By Jennifer Bowen
When I ask you how you’re feeling today, is it an easy answer? I’ve been struck during this strange time* about how our answer to that question can change several times a day.
As I’ve listened to stories, I’ve heard some similar themes – and most have included difficult feelings. Some of us have felt anger, when it felt like we were under threat – be it from people not wearing a mask, or in being told you had to wear one to finish your week’s grocery list. Many of us have felt anger at the economy or government for financial losses, or at the injustice of losing our job. It’s not very satisfying to be angry at a virus, so we find other things to be angry at.
Some of us have shared days of shock or fear. One of those days for me was the abrupt closing of schools in March, combined with watching scary news reels of intensive care wards in Italian hospitals. You may have had your own version of that bad fear-day in recent months.
I also identify with the people that tell me they feel raw. This ‘exposed nerve’ of COVID made us more able to feel collectively, and this vulnerability may have been the impetus to made space for the very necessary conversations about some very old pain belonging to those in our community marginalized because of race and privilege. Hearing about the depth of this injustice in our midst makes many of us feel angry, waiting for friends and colleagues to catch up already. For other of us, it raises feelings of shame and helplessness as we contemplate how to respond and take action. There is gravity to all of this—anger, fear, sadness, helpless. We are holding so much.
In between some of these heavy days, some of us have had moments of plateau. Between horrifying news, between new rules put out by our regions, when we are able to settle into our new normal and exhale. I remember my first walk outside, waving at neighbours and talking about the weather. I remember those first moments absent of fear, and how odd it felt.
I’m mindful that if we’d spoken in April, I’d likely have discussed survival strategies in the midst of crisis. We therapists are great at that conversation – how to prioritize essential needs – financial, parenting, work, faith. We’d have reviewed metaphors like ‘put on your oxygen mask before you put one on your child’. We were all trying to keep our head above water.
Today, as I sit waiting for our province to decide about education in the fall, I’m reminded again that this time of COVID will be with us for some time, and that we’re not running a sprint. It’s too bad, because while sprints are very difficult, they are over quickly. This has been and will be a marathon – maybe several marathons in a row.
The most chaotic part of the race might be behind us – that strange tangled time in the race when all the runners are in one tight pack and it’s hard to make out where you are and what your pace will be. At that point, I’m told you can feel bumped, crowded and overwhelmed.
We’re into the next part. There’s more space, we’re finding our stride, and we’re getting used to the feel of this road’s pavement, today’s wind and sun. Many of us have found a rhythm to this leg of the race that we can manage. Some of us are still struggling to get out of that knotted pack.
You likely know where I’m going with this metaphor. In sprints, like our initial time in COVID, we scramble to get through it. We have our eye on the finish line, and are motivated to just get past the finish line. We might have screaming pain in our limbs as we push through, but we can tolerate a lot knowing the pain will soon be over. However, in a marathon our goals have to also include pacing and maintaining endurance. It’s not all about speed, but steady pace forward, a comfortable rhythm and getting the fuel you need to finish.
The length of this race is an uncomfortable idea to think about. Andy Crouch, a recent editor of Christianity Today, wrote an article Leading Beyond the Blizzard, and in it reflected that this time of COVID will be less like an individual storm for our culture to weather, and more like a turbulent season. This event is unique to most of us alive today, and can’t be put in the category of other stressors we’ve faced together, and will have lasting effects to how our community structures work. If we consider this long lens, choosing to thrive through this involves leaning into what sustains us.
In a marathon, we runners need to be hydrated, I’m told (full disclosure, I maybe one of the few staff who hasn’t run a race since elementary school). Those Gatorade and banana stations are not just places for sponsors and cheerleaders. Our bodies, the magnificent machines that they are, need water and calories to manage the length of the race.
So – how are you faring through this strange race? Are you stopping for any Gatorade? An obstacle for many of us is that our preferred forms of self-care are not available to us during this pandemic – we can’t easily invite a bunch of friends over for an evening of fun. Changing our preferred coping tricks is hard, and even more so when our need for coping is high!
Consider a tweaked version of your favorite coping trick. If you haven’t had a socially distanced picnic with friends yet, I highly recommend it.
This marathon will someday end, and I have hope that we will be better runners by the finish line. May we come out the other end wiser, having reflected about what is most meaningful to us and our community. May we have learned to respond and love those around us, and have learned to thrive on the long run ahead.
*apologies for this and future clichés. It’s tricky to find new ways of referencing the general yuck of this pandemic.
Jennifer Bowen, M.Div., RMFT, is the Clinical Director of Shalem Mental Health Network’s Counselling Services.
Image of The hand of the runner grabbing the water by pavel1964 on Adobe Stock.