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Embracing uncertainty in ‘2020: Continued’

Wednesday, 17 February 2021  | Sarah Judd-Lam

2020 was hard-going on us all. And despite our collective yearning for a fresh start and global ‘re-boot’ in 2021, here we are a few weeks in and things haven’t changed much.

Christmas and New Year celebrations were scaled down and thrown into disarray for many of us, especially those living in, or planning to be in, Sydney. While Australian governments have managed to keep COVID cases and deaths relatively very low on a global scale, constantly changing risks and restrictions have taken their toll on our wellbeing, and the cancellation of quality time with family and trips away felt, for many, like just one more kick in the guts.

As we speed through February 2021, I find myself responding to the ‘how are yous’ of friends and family with a litany of fears, conflicts and disappointments in my life and the lives of those I love. The classic 2020 combination of global, local and personal upheaval does not appear to have abated.

Here in Australia, there is much to be thankful for. However, a worsening global pandemic, the economic and social fallout of a year of restrictions on movement and gathering, and intense political upheaval and polarisation in the United States have only added to the already high levels of stress I have observed in those around me, among whom conflict at work, strained friendships, broken marriages and sudden illness and bereavement seem to be far more prolific than usual.

So, how have we coped with the challenges that 2020 and its successor, ‘2020 continued’, have thrown our way? And how can we persist while the uncertainties and losses continue?

As Christians, the Bible offers us much insight into the spectrum of human emotion and how God instructs and models us to manage it. However, church culture, in my experience at least, is not always the best at equipping and supporting us to truly enter in to the disappointments of human experience in a way that validates our difficult feelings and enables us to truly grow. In the absence of practical guidance about how to bring these feelings before God, we tend to reach for the ‘crutches' that the world offers.

In the book Emotionally Healthy Spirituality, pastor Peter Scazzero elaborates: ‘In our culture, addiction has become the most common way to deal with pain. We watch television for hours to not feel. We keep busy, running from one activity to another. We work seventy hours a week, indulge in pornography, overeat, drink, take pills – anything to help us avoid the pain…’ In doing so, he writes, we miss the opportunity to face our anger, sadness and grief in a way that ‘“enlarges” our soul and transforms us into lovers of [God] and others’.

When we reflect on 2020, many of us will likely observe that in our stress we turned to escapist content consumption: TV, streaming, podcasts, social media, gaming or the more traditional escapist pursuits of reading and listening to music. I certainly did – my escapist ‘drug of choice’ is Netflix, and along with many others in December 2020 I laughed until I cried at the comedy music clip, We watched it all, by Matt Buechele, dedicated to everyone who ‘finished Netflix’ in 2020.

Technology and entertainment certainly got many of us through increased time at home in 2020. The Mint Partners recently reported a steady rise in TV and catch-up viewing and increasing numbers of Australians tuning into podcasts. According to Civic Web Media, usage of top social media platforms Facebook and YouTube has soared. Undoubtedly, digital media has helped us to stay connected and distracted in a challenging year. But when might it become too much?

A Christian counsellor I once saw recommended some light escapism – sci-fi fiction was the example she used – as an important self-care strategy for those working through big thoughts and feelings on a near-constant basis. I agree, and have personally found, that relief from reality through enjoyment of the arts and entertainment is helpful for maintaining wellbeing. But I have also discovered that it can become an easy crutch when there are ‘big feelings’ we need to confront.

Indeed, Stress management experts point to ‘numbing’ or ‘self-medicating’ activities as common ways we seek to relieve mental pressure, but caution that they can actually work against our wellbeing in the long run. Sometimes we simply need to confront and work through our difficult feelings rather than avoid or push through them.

Prominent psychotherapist and relationship expert, Esther Perel, has blogged about the complex mix of emotions people have experienced during the pandemic, and highlighted the importance of identifying, articulating and exploring one’s feelings as a healthy form of stress regulation. Not everyone has time for this, however, and many of us don’t even know where to start.

For some people, more time at home has provided unprecedented opportunity to observe and explore the difficult feelings that have arisen during this challenging time. But for those stuck at home but with less reflection time than ever, such as parents balancing full time work with homeschooling, fears and insecurities have in many cases still loomed large, placing unprecedented pressure on their relationships with their children and spouse, and on their mental health.

It seems to me that it has been difficult to avoid a sense of vulnerability and brokenness during this time, however it has come about. In essence, we are tired, we are stressed, we are uncertain. But as the sun dawns on 2021, we are also a lot stronger, more grounded and more resilient than we were this time twelve months ago.

While things are a little calmer again Down Under on the COVID front, there is no better time to tackle those difficult emotions that we have experienced in recent months. While we might still need to ‘switch off’ by ‘switching on’ every now and then in order to cope, we can also turn to our loving Father and his Word to receive guidance and comfort in facing the anger, fear, sadness, loneliness and grief that may have been bubbling to the surface. And we can turn to each other, and support those within our families, churches and communities to navigate these challenging times.

Sarah Judd-Lam is a woman of faith who loves writing about social issues and is passionate about understanding why we do things the way we do and how we can do them better. All views expressed here are her own.

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