In the summer of 2003, my sister and I travelled around the United States, spending a number of days in Washington D.C. Now what does one spend their time doing in Washington D.C.? Museums, of course. Museums, museums and more museums. It was an interesting, sometimes wonderful, and often-times somber trip. We saw monuments and memorials and spaceships and piles of suitcases and sparkly sequinned red shoes. I loved it. I was emotional in many moments of the few days, standing in front of Abraham Lincoln and reading his Gettysburg Address, visiting the Holocaust museum, and gazing up at Iwo Jima at Arlington Cemetery.
Our museum tour culminated in our visit to the Library of Congress. Exciting, right? Very famous
treasure maps pieces of paper. The thing is, as we were standing in front of the Declaration of Independence, I felt nothing.
My brain was telling myself that it was a really important document and I should be excited seeing it – but I got nothing from my heart. I was spent. It wasn’t possible for me to emote any more about American History in that moment. We had reached emotional saturation and lethargy. So that night we went to the movies. We felt guilty for doing so, for it seemed almost sacrilegious – but we just needed something different, something that didn’t require an emotional response; an escape.
Have you ever felt that way? In a season of immersion, or even grief and trauma, we emote and respond – up to a point. There is surprise, fear, anxiety, warmth, sorrow – appropriate responses to the information and situation presented. Good or bad, there seems to be a latent response mechanism present in our emotional arsenal.
But if it continues too long,
if the days trickle into weeks and months,
if the list of hits keep coming,
if the cancer comes back again- and again- and again,
sometimes we’re too tired to respond with the same level of grief and sorrow – even if the news is the worst we’ve heard yet.
Lethargic, tired, and guilty, our response may come out in a surprising way:
In an inappropriate joke
in a laugh when you ‘should’ be crying
in a dismissal-like acceptance when we may expect a full-blown riot against what is happening.
…but is that always a bad thing?
Many of you would know that my mum went through a long journey of cancer before she passed in 2010. Her story was not an uncommon tale: diagnosis, shock, surgery, chemotherapy, radiotherapy, grief, pain, hair loss, sickness, (repeat), remission, lymph node removal, lymphedema, sickness, deterioration…the process went on for many years.
I remember at one point during the last couple of months, amongst being surrounded by many prayers and hope of healing, that I just felt exhausted. I was even exhausted by the thought of mum miraculously getting better. It had been such a long few months of contemplating life without her, of tending her bedside, of sorting through financial and medical matters, that the long journey back to health seemed like an insurmountable process. So I couldn’t entertain the idea.
Of course this was a symptom of grief, of depression, of trauma, but I felt guilty feeling this way. Shouldn’t I care? Shouldn’t I want her to get better? Of course I did – the healthy and whole part of me of course did – but I had reached emotional saturation. I didn’t have capacity to emote any more at that point in time.
We can grit our teeth and clench our fists and ‘think’ our way into a response that we ‘should’ be engaging in in prolonged periods of suffering, but maybe that’s not the most helpful thing to do. Perhaps our body and soul is craving a release valve and respite, a some-thing other than the options our grief story is offering us.
Take for example; a side affect to doctors removing lymph nodes in mum’s arm was lymphedema. Her arm swelled up to around 3 times its original size, to the point where she had to constantly support her massive left arm with her right. It was horrible and debilitating. But man it was also hilarious, watching her having to deliberately move her hand from place to place; her ‘throwing’ her left arm into a high five was a particular highlight. I know this is in poor humour. But it offered a light moment and relief to my family during those awful months.
This is why compartmentalism/bad taste humour/online shopping/watching bad TV/not talking about Covid-19/etc can be helpful, life giving, and dare I argue, necessary. Long term or continual trauma is a marathon, not a sprint. We only have so much emotional capacity or energy before we get saturated and tired. I believe it is a life giving process for us to find spaces of respite that allow us to tend both heaviness and lightness at the same time.
Even if we think about this time of pandemic. We’ve had significant restrictions of our way of life for a number of weeks now, and even if some social distancing measures start opening up in the near future, we won’t be returning to ‘normal’ for a really long time: indeed for many around the world, Covid-19 is not just an inconvenience, it is – and will continue to be- a harbinger of long-term emotional, physical, social and financial trauma. So how do we sustain? How can we seek rhythms of rest amongst the enduring circumstance?
Rest – true rest – is a long term goal that is supported and maintained through intentional rhythms. It is spaces of self care and gratefulness and consideration. It is found in relationship and faith and peace and hope…but it doesn’t happen over night.
So in the mean time, while the trauma continues, while the exhaustion is present, I think it is far more important to celebrate and enable respite than it is to police ourselves (read: others) in our behavioural response. We don’t know other people’s stories. Most likely, there has already been tears – and there will most likely be more tears to come. Even more likely, they’re just tired.
So firstly, an acknowledgement of lethargy is paramount. Having grace for our tired souls is the first thing we should seek.
Repeat after me: “I’m tired. I’ve reached my emotional capacity”: The saying, the seeing, is important.
Secondly, we create spaces of respite:
Permission it for yourself. Champion it for others.
Laugh at the joke. Go for a meal. Watch the bad TV. Send the meme. Moments of lightness allow spaces – and breath – for the heaviness to be continued to be carried. Let’s not judge ourselves or others in their handling of trauma – but encourage and enable spaces for relief, respite and restoration.