In this quarantine life and racial upheaval, it seems that everywhere we turn, someone is telling us how we should feel. Or rather how we shouldn’t feel what we are feeling. Are you afraid? Stop! Are you too calm? Stop!
Why aren’t you angry that people aren’t wearing masks? Why aren’t you angry that people are making a bigger deal of this than it should be? Why aren’t you angry about the treatment of POC or of innocent police officers? Things posted on social media, the news or even just the responses of people around us are full of “shoulds” and “shouldn’ts.” How is it even possible to decipher what we are feeling right now with all the unclear messages and expectations?
When considering the idea of mental health and the church during this time of COVID-19 and strong racial tensions, I have struggled to know what to share, to know what message would speak to everyone in our diverse mindsets and situations. It seems we often want to face challenges with our intellect, throwing out reasons why or why not.
What if the initial response to hard life events shouldn’t be with our minds and throwing responses? Perhaps the response is in the sitting still, sitting with the situation and in that process knowing that God is God. Presence and not flailing, being and not doing. (Psalm 46:10). There is nothing scarier than recognizing the depths of our fears, hurts and sadness; it is why I suppose many people are turning to anger.
“Sitting with an emotion can help you transition from a short-lived reaction to a long-lived and in-character response.”
Defining a feeling or emotion is a good place to start when considering if it is OK to have certain emotions. The simple definition for an emotion would generally consist of one word like “sad,” “scared,” “angry,” “content,” “confident,” “happy.” Often when a phrase starts, “I feel that …” a long sentence follows full of the interpretation of the emotion.
What if you could just say, “I feel sad”? Leave out the reason why for just a second. What does sad feel like? Do your shoulders droop, does it feel like a huge weight is on top of you and even breathing takes effort? What does being scared feel like? Does your whole body tense up? Maybe your stomach ties in knots? What does anger feel like? Does your heart rate increase, facial expression change, constricting of the whole body yet again? What does “happiness” feel like, or “peaceful” or “confident”?
So what if we stop? Sit still. Be present to the churning feelings within us, gently releasing our human intellect, which is fighting to explain, reason and blame. This might be the hardest step. Keep in mind the often-quoted verses in Jeremiah 17:9 “The heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked, who can know it.” This verse in context is not about feelings (sadness, fear and anger), but rather our interpretations of those emotions or our own deep inner motivations.
Thoughts wrapped up in intense sadness, anger and anxiety are often unhelpful and aimed at destroying self or others. This is why we pause in the stillness and submit all the thoughts to God (1 Corinthians 10:5). We sit in the stillness, present and aware of the feeling for 5 or 10 minutes. Then in that stillness, ask what God is telling you. Maybe God wants to remind you that you are not alone. Maybe God wants to sit with you in your grief. Perhaps God wants to be your rock, place of trust and giver of peace. Maybe God wants the passion of your anger turned to the real war.
Sitting with an emotion can help you transition from a short-lived reaction to a long-lived and in-character response. We saw a lot of “reactions” to racial tensions, and that concerns me as I fear white people who view their “reactions” as supportive will now dust their hands off and return to life as before. We need a longstanding response that doesn’t give up, to stand with our brothers and sisters of color.
I cannot pretend to know what your heart needs at this time, but I do know who does. This is a way of meditating on God — listening to God through quieting our thoughts, releasing our interpretations, our offenses and our judgments. Then we can hear what God is saying to us through the situation and our feelings.
Keep in mind that if you are experiencing depression or anxiety that is debilitating (impacting how you function) and has been present for two or more weeks, or if you have had thoughts about hurting yourself or others please reach out for help. If you are in an emergency situation, call 9-1-1.
Tabitha Corbin is a licensed clinical social worker and staff therapist with The Center for Integrative Counseling and Psychology, an interdenominational counseling center. She provides therapy for teens and adults at The Center’s Waco, Texas, office. She lived overseas for five years in Southeast Asia and South America before receiving the master of social work degree from Abilene Christian University.