The Wake Up Call
Coronavirus and Mental Health - The Collective ‘Wake-up call’
The collective experience of the Coronavirus is the experience of a collective change, a collective global struggle. There is nothing good about the situation we all face but if we learn from this experience, learn to face ourselves, then maybe some good can come from it.
We are all in this together and as such it might be viewed as a collective rite of passage, a time of change, from experiencing the world as it used to be, into another, new and unknown world. Unprecedented in our time, affecting all populations, the coronavirus has the potential to bring about transformation leading to new ways of thinking, behaving and new ways of interacting with others. But as in all things, change begins with us as individuals. Is this crisis our collective and personal ‘wake-up call?’
In considering the idea of transformation, the French anthropologist Arnold van Gennep coined the term ‘rites of passage’ and described three emotional stages leading to transformation. These were: ‘separation’, ‘transition’, and ‘incorporation’. Many ‘rites of passage’ are associated with biological milestones such as reproduction, birth, maturation and death, changes which impact upon our social relationships, our perceived and actual place in the world, and our world view. Other milestones involve cultural, religious, political and economic factors.
The initial state of ‘separation’ is the way many of us are experiencing life at the moment. We have seen changing work circumstances, social isolation, financial insecurity, family separation, bereavement, illnesses and lockdown. We are separated from our ‘usual’ working lives and our ‘usual’ roles. As this happens our sense of self, our usual way of being and our identity is being displaced, leading to many experiencing feelings of anxiety and depression. As our values and expectations shift, we are needing to adopt new values and take on new responsibilities. We have lost the world we knew, and we are crossing a divide to enter a world we do not yet know.
The separations we are experiencing now are causing us to rethink how we do life. Our inability to control our environment, along with our need to adapt and change, as well as feelings of anxiety, fear, depression and profound sadness, may trigger old reactive habits. Whilst to fear is normal, and our fears are real, how do we manage our extreme reactions, catastrophic thinking, and reactive moods leaking out into every other encounter we experience? Our fear reactions (as opposed to responses) are often rooted and learnt in childhood, during earlier life experiences, when the situations we faced caused us to feel emotionally overwhelmed and powerlessness. As William Faulkner noticed and remarked, “The past isn’t dead, it isn’t even past”.
Our current fears may cause us to react as we did back then, in childhood, triggering historic patterns of panic, rage or numbness and blankness, and leave us feeling the need to ‘get out of [our] skin’. As our old protections no longer work for us in adult life, we may also experience a sense of internal shame and guilt at reacting in ways that feel alien to our authentic selves. Shame and guilt may cause us to seek desperate solutions including turning to substances, addictions, self-harm, risky behaviour, distractions and the insistence that others come to our rescue. We may find ourselves interpreting the whole of life negatively, talking negatively to ourselves and to others. We might find ourselves taking it out on those around us. Our attempts to push away our emotions will lead to our continued sense of being overwhelmed and feeling powerless.
Catastrophic thinking, and reacting, is often rooted in the fears we felt back then when we had little or no control, when we were victims to our circumstances and when we were powerless. However, as the adults we are today we are able to access more resources, find more resilience and engage in using new skills to help us cope. We are no longer powerless, even though it may feel that way. We are no longer helpless even if we think we are. Social distancing along with self-isolation is the opportunity to make better friends with ourselves and consider our personal histories, that led to our fearful limiting reactions.
We can find other ways of coping and caring for ourselves! To help yourself, do what you normally do in terms of creative arts. If you meditate, do that. If you draw, draw. If you enjoy creative writing or want to start, then do that. If you pray or practice mindfulness carry on with that. In your faith, you might consider telling God how you honesty feel. Psalm 62 says, “tell him your troubles for he is your refuge”.
Finding compassion for ourselves in the situation we face, for the limitations to our lives, and the emotions we are experiencing, is the way to help ourselves self-soothe. This is easier said than done, but kind and patient with ourselves rather than beating ourselves up, is the way to take ourselves and our feelings seriously, to accept our emotions and to find self-respect for our own experience. Blaise Pascal wrote: “Jesus is the God whom we can approach without pride and before whom we can humble ourselves without despair”. Kindness is the theme of Mental Health Awareness Week this year, and we need to remember that kindness is not just to others but also to ourselves.
The second stage Gennep outlined was that of ‘transition’ which is the time of suffering and feeling the pain of our separations, of our losses, and our changed world. The suffering we feel at present reminds me of the Lord in the garden at Gethsemane where Jesus said, “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death” (Mark 14:34, NIV). Times are uncertain, we have no control, we are vulnerable, and we are afraid. Sometimes these states are referred to as ‘the dark night of the soul’ (St. John of the Cross), where we experience the crushing defeat to our ego, and experience the loss of personal control. We are also made aware of our mortality, and our finite existence. Acknowledging the losses and grieving those losses are the process of change and new learning. It is important to grieve what we have lost, the changes we are experiencing at work, financially, relationally, grieving the separation we feel, and to continue to do so throughout this experience. We are moving from the world as it was and are transitioning into a new world, which is unknown.
In desperate times Jesus called, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:33, NIV). The ‘dark night of the soul’ is the experience of actually feeling the emotions around the suffering we are experiencing, allowing our emotions to be felt, feeling the ordeals of isolation and becoming aware of our own mortality. These experiences awaken something within us that calls us to survive and realise a greater calling to become the person we were created to be. We have survived events before. We have something deep within us which calls us to rise up and live the life we are called to live. To help you find that calling, allow the Holy Spirit within you to inform you, to lead you, to show you and guide you. Those who know you will confirm the changes they notice and then you will know you can trust your changes and embrace a new way forward.
The final stage within a ‘rite of passage’ is that of ‘incorporation’ - the return, the returning back to live your life in a renewed way, having come through the changes. The world has loosened its grip on us to achieve, to perform, to comply and fit in. And we are able to welcome a new calling to our lives. In the Living Bible, in John 3, Jesus said, “Unless you are born again, you can never get into the Kingdom of God”. And being born again does not mean a new career, nor a money-making scheme, but a calling to become the people we were authentically created to become. Respecting our new life situation, we are able to discover what qualities lie latent in our personality, which gifts wish to assert themselves, what talents, capabilities and skills await resurrection. Is our calling to ‘run with perseverance the race marked out for us’? (Hebrews 12:1, NIV). As God knocks upon our door, are we hearing a call to become renewed, and greater than the person we were before self-isolation?
So, dear friends, be kind to yourself in isolation, be real with yourself in transition and come back to a renewed life in incorporation. It may look very much the same as it did before, but we will have changed.