Twenty-five years ago, I was sitting on a park bench in Sheffield feeling very sorry for myself. I had blown it – again.
I doubt I’m the only one who’s ever been embarrassed by being stuck in a behavioural loop – our own worst enemy. For me it was about my desperate search for a soul mate.
In the loop, I’d see someone I liked in the small circle of the Sheffield University Christian Union and my imagination would go into overdrive.
There was very little chance to actually get to know people, just a couple of weekly meetings – no-one had phones or social media then – and worse still, the CU was dominated by cliques based on halls of residence groups, none of which I was in. So, a brief conversation or even a look from a pretty girl was all it took to convince me she was the one!
And yet … And yet there was absolutely nothing in it. I’d realise that without a doubt – and hopefully without making too much of a muppet of myself. And I’d be crushed, lonely and despairing again.
What was different about this time? Lost at what to do, I got a book from the local Christian bookshop. It was about Christianity and depression. I have no idea where the book is now but the thing I recall is that the starting point was the need to accept the reality of what was happening. I had to accept where I was so I could do something about it.
All these years later, the opener to this book has been rattling around my head in the last few weeks. Then last Sunday my church’s interim leader, Tom, spoke about this need for acceptance and surrendering our frustration to God so that he can show us as the new opportunities he wants to bring out of this time.
With characteristic authenticity, Tom has been helping us get to grips with the reality of faith in this crazy season, which won’t be ending any time soon.
A distinction is important. What we need to accept is what is happening; we don’t need to think it’s ok. Covid is awful. This isn’t about stiff upper lips. It’s about accepting that like it or not, this is a challenge we have to face.
There are a couple of bad alternatives to acceptance. The first is self-pity, which was in the past my natural inclination after another romantic fantasy bubble popped. Why me? Why do I always do this? Why is it so hard? Self-pity is understandable but it gets you nowhere – trust me, I’ve had lots of practice. Self-pity only builds up frustration and anger, which makes us bitter and saps our energy.
We will of course experience frustrations. Work this past six months has been hard. We work in isolation from each other with dodgy IT. I am in middle management in a hierarchy and don’t always agree with the top of the food chain. One day this week I’d had enough, mostly because of the IT but most days have been better recently because I have processed some of my frustrations. I’ve had some honest conversations with those above me and ultimately accepted that these are the circumstances I’ll be working with for the foreseeable future.
The stiff upper lip is the opposite pitfall – to deny there is a problem at all. This isn’t true. Suppression doesn’t change the facts – you just shove them under the carpet and then repeatedly trip over them. I’m not going to deny the risk of Covid here – just look up the death rates! Rather we can deny that covid is affecting us. I have tried hard to enable my staff at work to be open about how hard work is in this season so we can look practically at things that will help.
Just like my IT rage, we will have times we struggle and pretending otherwise will not help. It’s a bit like people posting their life highlights on Facebook. The chances are no-one is planning to post a video of themselves watching daytime TV while eating Haagen Dazs from the tub and shouting at the children, but this season will not always find us at our best! Better to be honest about that so we can figure out how to do next time better.
Life is weird and is going to be weird and difficult for a good while yet. In accepting this with the support of honest, loving community we can try and work through it together.
How do we get through this? Let’s be honest: there’s no quick fix. If someone writes a ‘7 steps to live through coronavirus’ book, I trust at least one person will buy it and throw it at them. Community is key so we can listen and then try and move each other towards the ‘what can be done about it?’ place. Sometimes we need to be able to have that whinge and then be lovingly steered towards the ways we can respond well. As we meet in community, God can use our different gifts to shed light, bring hope and help us see new opportunities. Change always brings opportunities such as the incredible ways communities have stepped up to support each other through Mutual Aid groups.
Community is key and so is kindness. Kindness for each other obviously, but also a little kindness for ourselves. Please believe me, the voice that says everyone else is managing this just fine is a liar. It’s tough for all of us. Often, we give ourselves the hardest time – when you recognise this in yourself, ask what you’d say to someone else dealing with what you’re dealing with. In most cases I think we’d be kinder to that other person. We need to do our best folks, that’s all anyone can ask. As always, I point back to a God who offers to take our burdens and offers the community of faith, so we don’t have to do it all by ourselves.
I believe God made me some promises that day on the bench, one of which was the promise of a wife. I’d love to say I didn’t go back around that loop again. I did but I was becoming a bit more aware. When I started thinking about my wife Louise five years later, I knew the risk of my imagination bolting off into the sunset. So that day as I got ready to go to the St Tom’s Millennium Night bash where I hoped I’d see her, I prayed for help to keep on an even keel. We got to speak that night for hours and the rest is history!
We know what it is to have the happy ending but clearly, we have also known what it is like to experience the worst outcome imaginable when we lost our little boy some years later.
Our church helpfully talks about life as a series of blessings and battles; it’s a good basis to set our expectations. There will be battles; we need to be open about them and face them together. As we do, there will be blessings to share with one another and often the two will run side by side. As is often the case, what is happening will not define us during this time but how we react to it will. Saying ‘it’s not fair’ or pretending it’s not affecting us won’t help. Standing together will.