Ignoring how hard this is doesn’t make it any easier

Feel free to feel how much this sucks

After two months of staying at home, social isolation and social distancing and wearing masks and video calls are getting old. The weather is getting better and we’re through the coldest part of the year, through Lent, and ready to cook out. But we can’t yet. We aren’t out of the woods. But we’re in for a difficult summer because staying at home is becoming more and more against our instincts. We’re tired and the weather’s nice. I get it. We want to hang out. Soon enough the school year will be over and we’ll remember how much we complained about online programming on Google Classroom when are kids have even less to occupy them.

So I’m feeling you. I think it’s super important to feel all the difficulty of this time. I admit I don’t readily do that. And when I don’t I start to have physiological reactions. My body is finally talking back to me: my back hurts. Yes, my posture needs improvement, and yes, I need to use my body more, but I’m also not sleeping well, and I’m holding the stress in my back (I don’t know how to describe where the tension is other than it’s where the tenderloin is on a hog). And if my body is finally talking back to me, there are a lot more feelings that I’m effectively repressing. And I want to give myself permission, and also you, to feel all the trouble you feel during this time. I want to feel the trouble that I’m experiencing, but also the horror of the pandemic itself (which has taken a quarter of a million lives so far). We need to feel it fully because when we don’t, we start acting in ways that I think are negative and destructive, or perhaps even ridiculous.

What happens when we don’t feel our feelings

1. We start conspiring

Maybe this is too simplistic, but when we don’t feel the genuine difficulty of the horror of the pandemic, we start to ignore that it’s a real, actual, tangible threat to our humanity. Covid-19 is a significant existential threat and perhaps the worst one you have faced in your life. The measures that we are taking to hold it back are going to hurt because the reality of the pandemic is that difficult.

When we ignore our immediate difficulty, or we underplay it, or simply note it as an inconvenience without contextualizing it, we are likely to start protesting the stay-at-home orders like certain parts of the country are. Or we might ignore, for example, our governors’ recommendation like my home county (Lebanon, PA), has. Or we might start thinking this whole thing is about something it’s not. We might think this is an attack on the U.S. from China, a worldwide conspiracy, a sign of the end times (as many dispensationalists have already theorized), that the vaccine is just a way to control us, that it has something to do with Bill Gates. Then we start sharing the Plandemic video (which is never viewable when I click it), and we end up allying with white supremacists and anti-immigration activists or something.

Does all of that stuff come from a lack of self-awareness? I don’t think all of it does, but I do think it’s important to get a grip on our own feelings so that we can live in reality otherwise.

2. We start moralizing

This one irks me more than some, but when we don’t feel how difficult this moment is and how horrible this is, we start moralizing about it. We start making this all into a lesson for human improvement. I’ve watched some videos that suggest to us that we’re learning what’s really important now that we are isolated at home. And it’s not like doing puzzles with the kids doesn’t have it merits, and maybe I’ll do more puzzles when this is all over, but it strikes me as tone deaf at best, and offensive at worse, to start simplistically moralizing during this time. And also, I’d go back to how things used to be if it meant we’d get all of the lives back too. Moralizing on top of people’s graves is a self-centered move. And we act in self-centered ways when we aren’t self-aware.

And the same goes for folks who are talking about the relief creation is having during this time. While it’s true that there is less carbon emissions because we are traveling less (and the price of oil is indicative of how low demand is for what was formerly the most important product in the globe), I don’t think we should jump to making this about creation care. Again, a quarter of a million people are dead. If it takes that, and a pandemic to get us to start consuming less, we need another strategy. Moralizing minimizes the horror of the moment. I think we need to feel it.

3. We start shifting blame

When we don’t feel how difficult this is for us personally, and how cataclysmic it is globally, we start to blame one another for our circumstances instead of holding our leaders accountable. Let me say this plainly: it is dangerous to go back to work, but the government, especially the federal government in the U.S., isn’t providing us with the benefits we need to make staying at home easier. Without aid package, suspending mortgages, and more helicopter money, we feel the need to get back to work because of our livelihood. Rather than compelling us to work by not providing for us, the state should be more generous.

There are people who think that the economic cost of this pandemic is greater than the pandemic itself. They think that the stay-at-home orders are hurting us more than the pandemic itself. They think that because their leaders are leading them to, both in word and deed. Just so we’re clear: hundreds of thousands of deaths is bad for the economy whether or not we stay at home or not. The pandemic is the cause of the recession, not the stay-at-home orders. When we don’t feel the totality of the pandemic, we start to think that the real problem is the stay-at-home orders and the oppression we feel from those orders. But let’s contextualize our trouble in the trouble of the pandemic.

4. We allow our pain to trump others’

Finally, when we don’t feel how hard this is, we become less empathetic. Feel your feelings so that you can feel others’ feelings. Yes, staying at home is hard. Yes, Zoom church is difficult. But it’s not the height of difficulty during this time, or even outside of it. Feel your pain, so you can feel others’ pain.

The pain of being socially limited during this time may lead us to be empathetic with people who are socially limited all the time. Those with disabilities, those with hectic lives with young children, those single parents trying to make it all work. Rather than heighten our unprocessed feelings as most important, may we empathize with others during this time, whose experience of life, even, hasn’t changed much.

I’m deeply grateful, and not cynical, about our online church. More people are able to experience God and worship with us because we are online now. I know it’s not “as good” as an in-person meeting, but I know people with disabilities who can’t make it on Sundays. Or people who can’t organize childcare. Or folks that just have other problems. And now they can. My friend told me that she had the most meaningful communion she’s ever had, online! I love that.

We are now more inclusive as a result, and I hope we don’t take that for granted. Let me say this even more clearly: when we loudly complain about how horrible this is for us, we are allowing our privileged position to show. There are people for whom our time of social isolation is an everyday experience. Let’s empathize with them with softened hearts, and not harden ours.

Maybe we can use our pain in this moment to suffer with the people around us who feel it all the time, or the people who are losing loved ones, or folks without health care. Feeling our pain, as counterintuitive as this sounds, allows us to de-center our own experiences because our feelings don’t unconsciously overtake us.

Seize the moment then to feel what you need to feel. And feel for others. Don’t shy away from your feelings, or they might turn into conspiratorial rage, tone-deaf moralization, irrational decisions, or even cold-heartedness toward others.

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