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Grow through This, Not Just Get through This
June 28, 2020

It’s hardly surprising that a just released University of Chicago study shows that Americans are way less happy than they were a year ago.

The study was completed just as the George Floyd protests were beginning, so it is largely focused on the effects of COVID-19.

Only 14% of Americans today say they are very happy, compared to about a third of Americans this time last year.

Compared to last year, twice as many Americans say they feel lonely, and way fewer feel financially secure.

Those are hardly surprising data given how the Coronavirus has taken away the world we knew just five months ago.

It’s like living in one of those scary movies where an invisible enemy sweeps through neighborhoods and seeps under doorways to claim hapless victims.

We’ve looked to our national leaders for help but only gotten weird conspiracy theories and excuses.

Maybe you’ve looked to God but felt ignored.

Psalm 13:1-2 Long enough, God
you’ve ignored me long enough.
I’ve looked at the back of your head
long enough. Long enough
I’ve carried this ton of trouble,
lived with a stomach full of pain.

What may be surprising is that for some people this very same pandemic has brought an unexpected spiritual awakening.

I remember being at church the first Sunday of March when Luis asked if from now on we’d only be able to greet one another with a bump of elbows.

Somehow, I’d missed the news about the Coronavirus, so I wasn’t sure what he meant, but of course over the next two weeks I learned … we all did.

Initially, our response to the pandemic was adrenaline-driven.

People charged into stores to grab toilet paper.

Some rushed out to buy guns.

Many of us watched TV news well into the night.

We were going to fight this thing and win.

But adrenaline has a short shelf life and doesn’t lead to good long-term decisions.

Plus, adrenaline is hard on our bodies … it leaves us physically and emotionally depleted.

Since the pandemic has taken away life as we knew it, I find it helpful to frame our COVID experience in terms of grief.

Why grief?

Because we understand something about the stages of grief – they are like markers on a road map, even if they don’t always follow the linear progression Elizabeth Kubler-Ross initially described.

Most of us experienced some denial.

I remember sitting in my car in the church parking lot blithely explaining to Terri Rupel that I wasn’t worried about the virus because I do a lot of exercise and feel strong.

She patiently explained to me how the virus can bring down the healthiest person.

Denial has driven the hasty re-opening of some states that are now paying a deadly toll for ignoring science.

Then there’s been bargaining.

If I socially isolate for a full month, everything will return to the old normal.

That bargain didn’t quite work out.

And then there’s anger, a natural emotion for what’s happened.

It’s okay to feel anger – it’s just not okay to get stuck there because anger is like an acid: it eats away its container.

Our country hasn’t learned to deal with our history or our feelings – one of the reasons there is so much anger around us.

L.A. County Health Director Barbara Ferrer isn’t the only public health official requiring a personal security detail to protect her from actual death threats.

Most public health officials across the country are receiving hate mail, and many need around-the-clock security because they advocate commonsense preventative measures that some of us don’t like.

On a smaller scale, any of us can get stuck in destructive feelings, especially because we keep experiencing micro-losses that reignite our anger.

The middle school graduation is cancelled.

The long-awaited vacation is cancelled.

The dinner with friends is postponed – and then postponed again.

If not faced and released, our anger accumulates and then suddenly erupts onto our family and the world, or it turns inward as depression.

The problem is that some of us don’t stop to mourn our simple losses – and thereby move through our grief.

We may be reluctant because our feelings don’t seem right when compared to the bigger losses we see others going through.

Some people have lost loved ones.

Some are trapped at home with abusers.

Some are being evicted from their homes.

It feels selfish for me to mourn the loss of dinner out or my monthly coffee date with a friend.

But ranking our losses is a trap.

The reality is that as far as my emotional system is concerned, my losses are always worst, and until I deal with them, I won’t feel genuine empathy for others.

Or, I might feel an emotion like anger that doesn’t seem appropriate for any reason.

But, instead of just experiencing it, looking at it, and then putting it aside, I feel shame for feeling it.

Wow, what an awful person I must be for feeling angry that I can’t go to the beach this week – and that shame for having what we think is an inappropriate feeling reaffirms my lifelong history of shame.

What a rotten person I am to have such selfish feelings when others have it worse.

Shame is different from guilt.

Guilt is for something I did wrong.

Shame is feeling that I am wrong – that by nature I am not worthy of love and acceptance.

You aren’t perfect, but that’s no reason for shame.

Your imperfection is not your problem to be solved, or a fracture that must be covered over: it is part of what it means to be human, and God loves you for just who you are.

I think it is Brene Brown who tells about a woman named Marilyn who had spent many hours sitting at the bedside of her dying mother — reading to her, praying next to her late at night, holding her hand and telling her over and over that she loved her.

Most of the time, Marilyn’s mother remained unconscious, her breath labored and erratic.

One morning before dawn, she suddenly opened her eyes and looked clearly and intently at her daughter.

“You know,” she whispered softly, “all my life I thought something was wrong with me.”

Shaking her head slightly, as if to say, “What a waste,” she closed her eyes and drifted back into a coma.

Shame distracts us from full life.

As cartoonist Jules Feiffer put it: “I grew up to have my father’s looks, my father’s speech patterns, my father’s posture, and my mother’s contempt for my father.”

Guilt may guide us to correct a behavior, but shame just destroys joy, creativity and love.

In fact, Brown points out that shame and empathy – which we need so badly these days – are incompatible.

If I feel shame for feeling angry, ungrateful or whatever, then I have less empathy to offer others and yet we know – and lots of science backs this up – we are most happy when we are able to connect with and help other people.

There’s an old Jewish story about a man entering the afterlife.

He’s escorted into a giant dining hall where everyone has a plate full of delicious, aromatic foods, but they’ve only been given spoons that are so long that they cannot reach their mouths.

They can see and smell the good food, but are weak and aching with hunger.

The angel says, this is hell.

Then they go to an identical dining hall where he sees and smells the same food and the people have the same long spoons, but in this room, they are feeding each other.

The angel says, this is heaven.

In the stages of grief model, we come to acceptance, where we accept a new kind of rhythm for living in our new COVID-19 world.

But recently, David Kessler, who worked with Kubler-Ross, has realized that there’s a stage beyond what they’d taught before: meaning.

Rather than just getting through loss, we can allow it to teach us and make us stronger.

God is right here offering hope and new life, if we seek Him.

I’ve been thinking about Genesis 28 when Jacob had to suddenly flee from home, leaving everything that was safe and familiar.

Out in the middle of nowhere, he rests for the night and has the vision of angels going up and down a ladder extending from heaven to earth.

He says, Genesis 28:16 “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I was not aware of it.”

It was the most unlikely of places to encounter the divine.

So, where is God in this unfamiliar world we’ve been pushed into?

How can God break through to us during this pandemic?

Jonathan Berney said that the pandemic caused him to reevaluate everything in his life.

When the virus hit, he lost his high-stress job, his girlfriend left him and he decided to leave Florida and return to Austin.

If he’d had a dog, it would be a Country Western song.

He said, “2020 became a fast-forwarded spiritual decay. When things are good, you don’t tend to look inwards.

“I probably just wasn’t a nice guy to be around from all the stress and anxiety. But this forced an existential crisis.”

He’s now given his losses a purpose.

He admits he’s not exactly happy now, but this led him to an uncomfortable question: Was he truly happy before the pandemic?

He accepted that he was not, but that he hadn’t really realized it.

Now the pandemic has given him the chance to stop, take time for introspection, and reprioritize his life going forward.

God can help us find meaning in our losses, so we can grow through this, not just get through this.

May you, this week, have eyes that see how God is with you in your losses and grief.

May you, this week, face your grief, release your anger and know God loves you, fully and unconditionally.

May you, this week, be led to at least one person with whom you can share connection, concern, and compassion.