Coronavirus has been a dominant theme in life and ministry over the past couple of weeks, and is set to become even more so. Time will be spent dealing with the practical implications for family, the pastoral care of those in the church, and looking out for those in need in wider society.
Alongside this has been the nagging feeling that as a Minister I should have something more profound to input into this situation, but a lack of anything to say that hasn’t been said many times before. Over the past couple of days, however, it has become clear what I must speak into this situation: It’s OK not to be OK.
The phrase is the subtitle of a book I read recently, Honesty over silence, by Patrick Regan, which deals with how churches fail to cope with people expressing that things are not ok, and the way this isolates those with mental health difficulties, fractured lives, physical trauma and a whole manner of other situations. He urges us to become communities that truly listen, allowing people to express themselves honestly without resorting to trite responses or making them think that their faith is somehow lacking for feeling as they do.
In the current situation with Coronavirus it needs to be said loud and clear: It’s OK not to be OK. To feel anxious, uncertain, traumatised by everything that is happening is not a sign of week faith. There is no need to be guilty for feeling you are not sure how you will navigate the difficulties this throws into you life, even if you feel they may be less than those faced by other people – they are your difficulties, and your feelings, and you must be able to express them.
Many people have expressed fear about the effects of the virus on “the most vulnerable.” By which they usually mean the physically old or those with particular medical conditions who are most likely to fall seriously ill or die if they catch it. This is of course important, but physical frailty is not the only vulnerability. Just within my own congregation I can name those who are vulnerable to the virus in the following ways:
- Those for whom long-term shutdown will mean temporary or permanent loss of income, leaving them unable to pay for their housing or feed their families.
- Those whose mental health is being negatively affected by the uncertainty. If you have never lived with mental illness or are naturally someone who thrives on spontaneity and risk, please never underestimate the percentage of people who only manage to get through life because they have spent years carving out routines which give them just enough control of their situation to be able to appear okay – routines which may suddenly have to be cast aside.
- Those with young children for whom the prospect of long weeks of school closure will causes issues with work/life balance, problems with acquiring affordable childcare, strain on their marriage, extreme exhaustion, or affect their emotional and physical health.
- Those who are separated from close family members for an indefinite period of time as a result of travel restrictions, or have had to cancel trips to visit loved ones and family.
- Those who have family members who have contracted the virus, or who are in a very vulnerable group for doing so, who can be extremely concerned about the health of those family members.
Taking that list, and I’m sure it can be added to, most (maybe even all) of us could be seen to be vulnerable to this virus in one way or another. Sending a message to anyone that they can’t express their concern and vulnerability because it’s “not as bad” as someone else’s is unhelpful, and goes against the example of Jesus who approached each and every individual as one who was in need in one way or another.
As the effects of this virus become even more acute, let’s remember that looking out for others is about more than not panic buying, or doing the shopping for the elderly lady next door – absolutely right as both of those responses are! – but about allowing each one the freedom to express their concerns, to be listened to, to be engaged with, and so hopefully to feel the love of others and the peace of Christ at this time.