This weekend, I became acutely aware of the effects and drain of this pandemic on our community. I have been been in contact with many healthcare workers who have been on the front lines of the work of saving lives in emergency rooms and intensive care units. But sometimes, the sustained intensity of those moments blur the line of pain that we can see in the people around us.
My wake up call happened over the weekend. A young priest colleague in a town in Georgia took her life. By young, she was my daughter’s age on that dark night. I am not certain as to the details of what led to that decision, but my hunch is that the stress of living in this peculiar time is getting to us, and it got to her. I grieve for the pain that she must have been experiencing in that moment in which she could see no way through.
I listen weekly to the clergy I coach express their emotions around the difficulty in leading during a time for which they were not prepared. Having to become a producer of a broadcast, to preach without a congregation in front of you, to not have the human interaction that is the lifeblood of a congregation……all of this combines to make for a time of stress for clergy. They are attempting to give care to their parishioners, who have their own worries about their loved ones, their jobs, their particular disrupted lives.
We’ve been at this for over half a year, with the end not in sight. The normal uptick that occurs as we approach Fall is not there. The typical September start up and enthusiasm is a bit subdued, at best, dude. It’s weighing heavy on everyone, clergy and other caregivers, especially if they don’t tend to their own self-care. Any one of us can get into some serious trouble.
In my work with healthcare professionals, I predicted some Post Traumatic Stress Disorder following the severe work hours, the intensity, and the sheer number of deaths. That’s proving to be true, as well as a rise in domestic violence and abuse of substances. Even docs and nurses who served in war zones have told me that this is different, and more taxing. Not only are you dealing with death, but your own susceptibility of contracting the virus, added to the fear of infecting your family. I had two emergency room docs in New York City, badass combat docs, breakdown into tears in the middle of the worst of it. Refrigerated trucks parked in the adjacent lot that held the deceased bodies were a constant reminder of the devastation at hand. Hospitals are needing to take care of the caregivers in a responsive and creative way.
This is true for all caregivers. Priests, ministers, teachers, social workers, all types of people who are called to pour out themselves for others must be sure to “fill up” and not allow themselves to dry up.
This is, in fact, true for all people. We must take the time and energy to invest in our self care. My grandfather who was a cop, who did his work with a servant’s attitude, back before there was such an innovation called “community policing”, used to tell me a simple line of truth: “You can’t give what you ain’t got.” It rather homey, but true nonetheless. You are only able to give when you have been filled up by your own self care.
I spend a lot of my time teaching Emotional Intelligence, that is, the ability of a human being to be both self-aware of what’s going on inside of oneself as well as be empathetic with what’s going on inside of the people around. This takes a lot of energy, not only with being attentive to what emotions are being stirred up inside of oneself, but taking the time to tune into what emotions are perking in the other. Are they hurt? Are they angry? Do they need some attention, or do they want to be left alone? Anyone whose job demands that they take care of other people knows what this feels like. We call it empathy, that is, feeling WITH another human being in the messiness of life. It requires a great deal of energy and patience. Some of us come by it naturally (my mother schooled me), but the good news is that we can learn to become more tuned in, more sensitive as we tend to the other.
But along with the teaching of self awareness and empathy of Emotional Intelligence. we have to train people to take care of themselves: self care. Without it, we can burn out, we can experience “compassion fatigue” which can slowly invade our mind and turn our view of the world dark.
So, how do you tend to self care? One is by taking some time off, where you are filling yourself up, rather than spending your inner resources on others. For me, it used to be sailing on Thursday, single-handing my boat or taking a friend along. Either way, it was a renovating experience of life that fed my soul. It’s different for every person. It can be painting with watercolor or oils, reading classic books or trash, exercise or birding. It can be playing golf for those of us dogged victims condemned to an inexorable fate. Whatever. It’s what the ancients called Sabbath time, or as we make it more colloquial, “down time”. How do you take care of yourself?
Another way is by connecting with others. For me, when I was under pressure, some sort of a therapeutic relationship was helpful. Sometimes that was with a particular shrink, Freudian or Jungian, but human. Sometimes, I enjoyed the care and challenge of a group of colleagues, or just a group of fellow travelers. And sometime, it was my golf buddies who I could pal around with, cut up with. One of my favorites was a Texan, who had the perfect drawl. But if I was ever getting down, feeling sorry for myself, he would pipe in with the Texas folk wisdom that I love: “Oh David, don’t be so hard on yourself….that’s what we are here for!” That’s a sense of humor that keeps you grounded.
Frankly, listening to the people I coach, made up of leaders, clergy, and caregivers, I am noticing a low-grade depression. It’s different than I have experienced in the past. It feels a bit more like exhaustion, of being tired of the new way things are. The hoped for “quick end” is not in sight. There’s a little lack of the normal spirit I sense in my folks, maybe due to being worn down over the last half year.
I know what I am going to do this week in our coaching sessions. I am going to talk about it.
Our tendency is to not mention this kind of thing and just focus on the work we have to do, do some creative playful imagining, to make some action plans, and then get on with it. But not this week.
I am going to pause, take the temperature of the water we are sitting in to see if the heat is rising ever so imperceptibly, so that we might miss it. I’m going to take my time to see where people are, rather than just jump right in, which I can easily do in my typical push. We need to check on each other in this strange time of Covid, this election time of division, this tense time of race. We need to care for one another, and….to take care of our self.
How are you taking care of your self?
If you are feeling troubled, a bit listless, or sad, you might reach out to a friend by phone. Not as good as in person, but I’ve been surprised at how good a phone call can feel.
Or, reach out to a professional, someone who knows how to help you through the tough times, those times that are a part of being human.
If you are hurting, and worried about hurting yourself, get your sweet self to the local Emergency Room. Don’t let the rumination on bad times, tough times fool you into thinking there’s no way out of this predicament. There is. Take that step toward recovery. We’ve all been there in that dark night. Make your move toward healing.
Finally, if you don’t know where to turn, you can call the suicide hotline at 1-800-273-8255. There are people there trained to get you the help you need. There are people who care about your well-being.
Check it out: how are you doing with your self care? What do you need to be doing to take care of your self in this crazy time? There are people ready to help. But, as I learned once again this weekend, it’s your move. Take care of your self out there.