By Debbie Seeger, John Thomas, and Awa Jangha
Reentry can occur in many ways. Experiences in this pandemic have called us to reconsider how we engage with one another, the world, and our resources. This blog captures the perspectives of two current Masters in Clinical Mental Health Counseling students who are a part of the Spiritual Integration in Counseling Scholars program. John Thomas and Debbie Seeger share their experiences of pandemic reentry, inviting us to reflect on our lives across the unfolding of the COVID 19 pandemic.
Building and Burning Barns- John Thomas:
It took less than a week to realize the world I knew was changing. The transformation felt blurry, disorganized, and disorienting. What had been a blurb on the news at Christmas 2019 became the sole focus in America by early March 2020. The last day of work before Spring Break I knew I wouldn’t be returning in person. I went to the grocery store and stockpiled.
What most Americans thought would last a few weeks soon evolved into months. Streets emptied, doors closed, shelves were bare, and life became a mask of sterility. Words like curbside, no contact, and zoom took new meaning. Instead of giving lectures on Dante I uploaded them into the technological metaverse of online education. Ironically, this wasn’t the hell I thought it would be. I felt like a terrible person because I enjoyed staying at home.
One day I went to the pantry and looked at the emergency reserves I had accumulated. Immediately I remembered the parable of the rich fool building bigger barns for his harvest. (Luke 12:16-21) Though this parable is about wealth it became a meditation of the self. I felt sorry for this rich fool because I related to him. Where his barns allowed him to accumulate more and more it also insulated him from people. Instead of depending on land or others he made a world in which he only needed himself. His amassed abundance isolated him from people. Insulating himself with riches and food led to the fool’s starvation from community.
The open-doored pantry became a mirror; I was becoming the rich fool. But what could I do? People weren’t going places, churches weren’t meeting, restaurants and stores were closed for the sake of community health. We were quarantining to protect ourselves and others. But ironically it took this quarantine to realize I had begun isolating myself long before Covid. I had grown exhausted of the ever expanding polarization in communities. I felt overwhelmed by injustice and the climate crisis believing my contributions for a better world were negligible. So, I had stepped back, let my walls build up, and became an island. Invulnerability at the cost of vulnerability. I wasn’t staying inside to avoid sickness and death; I was inside to avoid life.
It was how I coped. I had traded intimacy for security. My home became an impenetrable fortress rather than a place of communion. But there isn’t cushion trying to live like Jesus. So I burned my barns down and reached out to neighbors, friends, and anyone 6 feet away. After all, vulnerability is one of the few things God won’t sacrifice. Instead, God entrusts us all the time-into our hands even as a baby in the arms of a young girl in a manger.
Fight, Flight, or Freeze- Debbie Seeger:
As I learn my way through internship, I have discovered the effective psychoeducational tool I have in sharing the human brain’s response when threatened. Physically endangered, yes, and also vulnerable in crucial life domains: family, health, work, community, and spirituality. When we feel threatened, we reflexively shift to survival mode and into the most primitive part of our brains. The part with only three responses: fight, flight, or freeze. We lose all capability to think, reason, evaluate, or plan.
A potential loss of something dear to us can feel threatening, and being together is dear to my congregation. I serve on our church council. When the pandemic was very new, and the CDC was still recommending against wearing masks, the situation required quick decisions about congregating from our 11-member group. Enter fight, flight, and freeze. Before we could stabilize following the shock of shutting down, we began debate over returning.
Voices dominate my memories of these months. Voices expressing fear about returning too early. Voices questioning why social justice protests were acceptable, but in-person worship was not. Voices asking why we would not follow the lead of other congregations. Voices describing the hazards of bringing back youth activities. Voices telling the danger of failing to do so. Fight, flight, freeze.
I was unprepared for my anxiety as we began to gather again. I am still amazed at how a tiny virus obliterated a lifetime of learning to interact. Fear creeps in when seeing friends in person. We hugged before, will we now? He’s not wearing a mask. What should I do? Eating with a mask is hard. Is having a meal to celebrate a church anniversary milestone essential? Zoom now feels safe, warm, and predictable. Freeze.
Richard Rohr writes of the wisdom pattern: order, disorder, reorder. Disorder allows me to see more clearly what order once was. Order was predictable. Not perfect, but predictable. Disorder brings mourning for what’s lost along with searching to meet those needs differently. Reentry becomes the threshold for reorder and the chance to choose which practices I wish to embrace and those that I will relinquish.
I want to see family and friends as I did before March of 2020. I am less sure about how and when I will travel for pleasure. I’ll keep wearing masks if they help me stay healthy when the coronavirus is no longer novel. I return to the joy of walking on the seminary campus and to the delight of Christ Chapel. I embrace seeing the kind, happy, and earnest faces of my sister and brother seminarians. I focus on the encouraging memories of this season: grace, creativity, and determination… And the faithfulness of our God.
- What parable speaks to you considering this season of your life?
- When faced with reentry, what things have you stored up, that it might be time to now let go?
- In what ways do you engage in your own spiritual practices when facing threatening experiences?
- How might you engage in the experience of reorder?
This fall, Sowing Holy Questions reflects on pandemic re-entry, with emphasis on the theological, equity, and/or mental health ramifications of living in these times.