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And the peace of God which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds. (Philippians 4-7 NIV)
Hearing this verse always arouses my skepticism. What makes a person attribute their peace to God, much less give them assurance that it will protect their hearts and minds? I have had conversations with people about finding contentment in life while they continued to strive to meet their goals. And I have observed that many people never seem content—content with what they have while knowing that others have more. This is not my issue. I know others have more and I am good with it. But such contentment is different from my experience of peace.
Peace to me is knowing all will be well, even when some of the things I want are missing, even when my world and the global world are in turmoil. Peace is knowing that something or someone greater than I is there surrounding me with the knowledge that I am not alone.
So why is this passage speaking to me now? After a period in my life when I thought things were going right, they suddenly seemed to be going wrong. Yet, I realized I was at peace. How did this happen I asked myself? Self didn’t answer. My mind told me much needed to occur before I could be at peace. However, I was at peace. When did this happen? How did that happen? Had the peace of God actually guarded my heart and mind? My skepticism arose at that thought.
Reflecting back, I realized that after a conversation with a friend about food sufficiency I found myself at peace. I recognized how fortunate that I was. In spite of what I thought was a financial downturn for me, I did not have to worry about food or a place to live. All would be well. I have pondered why this is so. Was it because I realized that I really had so much?
In the past, I have said I gave my problems to God in prayer, but instead of trusting God I tried to solve them myself. I have always pushed back against people who base their sense of peace on the assurance that God will take care of their every need. Surely, this so-called peace is untethered to how the world works. I believe that God is there to comfort, and walk with us through the rough patches, not keep us from harm or want. As I thought through this, I have come to realize that peace came not from any conversation about food, but from rejecting the idea that I could do it alone. I needed to trust God’s love. Once I did, all was well with my soul. I found a place of comfort and peace. I still struggle with this realization. But at least I struggle in peace.
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During the last nine months we have heard over and over again: “We are in this together.” But what does this mean? Does it mean we feel each other’s pain? Is it just a good slogan for TV ads? Are the people who will not wear a mask, who consider the virus a hoax, or who dismiss it as no worse than the flu really in this together with me. I think not.
I have friends who are in this together with me. They are the ones who will drop everything and talk, walk, cry with me, even while socially distanced on a retaining wall. They are the ones who are willing to share a bottle of wine, even while keeping their distance at the pool. They are the one who Zoom with me, even when I don’t feel my appearance is “Zoom ready.” My “We are in this together” friends listen to my pain without critique or judgment. In our conversations, they have taught me to give and receive grace amidst the risks we each take to stay connected.
When as a young woman, I went through a divorce while separated from my family by over 1,600 miles. My grandmother, who was so old-school she didn’t even use the word “divorce,” sent me a letter with a poem that made the miles between us vanish. The poem contained a line I have always remembered: “Love may come and love may go, but friends are the sunshine of life.”
Even though we are all doing this pandemic in different ways, the most important thing for me is to cherish and hold close my friends, for they are the sunshine of my life. Who are your “We are in this together” friends? My hope is that you too find the sunshine of life in these friends, as they walk beside you on this pandemic journey.
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Is it possible that we don’t want to admit this is a really painful and hard experience?
During a recent conversation, I heard: “I’m not really doing okay, but everybody else says they’re fine.” I took a deep breath and realized I had said that exact thing to him earlier in the conversation. Truthfully, I wasn’t doing fine either. After I admitted that, we had an authentic conversation around our challenges. Why is it so hard for us to say, “I’m not doing well,” during this pandemic? Many of us are in pain. Many more are lonely and scared. Even more of us are depressed. Why is it so hard to be honest with each other?
Each day I read articles and watch television segments on the wonderful things people are doing, how we are really connecting while sheltering in place. Some describe how they are connecting by calling someone each day, which of course is a nice thing to do. I also have reached out to people I haven’t talked to in a long time. While these people were happy to know that I had thought of them, the conversation never left the surface. When I tried to talk about the pain of this pandemic experience, it often made them uncomfortable.
I recently read an article on toxic positivity. Natalie Dattilo, a clinical psychologist with Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, says too much positivity is toxic. Well intentioned comments like “It will be fine” or “It could be worse” can be damaging as they stigmatize acknowledging the depth of our pain and struggles.
I am usually a positive person. In fact, positivity is one of my top ten strengths according to Gallup’s Strength Finder assessment. But I have found it increasingly difficult to keep my spirits up in a landscape where honest discussions of pain are almost nonexistent. Finding and maintaining emotional health during this pandemic will require us to find ways to move beyond superficiality and stock responses of “I’m fine” when we are clearly not. God knows we are not fine. Maybe it’s okay if others do too.
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The catchphrase of the moment is “New Normal.” Are the times we are living through going to be our new normal? Are we looking for a new normal on the other side of COVID-19? How do we find a way to make peace with where we are now while not despairing about the future? Essentially, how do we live in liminal space, where we are mentally, emotionally, physically, and spiritually destabilized and disoriented; where old touchstones, habits, and comforts have vanished?
In her article, “Never Let a Crisis Go to Waste,” May Busch writes in the Summer 2020 ASU Alumni magazine: “The most important question you can ask yourself right now is: “How do I want to emerge from this better and stronger?” I encourage those I coach to use this time to think about their future, to improve their skills, and to create a career path or life that is consistent with their values. Are you yearning to visualize and create a different lifestyle? If you take time during this pandemic to unleash your creativity, you will be poised to move forward confidently into a new future. How do you want the new normal of your future to look?
The people who think deeply about these things will be the ones who will come out the other side with a renewed appreciation of life. At the very least, they will come out of this knowing that their mothers were right to tell them to wash their hands!