Making Room for 2021

Dec 20, 2020

By Reverend Rebecca Bryan

2020! Oh, what a year it has been.

I’m so ready for it to be over. I didn’t think it could get any worse, and then it did. The pandemic, Black Lives Matter, the loss of so many innocent people’s lives, the political situation, and divisions in our country. Bring on 2021. It has to be better than this!

I’ve heard all those sentiments, and more, from many people, including myself.

I too am looking forward to 2021. I am relieved and overjoyed as the first vaccinations are being administered, and I cry at the prospect that we may very well be together again in person, come September and the start of the new church year, in this sanctuary.

While I’m relieved, excited, and grateful, I am also worried because I know it’s not over even though we’ve found a vaccine. People will still be grieving many losses, not the least of which is a year or more of lives spent in ways we had never imagined.

Only a few weeks into the pandemic, a colleague and I were reflecting on the reality that this pandemic is going to affect the life of our congregations, and our ministry, for years to come. We talked about grief and what it takes for people to reconcile, or integrate, loss and traumatic events.

It takes at least two years for a person to feel less anguished after a divorce or similar loss. And it’s going to take us time individually and as a community to integrate what has happened since we last gathered as a congregation in this sanctuary, nine months and eight days ago.

Fortunately, our church is rooted in values of authentic connection and love. We are deeply committed to supporting one another through the trials of life and to creating a spiritual home of belonging for everyone who chooses to be here. This is a place where it will be okay to feel, however you feel, and to participate in church, however you choose, virtually or in person, once the “new normal” post-vaccine world takes shape.

We will hold space for you as you take the time you need and do the things you need to do to make sense of all that has happened. We will stay together as we assimilate the past months, grieve our losses, and grapple with how to live now. We’ve always done that; we will continue to. Every person’s journey will be honored.

In her podcast Unlocking Us, Brené Brown interviewed Emily and Amelia Nagoski, co-authors of Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle. The Nagoskis’ work confirms that for us to recover from what we have individually and collectively experienced over the last many months, we must deal with both the stressors and our responses to them, which is the key. “…  because you’ve dealt with the stressor doesn’t mean you’ve dealt with the stress itself,” they write.[1]

Stressors are the external and internal source of stress. The stress response is the neurological and physiological changes that happen when we encounter a stressor: increased heart rate, hormones pouring into our bodies, and emotions.

We are designed to move through the stress response and return to homeostasis; however, for many of us that is not what happens. Instead of returning to homeostasis, we remain stuck. A critical reason that we remain stuck is because we don’t fully process our emotions about a stressor.

Emotions are involuntary neurological events that take place in our bodies and help us deal with stressors. Emotions have a beginning, middle, and end. We must go through all those stages, or we get stuck at some point. When we get stuck in our emotional process, we become emotionally exhausted, the first indicator of burnout. Nagoski writes, “Emotions are tunnels. If you go all the way through them, you get to the light at the end.”[2]

Burnout is a concept developed by Herbert Freudenberger in 1975. It has three components: emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and decreased sense of accomplishment. In 2019, twenty to thirty percent of teachers in America reported having moderately high to high levels of burnout, while medical workers reported levels as high as fifty-two percent.

These statistics are pre-pandemic, I can only imagine how high they are right now. One statistic I have seen is that seventy percent of pastors say they want to get out of ministry at this point.

We get stuck in our emotional process for three reasons: chronic stressors, norms that dictate societal appropriateness for expressing our feelings, and not being, or feeling, safe to express our feelings.[3]

The Nagoskis identify seven things we can do to complete the stress cycle. As we explore these, I invite you to hold a particular challenge from this year and see which may resonate with you as a way to release it. These are listed in your order of service.

  1. First, and more than anything else, is physical activity.
  2. Breathing. Deep breathing.
  3. Positive social interaction, especially connecting honestly with others who understand you.
  4. Laughter
  5. Expressing affection. Research shows that hugging a tree or a pole can have the same positive effect.
  6. Crying, without needing to think about why you are crying. It’s not the story; it’s the physical release.
  7. Creative expression: writing, drawing, gardening, arranging flowers.

The challenge for most people, the Nagoskis write, is that “…‘completing the cycle’… almost always requires that they stop dealing with whatever caused the stress, step away from that situation, and turn instead to their own body and emotions.” [4] In other words, the answer to completing the stress cycle does not necessarily have anything to do with the stressor.

Understanding the need to finish the emotional cycle, valuing the ways we can do that, and supporting ourselves and each other in doing so may be some of the most important things we can do as we make our way through the next couple of years.

We can remember that there is nothing wrong with us if we don’t feel entirely happy-go-lucky when things begin returning to normal. We may be stuck in the stress response and need to support ourselves in moving out of the tunnel.

And of course, not all our days will be difficult. You will be overjoyed holding your grandchild’s hand, joining others singing, or returning here together. Relish those healing emotions. I promise they will be there too!

Amen and blessed be.

[1] Nagoski, Emily and Nagoski, Amelia PhD, Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle, Ballantine Books, New York, NY 2019, pg. 6.

[2] Nagoski, Emily and Nagoski, Amelia PhD, Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle, Ballantine Books, New York, NY 2019. pg. xii.

[3] Nagoski, Emily and Nagoski, Amelia PhD, Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle, Ballantine Books, New York, NY 2019. Pgs 9-10.

[4] Nagoski, Emily and Nagoski, Amelia PhD, Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle, Ballantine Books, New York, NY 2019. Pg. 24.

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