Pandemic plans: Keep on coping

We have been battling COVID-19 for a year. 2020 already stands unique in the annals of our memories. And 2021 seems to continue the trend. Hospitals, schools, universities, churches, stores, restaurants … no destination or gathering place has been immune to the dangerous vagaries of this microscopic virus.

Through fits and starts, small successes and significant failures, we have learned to cope. We continue to experiment with ideas and best practices. Yet all the while, we wander through a minefield of potential dangers that could rob us of a friend or family member.

David Jordan

An increasing percentage of us know someone who got infected, who was sick or who has died. Emotionally, this virus has been almost as virulent. Coping mechanisms found adequate for some fail spectacularly for others. Isolation, loneliness, parents overwhelmed, health care workers long past endurance, and so many of the rest of us unsure what new problem will put us over the edge.

In my sermons each week, I find myself inevitably saying, “These are difficult days.” Or “Life is hard.” Or “We are exhausted.” Seminary never trained us to cope with a pandemic, much less a bizarre confluence of public health, macro-economic, racial justice and socio-emotional crises. But I’ve been so thankful for so many around us who, step by step, day by day creatively help others of us rise up from our weariness.

Consistently, too, our Scriptures tell the truth. We are not the first, nor will we be the last, to endure unpredictable times. Repeatedly throughout the Bible, we hear the words: “Fear not, I am with you” and “Do not be afraid.” And we remember the context — dark days of desperation culminating in a crucifixion that shattered every hope.

“Preceded by ordinary people coping with extraordinary grace, we continue to be surrounded by heroes.”

This time of Lent reminds us of good company. Preceded by ordinary people coping with extraordinary grace, we continue to be surrounded by heroes. Brave, conscientious helpers who maintain our food supply, fill our health care needs, teach our children, care for our senior adults, repair our vehicles, farm our fields, stock our groceries and serve our meals. This list is almost endless. Often at risk themselves, they allow our lives to have at least some modicum of the ordinary.

Through these everyday workers and friends we see through a mirror darkly but catch occasional shining glimpses of wonder — ordinary people still operating with courage, and sometimes even humor.

Today it is them; tomorrow it might be you or me. May God bless with such potential. And may we all keep up the necessary work through these strange pandemic days. Easter is coming.

David Jordan serves as senior pastor of First Baptist Church, Decatur, Ga.

Understanding the trauma and finding hope after the siege of the nation’s Capitol

As I reflect on the violent attack on our nation’s Capitol, words that continually linger in my mind are “trauma” and “hope.” Still, why would I write about the siege of the Capitol when so many have already written eloquently about the horror we watched on our televisions?

There is only one reason to add my perspective, and it is that I want to focus on the trauma we now must acknowledge. And the hope that prevails in spite of it.

Kathy Manis Findley

Those of us who are people of faith do not have a divine bubble around us that keeps out traumatic events and prevents our adverse reactions. Jan. 6 happened, and we watched it on our televisions. Seeing it was an abrupt assault on our emotional well-being. Diana Butler Bass wrote recently about the reaction of “surprising and unanticipated grief” in the following words:

Why was I sitting in my family room, staring at CNN, and screaming at terrorists in the Rotunda? Why tears upon reading that the invaders defecated on those floors? Why the blinding rage of seeing the Confederate and Trump flags waved in that particular place? 

This was a moment when theory didn’t address my own reality. When my theology of church and state failed. Somehow, the Rotunda is sacred. Even to me, long cynical of American civil religion. “Desecration” is the only word to describe what happened this week. And my initial anger has given way to a surprising and unanticipated grief.

‘Surprising and unanticipated grief’

After an initial shock, “surprising and unanticipated grief” can result in a traumatic stress response, which usually manifests after some time has passed and the mind has continued to unpack what has happened. Consider that watching television long has been a leisure, pleasant activity. It entertains us. It is a safe activity we do at home. As we watch, we sometimes laugh or cry or cheer.

On Jan. 6, 2021, while watching television, we watched — in real time — hordes of angry, violent people intent on doing great harm to the United States Capitol and the people inside. We saw faces of distress, shock, fear — strong emotions churning inside so many people who were suddenly under siege.

The act was insurrection. It was an act of terrorism that affected not only the persons present in the building, but also significantly affected the millions of Americans who watched. From the very place that entertains us, we suddenly saw horror in a real place against real, live people. It shocked us, undeniably shocked us.

“Every person I talked with reported experiencing strong emotional reactions as they watched the insurrection.”

I talked with the members of my Sunday school class and dozens of others after that day. Every person I talked with reported experiencing strong emotional reactions as they watched the insurrection. Some felt heartbroken, others enraged, others fearful, but they described those emotions as being very forceful and all-consuming, powerfully affecting their minds, senses or emotions.

As details emerged in the days to follow — such as the intended hanging of the vice president or the murder of the speaker of the House — I observed that my friends had developed troubling symptoms of acute trauma. When a loud sound echoed through a neighborhood, my friend’s family reacted strongly to it, imagining gunfire. When another friend continued hearing news reports, she would cry uncontrollably. Another person would begin to tremble, feel weakness in her legs and hear her heart “beating louder and faster.” Another told me she is suddenly feeling very afraid. Still another felt unrelenting grief to the point of saying, “I am heartbroken and feel so heavy, and then suddenly I feel panic. It happens many times every day.”

Responding to trauma

These are traumatic stress responses triggered by an unexpected, troubling event that threatened our sense of safety and security. With my pastor’s heart, I want most to comfort my friends and to offer a fresh sense of hope. Yet, these troubling events and reactions also force me to put on my hat as a trauma counselor. From that place, I want to encourage them to seek a spirit of calm by intentionally doing several things:

  1. When you experience a traumatic stress response, sit quietly to ground yourself. Breathe deeply, several deep breaths. Try to lower your heart rate by breathing very slowly. If you are feeling fear, assure yourself that you are in a safe place. If you want to cry, let your tears come. If you are angry, express it out loud until you are able to calm yourself. If you are able, ask God to guide you safely through the day and give you comfort.
  2. Try to get a little extra rest.
  3. Spend some time alone, contemplating your life, thinking of the good things in your life as you try to put the current events and your reaction to them in perspective.
  4. Contact a trusted friend when you feel vulnerable.
  5. Spend quality time with the supportive persons in your life.
  6. Tell yourself that what you are experiencing is a normal reaction to the violent acts you witnessed.
  7. Your trust in something solid has been harmed. Name the places or persons in your life in which you can safely place your trust.
  8. Reach out for help if you need to with a therapist, trauma counselor, spiritual director, minister or even a trusted friend.

Certainly, this list of remedies is not an exhaustive one, but it does offer some ways to push through a traumatic stress response. We cannot assume that since we are in God’s care, we will not have strong emotional responses to traumatic events.

As we hear news reports of similar events planned for the inauguration or other future events, stress responses will not likely diminish right away. Each trigger will send to us the message that our country is not safe, that individuals are not safe. So awareness of emotional responses is important, especially with children.

Pay close attention to children and teens

We cannot assume that children, from teenagers to the very young child, do not take in this kind of violence, although it was not in close physical proximity to them. Children might respond in varied ways when their safety is threatened, and sometimes their sense of safety is threatened by witnessing even milder forms of violence than the attack on the Capitol.

“We cannot assume that children, from teenagers to the very young child, do not take in this kind of violence.”

We must also consider what children are hearing or overhearing that might intensify their fear. Teenagers may withdraw and try to mask their emotions. Don’t assume they have not been affected by what happened. Find ways to engage them in conversation. Be aware also that very young children might be more aware of what happened than you think. Their responses might be changes in sleeping patterns, sudden clinginess, changes in routine behaviors.

It is important to be aware of the many ways children and teenagers react when they are exposed to an event that could be traumatic for them. There are many online resources for helping children through traumatic events. The National Child Traumatic Stress Network is a very good resource on child trauma. Look for the section of their website that offers pertinent information on risk and protective factors for children who have experienced or witnessed a traumatic event.

A word about elders

Older adults also experience traumatic events in unique ways. For those who experienced prior violent events — from family violence, to community violence, to war — reactions can be very troubling. One I have noticed after the Jan. 6 events is grief to the point of being inconsolable.

Has your elder family member or friend served in a war? Has your elder worked as a police officer? Has your elder witnessed violence in the past? Is your elder family member very patriotic to the point of considering the U.S. Capitol as a sacred monument that was viciously desecrated? Is your elder an immigrant who fled from an oppressive country and who placed complete trust in American freedom?

If any of these questions apply to your elder family member or friend, be alert for signs of unusually strong anger, increased fear or anxiety, depression, self-isolation and withdrawal, long periods of pensiveness, sleep disturbance, a sense of hopelessness or any behavior that seems out of the ordinary. Be present with them with comfort and tenderness. Start a conversation if you can. Tell them how you felt as the Capitol was being attacked. In those who have lived through many decades, the response is often the loss of hope.

All of us are on edge

Perhaps all of us have been unsettled by the Jan. 6 insurrection and have experienced a loss of hope. We are likely caring for ourselves and bracing for more in the days ahead. We are caring for our children, our families and our friends.

“We are citizens of a nation we love and people of faith who lift our voices against violence and injustice.”

We are citizens of a nation we love and people of faith who lift our voices against violence and injustice. We are friends who worry about our friends, parents who worry about children, children who are concerned for parents, pastors who want to care for congregations, teachers who want to teach non-violence, counselors who want to gently move persons from fear to hope. We are some or all of these people, for one another. Always for one another.

Stay safe. Stay alert. Watch out for others. Care for your heart. Nourish your soul. Hold on to your hope. Even traumatic, violent experiences do not hold the power to destroy us, because in the end, we are a people of God who still believe in the possibility of beloved community. We push back against those who would divide us.

We throw aside our anger, at least for a moment, and vow to seek peace. We move past our fear and stand courageously to restore our way of life as citizens of a nation and a people of God’s heart. We push through our trauma to do the healing work that God wills us to do in search of hope, the living hope that God desires for all of us.

Kathy Manis Findley is an ordained Baptist minister with Greek Orthodox roots. Now retired in Macon, Ga., she spent her 38-year ministry serving as a pastor, hospital chaplain, trauma counselor and missionary to Uganda. She is a graduate of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and is certified in victimology, trauma intervention and child forensic interviewing. She is the author of two serious books, Voices of our Sisters and The Survivor’s Voice: Healing the Invisible Wounds of Violence and Abuse, and just for fun, one Kindle novel.

Six lessons living with chronic illness has taught me about surviving a pandemic

For the last seven years, I’ve battled chronic pain and illness. A traumatic back injury in 2013 was only the beginning of what these years have held for me.

Amber Cantorna

Intense treatments and therapies with very slow results kept me hopeful that someday my mobility would return and with it, my life. But as my injury healed, the extreme fatigue did not. In fact, it was only the start of a whole host of symptoms that would lead me to a very limited and modified life.

The journey of getting to where I am today hasn’t been an easy one. It’s certainly isn’t one I ever would have chosen, nor would I wish it on anybody. It’s required a lot of perseverance, determination, faith and perpetual hope. It’s taken learning a lot of hard lessons about self-care disappointments and pain management along the way.

But much of what I have learned is what has gotten me this far and it also has set me up for enduring this pandemic that has so drastically impacted each of our lives this year. These lessons have been helpful for me and may be helpful for you as we continue to navigate this unprecedented time together.

First, be gentle with yourself and allow space for grief. All of us have experienced disappointments in various forms over the last five months. Some of us have cancelled dream vacations, some of us haven’t been able to see family, some of us have postponed weddings or delayed funerals, some of us have lost jobs, and some of us have lost loved ones.

All these things are painful, complex and require room for varying levels of grief and healing. Be gentle with yourself. Allow space and grant permission for your heart to feel this pain, to grieve this loss and to process all that’s happening. And then remember to be kind to others, knowing they are grieving too.

Second, slow down and take naps often. Adjusting to a new speed of life can be hard, especially for extroverts who thrive on social interaction. With the world operating at a slower pace right now, it’s a good time to take inventory of our lives and take pause.

Slowing down is something many of us likely have been needing to do for a long time. Take advantage of this season of life and allow your mind, body and heart to rest and function at a slower pace. Read books. Make time for simple pleasures. Practice deep breathing and prayer or meditation. And take naps. Naps can do wonders for your energy, stress and perspective on life.

“Like chronic illness, this pandemic isn’t going away anytime soon.”

Third, lower your expectations. You’re in this for the long haul. Like chronic illness, this pandemic isn’t going away anytime soon. All of us have faced work, school and family challenges. All of us are taking on tasks we wouldn’t otherwise be doing (home schooling kids, fixing maintenance issues that arise at home, grooming pets).

Pace yourself. Set goals you can realistically obtain without adding too much stress or anxiety to your life, and trust that the rest will somehow work itself out.

Fourth, be flexible. Change is the only constant. Life will continue to change (sometimes at a rapid rate) throughout this process. Be flexible, remember to be realistic with your expectations, and accept that situations can and will change often.

This can be hard for those of us (like me) who like to control things or plan ahead. But accepting the reality of how life is right now, rather than fighting against it, will make for a smoother transition through each phase of this pandemic process.

Fifth, get acquainted with uncertainty and lean into hope. One of the hardest parts of dealing with chronic illness is fear of the unknown. Life is uncertain, plans are uncertain, symptoms are uncertain, and not knowing how you will feel from day-to-day makes it hard to commit to anything.

“Leaning into hope a little each day will help keep our spirits afloat.”

Going so many years without a diagnosis also was frightening, especially as my symptoms continued to worsen. For me, it’s been a lesson in letting go of control, getting acquainted with uncertainty and leaning in to hope. These tools are easily applied to our current global health crisis. Leaning into hope a little each day will help keep our spirits afloat.

Sixth, be intentional in community building. We need each other now more than ever. Although we may not be able to physically share in each other’s company, the companionship of friends and family remains vitally important to our overall health and well-being.

Check in on each other often, send cards in the mail, use apps like Marco Polo to stay in touch, or schedule virtual dinners or game nights with your friends via Zoom. These things won’t replace a good hug from a friend, but they will help you stay connected and feel closer to those you love.

Isolating ourselves will only make this process longer and harder. We must be intentional in creating spaces that foster and build community engagement.

None of these lessons is easy. If they were, having such a dramatic shift in our lives and daily routines wouldn’t feel so jolting. But leaning into these things, and being open to learning and adapting, will help us get through the weeks and months to come.

Amber Cantorna grew up in the deeply conservative evangelical culture of Focus on the Family and now lives in the Denver area with her wife, Clara. She is the author of Refocusing My Family and Unashamed: A Coming Out Guide for LGBTQ Christians. She is a musician, writer and speaker.