want. What I can offer is the observation of a pastor who has felt the stress in my own life and walked (distantly!) with those who are feeling overwhelmed by the changes, pressures, and uncertainty this pandemic has wrought. 

Be patient with yourself and those you encounter

Fears for health and safety are stressful and they have been magnified for everyone for an extended period of time – and it isn’t over yet. Change – even positive change – is difficult in the best of times. Schooling your children from home while you are working, having to learn multiple new technology platforms, re-learning familiar tasks like grocery shopping or going to the doctor are stressful all on their own without the compounding factor of disease. 

Even the smallest annoyances or actions might be related to pandemic thinking. A recent list of behaviors related to pandemic and social isolation stress included “doesn’t return/answer messages.” Almost everyone I know who read it was both surprised and relieved to know it wasn’t just them. In the moment, it feels like negligence or laziness – it is, instead, a reaction to being overwhelmed. 

Be patient with yourself and those you encounter. 

Unless you know someone who lived through the 1918 pandemic you won’t know anyone who has been through this before. None of us have been through this before. We can learn from those who have similar experiences – those affected by the AIDS pandemic or the SARS outbreak can teach us about fear and isolation and victim-blaming. For the most part, though, the whole world is building this plane while we are flying it. The lack of knowledge is frightening and leads us to try to fill the void. If leaders in science and government can’t adequately calm our fears, we will look to theories that do. Even if they are false or outlandish or both. Humans hate uncertainty. And yet, we are in an uncertain situation. It’s a hell of a place to be. 

And remember that “those you encounter” now includes virtual encounters. What you “say” can be seen and felt miles away. It can be shared widely. You can send compassion far into the world, or you can send condescension. But it is hard to successfully do both. 

Be patient with yourself and those you encounter. 

Since March, I’ve talked to people who’s faith has been strengthened and those who feel like it is slipping away. Where is God in all this? Whichever camp you fall into, you are not alone. You are not unrealistic to feel closer to God, you are not inadequate to feel abandoned by God. Our spiritual ancestors felt all of these things throughout the centuries and we are feeling them now. 

Be patient with people who are struggling. Be patient with people whose hopefulness seems absurd to you. Struggles and optimism can remind us how much we need each other. Struggles ground us, optimism lifts us. Between the earth and the sky we are all in this messy world together. We are not meant to go it alone. There is a miracle in the ways we have found connection at a time we are physically apart. I believe God is in that connection, the threads holding us together – even when they seem to be fraying.