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7 tips for coping with COVID

Coping with life during crisis

“Discombobulating” is one word the Rev. Glenn Wagner uses to describe our current times. He then offers tips and tools for coping with the challenges of life in the shadow of COVID-19. 

GLENN WAGNER
Michigan Conference Communications

What word would you choose to describe how this global pandemic is personally affecting you? Stressful. Aggravating. DepressingLonelyFearful. Upsetting. Discombobulating. Threatening. Costly. Selfish. Desperate. Conflicted . . .

Have you also experienced how some words in your vocabulary have been given a new depth of meaning during this shutdown? Courage. Creativity. Neighborliness. Sacrifice. Generosity. Kindness. Quiet. Hopefulness. Encouragement. Unity. Prayer ...

In recent weeks of sheltering in place, I have been experiencing all of these words, intensely. 

To say these are challenging days for many of us is an understatement.

By the middle of April, the New York Times reports that new unemployment claims have exceeded 20 million persons in just four weeks.

CBS news reports that 40% of Americans (52.5 million people) don’t have even $400 in savings to help with expenses in case of an emergency. The emergency has arrived.

As of this writing on April 20, there have been 2,444,698 confirmed coronavirus cases in the world, with 168,008 deaths.

In Michigan the statistics for this deadly virus on April 20 are 31,424 cases with 2,391 deaths.

In the U.S. on April 20 there are 771,197 confirmed cases with 41,356 deaths.

These coronavirus statistics now have names for me. People that I know. Don, Sam, Greg, and the next-door neighbor of a family member.  

As a result of our shut down, deaths for Pauline, Ken, and Maureen have resulted in isolation for families instead of gatherings for funerals to offer the comfort of supportive presence and the earned recognition due to lives well lived. Virtual condolences are not the same as real hugs.

Businesses that have been regular haunts have closed. Entire sections of our economy that thrive on social connecting like tourism, athletics, entertainment, education, transportation, community festivals, and religious gatherings have all been hampered until further notice. 

Protests making headlines from our state capitol in Lansing have shown the world the intensity of conflict over the impact of the virus and the direction of our public and private response to it.

I would like to share seven lessons that have proven helpful for me when coping with challenging circumstances like those being posed by this pandemic. These lessons are not new, nor are they original with me. They have helped me. I pray they can also help some of you.

  1. Exercise. In working with suicidal and depressed people as a chaplain in mental health settings, I learned the importance of physical activity as a helpful prescription for persons prone to self-destructive and isolating tendencies. Your gym may be closed, but getting outside for a daily walk to keep your heart beating and your muscles toned is essential. If you can’t get outdoors, try jogging in place before the television or looking up a free YouTube exercise video to get you moving. Particularly if you are prone to depression or unhealthy amounts of alcohol or drug use, exercise can be an antidote.
  2. Vent. It is OK to express your feelings with unvarnished honesty. Write a letter to God. Share your anger, your frustrations, your worry, your doubts, your fears. Share anything and everything you are feeling. Let God and the paper or computer hold your toxic emotions, so you don’t have to. Read the book of Lamentations in the Bible aloud. The prophet Jeremiah vented when he wrote this raw expression of his grief and his faith following the destruction of Jerusalem at the hands of the Babylonians in 586 BC. Grief, despair, and cataclysmic loss are real emotions that humans have been dealing with for a very long time. In the pages of scripture are multiple examples of honest venting and examples of how faithful people continued to affirm their faith in a God who is greater than our worries. Joseph, Job, Habakkuk, Ruth, Esther, David, and Paul are a few noteworthy examples of men and women who coped with challenging circumstances. Our biblical ancestors provide us with historical precedent for the helpfulness of venting.
  3. Take control. During the Iran-hostage crisis from 1979-1981, 52 Americans were held hostage and in isolation for 444 days. Afterward, one of the hostages wrote about his ordeal for Reader’s Digest, citing as essential his pre-crisis military survival skills training. Finding something that he could control even when all else was out of his control was necessary for his sanity. I don’t remember the author’s name, but I never forgot his wisdom. In this instance, the survivor mentioned that the act of brushing his teeth daily proved helpful. He recalled, “They took away my freedom, my family, my contact with the outside world, and tried to deprive me of all hope, but they didn’t take away my toothbrush. Keeping fresh breath every day kept me alive.” For 38 years since I read this sage advice, cleaning our bathroom each morning has helped my peace of mind. I reasoned that with all the challenges pastors face daily, I could find comfort in an orderly bathroom. This life lesson on controlling something small has worked for me. We are in a new time of crisis. What aspects of your life can you control and establish as a daily discipline for your stability? Prayer? Connecting by phone with a friend? Cleaning your house? Reading the Bible? Making your bed each morning? Control of daily routine(s) can help us maintain our equilibrium even when there are many other aspects of our lives that are out of our control.
  4. Connect. We are social beings. We all have a deep need for others in our lives. Our ability to make friends and maintain meaningful relationships are vital to our mental health. Long periods of total isolation can be stressful and depressing. Use your phone. Connect with people that you love via the internet. Write letters to your loved ones. Learn to utilize online tools like Zoom and schedule virtual times with important people in your life to get together online. Tune in to listen to church worship online. Find ways to share your news with people who matter to you by using social media like Facebook, Twitter, and Linked-In. I have been inspired by a virtual worship leader who during a Sunday live stream, said, “This is the time in the service when we would ordinarily invite you to get up and greet your neighbor in the passing of the peace of Christ. Instead, this morning, I will quietly play the piano for the next minute and I would like you to text someone you know and care about and who may need to know they are loved. Let them know you are thinking about them and lifting them in prayer.” Later that same day, I was inspired to go through the accumulated photos on my phone and to email and text pictures and prayers of support to those friends who appeared in the pictures.
  5. Give. Find ways to give of your time, talent, and or treasure to help someone else. The late Dr. Karl Menninger, who was once one of our nation’s leading psychiatrists and the founder of the Menninger Clinic, was asked what advice he would offer to someone who was severely depressed. Would he recommend therapy? Shock treatments? Medication? The wise doctor replied, “I would encourage my patient to cross the street and find someone in greater need and get busy to help them!” Local shelters are stretched thin. Medical providers need encouragement and supplies. The unemployed may need a gift to survive until government help arrives. Expressions of condolence can bless the grieving. Churches and many other worthwhile charities are struggling with this significant disruption to their regular income streams. If you have money to spare, share it. If you have talents to offer, use them. Your generosity will bless you and help others in need.
  6. Pursue happiness. American historian David McCullough, in his insightful collection of commemorative speeches, “The American Spirit,” observed, “When our founders spoke of the ‘pursuit of happiness,’ they did not mean long vacations or the piling up of things.  Happiness was in the enlargement of one’s being through the life of the mind and of the spirit . . . George Washington wrote, ‘Knowledge is in every country the surest basis of public happiness.'” If you have time during this season of social distancing, read new books, learn new skills, and enlarge your mind. The news around us may be grim, but our response to the reports does not need to be depression or anger. We can give thanks to the God who gifts us with life with all of its challenges by finding new ways to grow through it all.
  7. Prayer. In truth, this should be our priority response to coping with this pandemic. Lynne McTaggart, in her well-documented book, “The Intention Experiment,” demonstrates how prayer in many forms can make a positive difference in outcomes. There are certainly many places in which we can focus prayers that matter.
    • Pray for the safety, stamina, and labors of our health care providers.
    • Pray for those afflicted by this virus.
    • Pray for wisdom and courage for government leaders while making decisions of enormous public consequences.
    • Pray for researchers searching for a cure.
    • Pray for struggling businesses.
    • Pray for the unemployed and the marginalized who are most vulnerable.
    • Pray for employees in essential businesses who work with higher risk of exposure to the virus daily and who work to keep the rest of us safe, sheltered, and fed.
    • Pray for those who face major life events like birth, marriage, and death with a restricted circle of support.
    • Pray for our schools and parents thrust into the role of teachers during this pandemic.
    • Pray for all who are at higher risk and quarantined with known abusers.
    • Pray for persons who lack the personal skills to make right decisions and who are struggling with social isolation.
    • Pray for the continued well-being of yourself and people who matter to you (family, neighbors, colleagues, and friends).
    • Pray that through it all, God’s people will still find ways to be effective witnesses for Jesus Christ. Pray that God will enable new vision and a renewed mission for his people.

When Jesus ascended to heaven in the unexpected aftermath of the crucifixion and resurrection, his disciples faced tremendous challenges, including a disbelieving world, a hostile government, and a brand new way of living. Jesus was no longer physically present to lead them in their season of crisis. The disciples wondered about what was next. 

The Bible reminds us in Matthew 28:16-20 and again in Acts 1:8 that Jesus left us with a clear job description that is adaptable for every contingency. Go into all the world. Make disciples. Baptize and teach remembrance of Jesus’ commandments. Serve as witnesses for Jesus. Love, compassion, forgiveness, grace, generosity, and hope never go out of style.

No matter what challenges we face in this pandemic, Jesus gave us meaningful work to do and promised to be with us through it all.

In times of stress, I have been helped. I can highly recommend these tools for your consideration: 1) exercise, 2) venting, 3) taking control, 4) connecting with others, 5) giving of yourself, 6) pursuing happiness by expanding your mind, and 7) prayer.

It helps me most to remember that when the challenge of this virus gets most distressing, we are not alone. God is with us.

As a man named David once shared in a Psalm, he wrote on arguably one of the worst days of his life, “The Lord is near to the brokenhearted. He saves the crushed in spirit” (Psalm 34:18). I believe it.