Christian Formation at a Time of Coronavirus
The Christian faith offers tremendous support and help in the midst of the coronavirus crisis. No doubt Easter sermons will be full of rich theological messages uniquely for this time but fully in touch with Christian realities. Many Christian writers and bloggers have referenced the exile and the adaptations to worship practices void of a gathered service in the Jerusalem temple. Some spiritual leaders have spoken to lenten practices of going without, and longing for that which will be one day soon fulfilled. Other themes include: Old Testament experiences of wilderness, the longings of Paul in prison to be alongside the communities he so loved, and the promise of Jesus to be with us in the power of the Holy Spirit. Many are drawn to the Psalms, written in times of uncertainty and fear, but that look to the promise of God’s strength, like a fortress, during grave circumstances. As so much of our reality seems to be shifting, we are looking to the security in which we stand. For me I find special meaning in Paul’s message before the Areopagus (Acts 17:28): ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’
The general Christian framework is one of connectedness to the world, and in the west we now find ourselves with a level of uncertainty and reliance on others that is more akin to wider global experience. Even this modicum of insight is useful as we consider the worldwide church. Realising that we are not as secure as we think we are, and we are all highly dependent on the support of others, are beneficial realities for our shared life and faith.
I find myself drawn to the contemplative tradition during this time; to the saints who learned in solitude the central realities they could not find in the reassurances of society or the distractions of the world. The contemplative tradition also offers all the tools of mindfulness, developed hundreds of years before it was trendy. Deep breathing (the Jesus Prayer), centering prayer, and and an attention to the body (Ignatian Spirituality) are all found within. Websites are encouraging such practices to get through this ordeal, and I find the experience richer when it exists under God who lovingly created the mind, the body, and who has a deep intention for our good.
Within contemplative spirituality I find particularly the desert tradition has much to aid those social distancing and in isolation. Rowan Williams little book ‘Silence and Honey Cakes’ has been a great help to me personally during this time. In it he references the Desert Father’s approach to ‘staying’ and not ‘fleeing’ from difficulties. For the desert fathers the staying was voluntary, not imposed, but the learning is the same. He also explores the powerful phrase coming out of the desert tradition ‘your cell will teach you everything’, the cell being the small dorm room of novice monks. All the anxieties, all the fears, all the guilt, they first exist inside the mind and heart. It is a theological and emotional task to ‘stay’ and make peace with these difficult emotions in the context of a relationship with a loving spiritual father. Once that internal transformation has begun we can be far more useful to God and others.
We all know that the Christian faith does not promise an easy life or a magical fix when times becomes hard. We do believe, however, that within the Christian promise is the space to make sense of reality, to provide us with a framework that both informs and speaks to our anxieties, offering acceptance and a new way of being. There was a time in church where I would hear a lot about ‘the now and the not yet’ of the Kingdom of God. Whereas I understand the theology, the concept never sat well with me from the perspective of Christian formation. I always felt that it rather minimised and denigrated the value of the life we can live on this earth, where the imperfections and frustrations provide opportunities for personal development and social transformation. The task for the Christian is not to pine for an ideal that is not yet here, but to use every part of the reality we are given today to learn and mature, and to let our Christian faith be the primary guide in all of this. In that way we are most able to be stewards of hope and signposts to the Kingdom.
Further Thoughts from Psychotherapy
As a psychotherapist sharing in this experience of the coronavirus, I have been reflecting on what I might be able to offer clergy and those offering pastoral care based on my own understanding based upon theory and clinical experience. There are many good resources out there to cope, but I want to emphasise that what is being asked of the nation and the world at this time is extremely demanding emotionally. If it feels very hard, that is because it is very hard. If we are anxious, stressed, overwhelmed and feeling guilty, that is because this crisis has brought profound levels of these emotions into our lives. Knowing and understanding the anxieties around us is a means to greater awareness, and it allows for the capacity to take back our personal agency in the midst of corporate fear. Like with the desert fathers, who were themselves coping with radical change, if we understand for ourselves what is happening internally then we can know how best to manage and be useful amidst the external stressors that come. Below is a framework for thinking about the crisis and our emotional responses.
We all defend against intense anxiety, and we do this in different ways. We may try to order our surroundings when everything else feels disordered, or attempt to exercise control in circumstances that feel out of control. We may intellectualise or become philosophical, distancing ourselves from the feelings but still speaking wise words. Many of us will blame others who we perceive to be the source of our anxiety, locating the problem in them so that we can feel more secure. Some may minimise or deny the anxiety exists in the first place, or attempt to reverse it and say that it is actually a very good thing without acknowledging the pain. We all have our defences against anxiety, and many of these defences will be contrary to those around us. This can lead to frustration and conflict.
All defences are attempts to lessen the feelings of anxiety. Many of them can function to improve situations, and others can make issues worse. Intellectualising can help create a long-term ethos and strategy, but it can also be a tool to distance someone from the immediacy of someone’s suffering and pain. Seeking to immediately solve and improve someone's suffering can help in the short term, but people can become quickly overstretched, exhausted and vulnerable themselves. Denying the anxiety can get a person over the first hurdle, but then they face the problem with even more severity down the road. Even ‘healthy’ management of anxiety is still a defence against it, and perhaps that knowledge can lead to greater compassion and understanding.
We all have our defences for a reason, and they help us manage much of the challenges of life. The task is to be able to understand and tolerate the anxiety enough to recover your thinking mind. Panic is only useful when someone is in immediate mortal danger. Reactivity is necessary in the short term. With situations like coronavirus each one of us needs a more thoughtful approach, otherwise we become trapped in hyper-vigilance and fear.
Anxiety Needs to be Contained in Order to be Made Useful.
In order to reduce anxiety, there must be something or someone to explain with clarity what is happening. When anxiety is ‘contained’ in this way we can recover our thinking mind. With Coronavirus there are many ways in which the anxiety is not currently able to be completely contained. Just knowing this can help. There is dispute internationally about the best techniques and approaches (face masks, testing, severity of lock-down measures). There is no clarity about the scale of how big the problem will become, and if the resources (hospital beds, ventilators) can be scaled up to meet the problems. On the news we are given the deaths per day per country, but unlike with singular disasters or a terrorist attack, we do not hear many of the life stories behind the statistics, or see the families mourning. This has started to change, allowing us greater perspective so that we can more easily take in and understand the crisis emotionally. Some media outlets will only work to heighten our anxiety, and we need to limit ourselves from such environments. Those on the frontline, and those who are directly affected through the loss of loved ones, experience a very different story. The problem is that for the majority of people who are social distancing, we don’t have access to that front-line reality to then understand what is being managed and what isn’t. This increases the sense of anxiety, even as we are so grateful to the NHS and everyone making a difference.
Life has Become Harder to Manage
Many of the means by which we typically process our anxieties through close relationships have stopped or been serious limited. The closing of schools, and the pressures of home-schooling are immense. The same is true for home working. Families where there was already emotional strain, and where leaving the house contributed to a release of frustration, now find themselves doubly-stressed. I predict that divorce rates will go up post coronavirus, and more needs to be done for families. Of course those on their own suffer just as greatly. We all have lost the patterns of work, travel, or social activities which communicates a confidence that life goes on with reliability. We are feeling much more vulnerable, and also more suspicious. This further fuels the worry and leads us to feel concerned that our anxieties could be reliably understood, addressed, and contained.
We have had to become immediately adaptable to these changes, but human beings don’t work like that. It is always necessary to mourn our losses in order to take up a new reality, and this takes time. The inability to work through these changes is a major blow to our capacity to think, and to respond well to our challenges.
Many of us are faced with an uncertainty about how extreme our responses should be to the threats around us. Should I stockpile? Should I wear a facemark? Should I stay up till midnight to get the few remaining online shop orders, and is that stealing from others who need it more than me? Should I move in with loved ones or does that put them at risk? Should I help locally even though my family members are over 70? The list goes on. Alongside these anxieties is also tremendous guilt: guilt that we may be breaking government guidance by pausing to talk to neighbours; guilt that we have plenty when another person may be in need; guilt we may walk, run or cycle beyond what is seen as reasonable for daily exercise; guilt that our actions may be infecting another and ultimately leading to strain on the NHS or death.
This guilt, it seems, is inescapable as any walk or trip to the shop may put someone within 2 meters of another, and as most people will have some basic proximity to someone who may be vulnerable. We are always weighing up what is essential versus what is good for our wellbeing, and that isn’t clear. Most of us also fundamentally want to perceive ourselves as good people and unselfish. Because of this it matters to us that we may infect or be infected, and so we maintain the general social distancing guidelines.
It is my sense that much of the communication we receive in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic acts to exacerbate these feelings of anxiety and guilt. Anxiety is a bit like an electric current. It is very unpleasant to feel, and it seeks to be discharged from one person or organisation into someone or something else. I believe the hundreds of emails explaining that organisations are still ‘working hard for us’ have a quality of sending anxiety from the organisation to the service users. Likewise, the information from the government not only provides essential guidance, put also plays into our feelings of guilt as a means to control. This is all very understandable as the goal is to save lives, not help us cope emotionally.
Recovering the Capacity to Think
In these unsettling times it is very difficult to keep our own minds. The feelings of uncertainty, the imposed restrictions of social distancing and grave (albeit necessary) messages from the government, create strong feelings of compliance. This isn’t unlike the institutionalisation of prisoners or long-term hospital patients. It is very important, however, to remember that we each have our own minds, that all of our circumstances are unique and our challenges personal as well as corporate. In the face of national ‘compliance’ we need to also maintain our individual thinking selves. This allows for us to be most useful and able to cope with our own challenges, and to be most supportive in the environments around us.
It is not disloyal to exercise your own thoughts and ideas, and it rather means we can work within the corporate framework in a more intentionally and deliberate way. Again I am not suggesting that we break any of the government guidance in order to ‘be free’. I am suggesting rather that we let the seat of decision-making rest within our own self. There are guilty and anxious feelings on all sides, and it is our thinking self that needs to weigh what is right for our given situation. We make judgements for ourselves in terms of how we use the time, how we get and share our food, how we connect with friends, family and colleagues, how we help others in the midst of the crisis. For many, the coronavirus will become an opportunity to play an important part in the lives of others, to be a good citizen, to grow much deeper in relationships and to learn about ourselves, but only if we maintain our thinking minds can we allow fully for these opportunities to happen.
Psychotherapy speaks of the ‘super-ego’, and other psychological traditions describe of an internalised ‘critical parent’ or ‘critical faculty’. These are voices and pressures which began from outside the individual, and demand compliance to a certain ideal. Sometimes the pressures and expectations from this super-ego can be so great that it removes any capacity to really weigh what is right, and to think for ourselves. The way in which top-down restrictions are coming to society plays into this dynamic of compliance, instead of individual decision making. We need to be aware of this.
It is Unhelpful to Call this Crisis ‘Unprecedented’
Calling the outbreak ‘unprecedented’ is both right and wrong. It is right because we have never had a universal pandemic at a time of such technological globally connectivity, and where we are able to organise and manage resources at such a scale. It is wrong to call this ‘unprecedented’ however because there have been many wide-reaching pandemics before. Only 30 years ago the HIV/AIDS pandemic decimated the whole community of gay men in the west, and we are too quick to forget this. European colonisation brought severe illness to indigenous communities of every inhabited continent. There is much precedent for pandemics. Calling it ‘unprecedented’ only increases the sense of anxiety. The world has faced these circumstances before.
It is also ‘precedented’ because all of us will have previously faced into circumstances of overwhelming fear or anxiety. All of us will have some framework for social-distancing, and concerns about scarcity. The circumstances will be different of course, but we all have resilience and coping strategies for such anxieties as they come up. It is important to be in touch with these strategies and to understand them.
Some people feel they have been practicing social-distancing for some time. They may feel excluded emotionally, have a chronic illness, or they may believe they ‘damage’ others through interactions and closeness. The coronavirus brings all of these emotions to the fore, and these feelings can be thought about in a more objective way as everyone faces into them. For those offering pastoral care to others who are struggling, it can be useful to explore why they choose particular coping strategies, and what memories come up for individuals around self-isolation, social-distancing and experiencing a scarcity of resources. By exploring these things people can then consider new possibilities for themselves and in their relationships. With coronavirus there is also a profound reaching out to others in relationship, even relationships that were previously estranged. This can be an opportunity for repair and restoration.
This crisis will be an upside-down time for many people. Individuals who have had to cope with isolation for years, or scarcity of resources, may take the coronavirus crisis in stride. Others who are not used to such anxiety, loss, or suffering may struggle greatly. It can be very scary when a person is used to reliably controlling their environment, and finding success in what they do, to suddenly be so crippled by an outside threat. And of course there are real life issues with so many having lost their jobs, with basic services at full stretch, and with the death count rising.
So how do we cope in this time of crisis? These are my suggestions:
Allow for the Anxiety
Everyone is finding this hard, and for good reason. Telling yourself that ‘it isn’t so bad’ or that ‘others are suffering more’ may bring perspective, but it also minimises and denies real feelings. Those real feelings are valid within themselves, and can be understood and processed in relationships with mature friends and family, creating closeness and trust. The anxieties can then be worked through, enabling a greater capacity to think and respond.
The guilt, anxiety, disappointments, and new ways of working with others, creates a very complex set of challenges for each person. Avoid trying to make it more simple, because it isn’t.
Register your Losses
There are also so many losses associated with the current crisis for each individual. These can include loss of income, loss of job, and loss of loved ones. There are also more generalised losses such as a loss of reliable patterns, and loss of trust in a system to keep us safe from anxiety. We all feel more vulnerable because of this outbreak. It is important to register your losses, and to mourn them. Finding individuals were you can be honest about such feelings is important.
Celebrate the Good
This is not only a time for anxiety, and many have been able to relate to their loved ones in close and intimate ways. We are all remembering what is most important to us in this time. There is something about the crisis that has us all reaching out. We may also discover inner resources during this time, which can increase confidence. Some of us may make new friends and find ways to help in our communities. Some of us will find new methods of cultivating stillness, creativity, prayer, and other valuable competencies. Many have commented on the reduction in pollution, the sense of global cooperation, and the way in which we are all getting more adept at using technology to communicate. Some of lessons learnt during social distancing may improve our wellbeing and social cohesion after the outbreak is over.
We need to keep our own thinking minds in the midst of this corporate crisis. We also need to know that there will be a time when coronavirus will not be a major threat. The world will no doubt be different in several months time, but we will return to work, school, and normal socialising. It is important to know that there will be an endpoint to the crisis, and that in the meantime we can continue to grow, relate, and help where we can.
Ensure Sufficient Support
With all these things it is important to find relationships that enable the processing of difficult and confusing emotions, and that aid personal growth. These relationships may not be in your physical home, they may be over the phone or online. Online platforms are more limited when it comes to real contact and support, but they can still bring something very valuable during these difficult times. For those both giving and receiving emotional care online or over the phone, the environment is important. Make sure you have a private and comfortable space that minimises distractions. Ordinary interactions are also vital during this time. Some are taking to shared youtube workouts, playing boardgames over Zoom, and even singing of Skype. These too are a gift and help us as we carry on being ourselves, and being in our relationships with others.