It’s getting harder and we don’t know what to do about it.
In his song “My Oh My,” David Gray sings
What on earth is going on in my heart
As it turns as cold as stone?
Seems these days I don’t feel anything
‘Less it cuts me right down to the bone
What on earth is going on in my heart?
‘Cause my oh my, you know it just don’t stop
It’s in my mind I want to tear it up
Been trying to fight it, trying to turn it off
But it’s not enough
My oh my, you know it just don’t stop. In fact, it comes faster, and harder the longer it goes on. We’re all feeling it – the exhaustion, the wear and tear on our spirits and our bodies, the wear and tear on the people we serve in our congregations.
It’s only November, and already our colleagues – from ministers to religious educators to music directors to admins/communications/membership professionals – are bone tired. We’re bone tired the way we didn’t get until February last year, the way we didn’t get until April the year before, the way we didn’t get until May the year before that. How is it possible that the church year is only a few months old and we’re already done? And yet it is. Here we are, struggling to make it, wondering why what we used to do isn’t working anymore.
I’m not sure I have many answers for what we can do, but I think I have at least some idea why.
The world is exhausting.
Forecasts about the end of sustainable life on this planet alone are horrifying, no less the incredibly callous ways nations and corporations are contributing to the end, or the clanging cymbal of climate change deniers. Around the world we see battles between democracy and autocracy, between human rights and human subjugation. We are on the brink of so many wars, for no good reason but greed. We find ourselves in a state of something the Germans call weltschmerz, or world-weariness.
My oh my, you know it just don’t stop.
Our country is exhausting.
I can’t even begin to list the many ways, because since 2016, it has been a veritable flood of bad news, rights denied, laws flouted, institutions destroyed, humans devalued. We are in the first week of an impeachment hearing that may not result in anything but political theater. We are watching racists and bigots and misogynists emboldened by the current administration. Some of us continue to be harmed by their actions. Some of us are grappling with the truth of that harm that we have long denied.
And we’re experiencing backlash and harm from those who are uncomfortable with facing those truths.
My oh my, you know it just don’t stop.
Our colleagues are exhausting.
Okay, not all of them, but a few of them, who are reacting to this exhausting world/nation in exhausting ways.
For some of us, we are digging in deeper to do the hard work of dismantling the culture of white supremacy, patriarchy, kyriarchy. We’re struggling, and often failing, and sometimes seeing a small win that seems like a drop of water in the ocean – yet we keep coming back day after day, trying to be a little better every day. And that in itself is hard, deep soulwork.
And then we have colleagues who refuse to do this work and are swept up in the backlash, are part of the backlash. And so we react to that, trying to minimize the damage they do, worrying that it’s not enough, never enough. We find ourselves fighting an internal conflict that is a microcosm of the larger conflicts in our nation and our world.
My oh my, you know it just don’t stop.
Our congregants are exhausting.
While most of them don’t carry the grudges and bitterness of a denomination they think has left them, they are carrying weltschmerz and that same underlying anxiety. They bring it to us, with worries about health care, and safety, and our democracy. They watch the same news programs we do, are as riveted to Rachel and Lawrence as we are, are as overwhelmed by their Facebook and Twitter feeds as we are.
And they are looking to us to make sense of it, to offer a glimmer of hope, to remind them that all of this pain is worth it. I’m reminded of a scene in the TV show The Good Place, where the main character, Eleanor, after trying to do good and seeing no reward, says to a coworker “being good is for suckers. What do you even get out of it?” Her coworker replies “a feeling of fulfillment in your soul.” Eleanor pauses, and then responds. “Gross.”
I bet many of our congregants are in “gross” mode right now. Why bother? The world is going to hell in a handbasket, and we don’t even believe in hell.
And we are being asked to make sense of it.
Yes, that is an impossible, herculean task.
Not that we haven’t been trying. I’m grateful for colleagues who have been trying out loud, with more lucid commentary on the state of our world/nation/denomination than I can muster.
And still. My oh my, you know it just don’t stop.
I’m not sure it makes it easier to deal with it all, but let me assure you: You are not alone in this. You aren’t making it up. It’s not just you. It’s all of us, feeling this way, struggling, wondering why it’s getting harder and harder. We have all been dealing with this for a very long time, and it’s building up.
This buildup is exhausting.
I remember when a psychiatrist explained a way to think about antidepressants. He said that most of us experience ups and downs, on a wave that dances over a midline which I will call ‘okay’ – those times when you’re okay; not great, not bad, but okay. The okay line is fairly steady, fairly solid. When someone has depression, they still experience the ups and downs, but the okay line is a lot higher so the ups aren’t very high; antidepressants help lower the okay line/raise the wave so that we can see over okay a bit more.
What I think has happened to all of us is that the okay line has risen dramatically, due to the world/nation/internal strife that keeps piling on. The okay line gets pushed up and up because what’s under okay keeps building with no sense of relief. Even the people who do not experience depression or anxiety are struggling to get over the okay line, because it keeps rising through no fault of our own. What we have been doing to rise above okay just isn’t working anymore.
And if we’re feeling it, you know others are feeling it too.
So now what?
Writing all this, I realize I get to this turning point every time and think my answers are cheesy and trite, and I hear President Bartlet shouting “all hacks, off the stage!” at me. Yet they’re the only answers I have, so here we go.
First, watch/rewatch this webinar, offered by the UU Trauma Response Ministry and CLF just after the 2016 election. In this session, our colleague Julie Taylor helped us with tools for making it through, and to be honest, I don’t think any of us ever thought we’d be still struggling with it so many years out, or how we would be struggling. We didn’t really know then just what a constitutional crisis we might be facing or just how distressing the flood of awfulness would be. The tools Julie offers are still incredibly useful for us now; I still have my buddy and we check in almost every week.
Second, rely on each other. When it comes to stories, lesson plans, liturgical elements, prayers we’ve written, rituals, sermons, or songs – share them and borrow them. A lot of that kind of sharing happens in our collegial Facebook groups, and I think it makes a huge difference. I know it helps me, knowing that others can help, with their wisdom and talent and generosity.
More broadly, rely on our colleagues with specialties. There are a bunch of us who specialize in trauma, conflict, fundraising, worship, family systems, misconduct, governance. Some of us are regional consultants, and some of us are entrepreneurial ministers and consultants. It is not a vice or a sign of weakness to ask for help from someone with some expertise; in fact, it’s ridiculous that we expect every religious professional to be an expert at everything (and yet we do). Ask for help. We’re here for you.
Third, more intimately: remember who you are. You, not your role, not your job, but you. What brings you comfort? Joy? What defines you? I think we put aside those things in times of stress because they seem frivolous or meaningless. Remember the things we have learned about spiritual practice? They apply here too: don’t set aside the things that connect you to you because you don’t have time or they seem hollow right now – it’s in the doing that meaning, peace, and comfort emerge. Push through the dull, disconnected times and just keep doing it. This may also be a good time to consider the theology that most grounds you – the theology you know is true even if it doesn’t seem to make sense right now.
Fourth, remember whose you are. Yes, more globally, we all belong to one another, but more specifically for purposes of this moment, who are the people that bring you joy, comfort, assurance, support? Who are the people you can admit to that you’re struggling? More than ever, we need collegial covenant groups; maybe it’s a group from seminary, or your cluster, or some other connection like a dream group, a spiritual deepening group, a study group, etc. More than ever, we also need connections outside of our colleagues too – family and friends who (a) aren’t deeply enmeshed in Unitarian Universalism and (b) don’t give a toss that we’re religious professionals. I have some friends that I made through a fandom of mine, and I feel so comfortable just being with them, laughing together, geeking out about shows and music and games we love, without having to be ‘on.’
Fifth, yes, do your spiritual practice. Of course. If you haven’t been doing one, pick one up. (YES, you have time for it.) If you have been doing one and it feels stale, try something new. If you have one you’re doing, embrace and celebrate it. Related, connect with a spiritual director if you haven’t already.
Sixth, all the good self care stuff comes into play here – not self-soothing, although that’s good too. Take care of yourself. Eat as well as you’re able. Get rest. Get exercise. Take your vitamins. Drink plenty of water. Clean up, fix up, organize. Honor your sabbath (whatever day that is for you) and keep it holy. Listen to music or podcasts that bring you life. Take social media sabbaths. Turn off the news for a day. I promise – it’ll keep, and someone will update you.
None of this is earth shattering. We all know this. Most of us preach it, teach it, and sing it. But in the context of all that’s going on, it’s worth reminding ourselves that it applies to us too.
Know that you are not alone. I see what you’re going through and am with you. So are other colleagues. We will get through this together. It’s what we’ve got. You’re my people – I’m yours.
I love you. Let’s do this together.