Splashes of colour in a(nother) grey day
One of the most challenging aspects of the covid pandemic and subsequent lockdown has been the length of time this season has lasted. In fact right now, even as lockdown measures being eased, it is seeing the challenges facing other countries who have journeyed ahead of us in the crisis, with continued spikes of virus, the need to reintroduce measures - even localised lockdowns, that so many people are finding hard. And for those who have experienced the first lockdown, moving into a second is much harder. As one of my family, living in Melbourne, put it ‘Re-entering lockdown is like waking up from a party with the sickening feeling of the morning after and realising you maybe shouldn’t have had the party at all’ We are being forced to recognise this was not a short term change to our way of life: a brief crazy period with aspects that were almost fun that we can tell our grandchildren about in years to come.
This is a real long term challenge to how we live, a test of what we need to not just survive and get on with life but to thrive and how to do that amidst the continuing presence of coronavirus. And it tests our ability to sustain ourselves: how do you keep going through a long period of test and difficulty - long periods when the normal joys of life may not be possible, or very limited, when repeated challenge may be just around the corner, when life is limited and uncertain?
In the midst of this a couple of aspects of how our minds and emotions work can become a real difficulty. The first is our tendency to want to simplify life and emotions as fairly simplistic and binary - so life is either good or bad, we’re feeling positive or negative, things are either a success or a failure. Its a mental short cut we often make - and some of us have personalities which are all the more prone to seeing the world that way - but we all do it more when we’re under pressure - when the demands on us are heightened or we’re under stress, or if we’re experiencing a powerful emotion. It's like the brain's way of streamlining thinking, simplifying it and making a few basic assumptions in order to save resources for the other things they’re needed for.
The second thing is that your brain has a negative bias. This makes sense if you think about it - it’s generally more important to remember and learn from things that went wrong than things that went right - as we joke in our house, once is a mistake, twice is an oversight, three times is just stupid! But this means it notices negatives MUCH more than positives and can easily overlook or miss good things in terms of what it focuses on, remembers and settles on, ponders or ruminates on.
These two things combined can become very hard in tough times - because when negative things are all around us and life is limited or difficult, your mind settles on them - and if you are under pressure, stress or distress then you also begin to feel like this is all there is - life is just bad. Add to this the fact that your negative bias means when you are in a certain state or experiencing an emotion your mind brings to the surface memories of other times you felt like that or experienced that (presumably hoping one of those will give you a helpful hint to improve your plight!) - and you can be in the worst place - focused on the negative, feeling life is universally bad and remembering all the other times it felt like that. It's so easy to feel overwhelmed and hopeless - nothing will ever change, this is all awful, you can’t keep doing this, everything is a disaster…
And of course, in lockdown, we have all had moments of this. Most people have felt at times the relentlessness of this season. So what do you do to get through?
Joseph is a character in the Bible who had to cope with relentless limitation and difficulty. His story was a fascinating one - beginning with promise and prophecy of amazing things - this man set apart, with a position of authority and importance, people bowing before him. His life was clearly going to be about good things, and he swaggered in the recognition of that from his own prophetic dreams. But what the dreams didn’t show him was what was going to come first. Sold as a slave by his brothers (who weren’t too thrilled at his attitude), then sent to prison for something he didn’t do, he finds himself in an awful place, limited, restricted, trapped, with his life’s dreams apparently in tatters. Then there’s a brief moment of hope: in prison, he is able to interpret the dreams of some of his fellow prisoners, and one is reinstated to serve the Pharaoh. “Remember me!” begs Joseph as he asks this guy to tell the Pharaoh about his story, and you can hear the poignancy in his voice when he says “I have done nothing to deserve being put in a dungeon!”
But the poignancy continues when, as Genesis 40:23 puts it, the released prisoner forgets Joseph and doesn’t put in that good word for him. In fact, the Hebrew reveals really what happened is this guy just didn’t care: once he was out of prison his mind was someone else. Joseph just wasn’t important to him. How gutting to the man still trapped in darkness.
Joseph’s story ends well and those early dreams do come true. But what is amazing about his story is how he did manage to sustain himself and his wellbeing for all those years of imprisonment, darkness, and disappointment. How did he keep going when things went from bad to worse, when his hopes were dashed and his situation seems so bleak? With so much bad to focus on how did he keep his spirits up?
There’s a little throwaway verse in Genesis 39 that gives us a clue: verse 21 says that when Joseph was in prison “the Lord was with him; he showed him kindness”. And it goes on to explain that the prison warden saw something in Joseph and put him in charge of those in the prison. So even in the limitation of those days (the word describing Joseph's predicament says he was bound, limited, restrained - just not able to live full life), there were small good things, little flickers of something: kindnesses of the moment but also the hint of something to come, when his character and leadership would leave him in a much more significant position. Things were bleak but there were still flashes of brightness, kindnesses in the prison, flickers of some kind of hope even in the midst of despair.
And this is an important truth we need to hold on to in our own extended time of limitation: no matter how much your brain might try to tell you it is, life is not either black or white. Most of the time it is aspects of grey, some things good, some things challenging. There will be periods some things are going well, but when others are difficult. And sometimes some aspects of life will hit periods which are relentlessly grim and limiting. Unemployment, long term illness, relationship difficulties, global pandemic … well ok, that last one is a bit unusual - but these are all moments which share the challenge of finding a way to live well in times when the colour of life can feel lost when days are relentlessly grey and grim and things can so easily feel overwhelming or hopeless.
So how do you do it? Here are 3 things to remember:
1. Grey is ok! Life is NOT just good or bad.
Your brain will try to simplify it to this in the bad times, but even in the midst of difficulty, there will remain SOME things that are good, small blessings, kindnesses, and things to celebrate and find comfort or even joy in. What are those for you? Friends or family, who love you? The joy of a beautiful sight in nature? Good food, shared with good company?
Remember also that our tendency to this simplifying bias works looking out as well - but because we don’t know so much about other people we only see the good stuff for them! Felt rubbish recently because everyone else is doing so much better than you? Felt guilty because you are honestly sharing some of the difficulty when everyone else seems relentlessly positive? Don’t look in at other people and assume they are all GOOD whilst you feel all BAD! Remember we’re all a much more complex mix! Probably for you too people looking in who don’t know you so well might assume you are much more positive and successful than you feel - especially in your overwhelm moments!!
2. Spot the stars! Resolve to OBSESS over the GOOD!
Remember your brain will happily focus on the negative things, roll them round and round in your mind, focus on them, remind you of them, make sure you notice them. You don’t need to try at that! But particularly when you are feeling low, it is MUCH worse at spotting good things, and will just tell you they aren’t there. This is not true - it is a shortsighted weakness of your mind in those moments! Think of it like looking at the night sky - you can easily see it as just dark - but if you pause - if you wonder, if you linger - you can see stars.
So resolve to redress the balance. Look out for good things - no matter how small - recognise those little kindness moments in your life. The sound of the wind through the trees, a wonderful cup of coffee, the precise moment a friend texts you to say they are thinking of you and show you they love you, that random thing you just find funny - don’t rush past these things! Spot them - and then linger in those moments. I think of them like oranges - when you get one squeeze ALL the juice out of them! Ever seen someone squeeze an orange and leave half the juice behind? Don’t do that - get the most out of every good moment and all the more so when life is being brutal. Linger in those moments if you can, focus on them, take photos and save mementos to remind you of them - do everything you can to spend as much time thinking about those things as your mind so happily will about the bad.
Paul puts this so well in Philippians 4:8 - this is from the Message translation: “Summing it all up, friends, I’d say you’ll do best by filling your minds and meditating on things true, noble, reputable, authentic, compelling, gracious—the best, not the worst; the beautiful, not the ugly; things to praise, not things to curse.” It is SO easy to obsess over the worst and the things to pick holes in - so practise doing the opposite. Don’t worry about the times your mind focuses on things that are tricky - that will happen. We often make the mistake of beating ourselves up over something we want to do less of - and in general, that doesn’t work too well, the more you try not to think of something the more you do think about it! What works much better is aiming to bring in MORE of something else! So follow his advice - think about it, how much would it change your life if you spent as long intentionally thinking about good things as your brain annoyingly does obsessing and worrying about bad?
3. Don’t forget God (and good)
Sometimes the things of this world feel relentlessly bleak. Listening to the news can feel overwhelming, and the realities of the current situation may be particularly hard if your own circumstances are more challenging. And sometimes our own situations are, genuinely really tough. So many are dealing with things now which are relentlessly difficult, and three months in, are doing that on top of utter exhaustion. Sometimes our strongest weapon in a long term battle is moments of escape, brief windows of relief where our attention is distracted, our perspective changed and we can, for a moment, forget.
Here our creation as people of God is so valuable because when our perspective shifts to God and we can focus on him and the awe and wonder of God, we can get those moments. AW Tozer said that when we are looking at God we do not see ourselves - and he called it ‘blessed riddance’.
There’s a beautiful verse in Psalm 18 (verse 28) which talks about how God brings light to our darkness. The Hebrew word there literally means to illuminate - God shines light into our darkest moments. But it’s also, in a beautiful moment of poetry, the Hebrew word that specifically describes how the sun lights up the moon. The moon has no source of light itself - it is in darkness. But when it turns to the sun - when it catches the light of the sun, it is not only that it can see light, but more - it catches that brightness and SHINES, lighting up others, lighting the night. In the dark, grey moments, we don’t need to feel the responsibility to somehow produce all the light ourselves. But particularly if we are carrying or supporting others, we can feel that weight and responsibility. But the most important thing we can do is make sure we have moments to turn to God’s light, so we are radiating not something self-generated - which means when our energy runs out we are sunk - but something much bigger, better and brighter than ourselves: a light source even in the night.
But that’s perhaps the most brilliant truth: the moon radiates light in the moment but it also reminds us of a more important truth: in our night the light still exists: day will come because nothing can extinguish that ultimate hope and light. So in our grey days, we remember: better times will be ahead, hope is not lost, God is still there, good is still there - it is not, no matter how much it feels that way, all bad and grim.
So here’s a prayer for you in this often grey season: may the sun come out for precious moments for you: may you see kindnesses even in your limitation, may you find sources of hope and light and life that carry you through. And may better days be just around the corner.