Thoughts from the isolation sofa…………II
Chaplaincy, still here and still supporting……….
How are you this week? Struggling to find your feet? Struggling to complete simple tasks? Struggling not to be snappy? Struggling to find meaning in studies or work? Can I assure you that you are not alone and it is completely natural to feel like this. You have to give yourself time and permission to adjust to the ‘new normal’ What we all experienced over the last week is grief and the responses that you are feeling are those that are commonly found with any loss.
David Kessler is one of the worlds foremost experts on grief, in a Harvard Business Review article recently Kessler argued that what we are all suffering from now is Anticipatory Grief. This grief is a normal human emotion but one that is generally connected with the uncertainty of the future. The loss of normalcy, fear of the economic toll, the loss of connection. In short anticipatory grief is the feeling we get when the future is uncertain, or when imagination takes over.
Kessler argues that “Our primitive mind knows something bad is happening, but you can’t see it. This breaks our sense of safety. We’re feeling that loss of safety. I [Kessler] don’t think we’ve collectively lost our sense of general safety like this. Individually or as smaller groups, people have felt this. But all together, this is new. We are grieving on a micro and a macro level” and as thus anticipatory grief is really a form of anxiety. An anxiety where we begin to see the worst-case scenarios. Where our minds start to protect us from the imagined future by building a resilience factor to a scenario that may or may not happen. Everything that we classed as normal has shifted. The buildings and security of being on campus, friends and routines that we unconsciously rely on to get us through each day have ended. This has not happened gently as when we move to a new job, or come towards a break in semesters, but in an abrupt moment. Although we know collectively, we will get through this, we cannot know what the world, economy or study might look like and therefore we are unduly anxious. For Kessler the answer is simple “this is a time to overprotect but not overreact”.
So pastorally how can we read into this situation with a meaningful dialogue? Firstly, and I cannot strongly advocate this enough, we must maintain our prayer lives. As I said in my previous blog, prayer creates rhythm to the day. It also maintains our connection to the God, Father Almighty, Creator of all things visible and invisible. What prayer also allows us to do, is have an honest conversation about our fears, and as NT Wright put it “in prayer we can lament with those that lament”. It connects us to the Father who hears our anguish and responds with love and comfort.
The Psalms in particular, allow us to do that. Psalm 88 seems as if it has been specially written as a lament for isolation. In the Psalm several verses talk of isolation but particularly powerful in the current situation is the last verse “You have caused friend and neighbour to shun me; my companions are in darkness”. In Psalm 137, made famous by Boney M’s 1978 track the Rivers of Babylon the psalmist talks of “how can I sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land”. For members of the Israelite nation being held captive against their will by the Babylonians it meant facing a disorientation not dissimilar to ours. They had been snatched from what they knew and transported into a strange and unfamiliar environment. Yet in verses five and six the psalmist advocates prayer “5 If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning. 6 If I do not remember thee, let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth; if I prefer not Jerusalem above my chief joy.” John Goldingay in his commentaries on the Psalms points out that the two major points that help in our current situation.
The switch from the community lament of the first four verses to the pronoun I in verse 5. In this the psalmist advocates a switch from a community to an individual response that has personal consequence. In order to understand this we must accept that Jerusalem refers not to the city but the temple, the Holy of Holies, the throne of God on the earthly realm, the place where God dwells among the people that He loved into creation. Thus, I would translate verse five as becoming if I forget you my God may I also forget all that my body can do and verse six as if I forget you, may I lose the power of speech, if I do not put you first may I find no joy. Even in the foreign land of isolation then we have a call to put God first, to be prayerful, to lament and extend that into our lives and spread God’s love to our neighbours, even if that is #StayingHomeStayingSafe.
But there is also another answer to ‘how we are going to sing that song’ that is already happening. Students and colleagues are already managing extraordinary feats, adapting to and reshaping the conversation and the means to have it, this is to “sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land”. To have forgiveness when those things might and inevitably do not go the way that we would want, is to “sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land”. To have understanding when anxiety and stress get the better of people is to “sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land” To respect that if things are not working for you, that they most probably are not working for others is to “sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land”. To have achieved everything that has been achieved in a period of seven days is a heroic effort and is to “sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land” and everyone should be justifiably proud. As for Chaplaincy we are still here for you, the community, on all our social media platforms, Teams, Zoom, Skype, phone and email, because although we are singing in a foreign land our song remains the same…. We are here for staff and students in your pastoral and support needs. Take care and please do keep in touch and use us.
Pete, Associate Lay Chaplain.