Time for one of those deeply introspective, self-reflective yet pastoral posts you all love so much. Or I hope you all love so much, since this is how my brain works about 86% of the time.
You might struggle with something and it might be “something everyone does” and you still struggle with it. Having people tell us, “Oh, yeah, everyone does that” may be invalidating rather than comforting, because it can minimize or trivialize what we’re trying to face.
If you can’t seem to get anything done or accomplished right now, that’s not unusual but it’s still important. That might be depression or the underlying anxiety that comes with We’re in a Pandemic and No One Knows How This Will Go. It might feel baffling. What’s wrong with me?
So you tell someone,
“I can’t seem to finish a book right now.”
It may be validating to get back,
“Oh, yeah, I can’t either.”
But it can feel very different to hear,
“Oh, that happens to everyone,” or “I never manage to finish books,” or “That’s not a big deal…”
Now say you’re a reader like me or more so. I haven’t read nearly enough in the last few months. By that, I mean I have been distracted and frittered away time where I shouldn’t (*cough* *social media* *cough*) and have not done good, spiritual reading nor educational reading nor professional development (i.e. novel) reading as I
should want to and really enjoy. I’m in a rut of doomscrolling. Not every moment, but way too many moments. if you’re a bibliophile and read a book a week and constantly have 4 or 5 books going at any one time,* and you discover, “Crap, I haven’t read anything for three months,” that’s not just a bummer. That’s a symptom.
Your thing might be journaling or fixing cars or hiking or glass-blowing or gardening. It might be your actual job which you like but can feel you’re just dialing in right now (yeah, that might be a quarantine joke, and it still might also be true). If you can’t–or don’t feel up to–doing your thing, I encourage you to pay attention to that.
If you don’t feel like you, that’s understandable right now. If you’ve tried to tell someone,
“I’m not exercising enough” and they’re like “My gosh, you’re in such good shape, you should see what my scale says!”
Or “I’m not baking like I usually do” and they tell you “Well, you’re lucky, because that would just be a bigger temptation right now.”
First, I’m sorry that your friend couldn’t hear what you were really saying. Second, that’s a serious thing for you, even if your barely-functioning level is still the envy of others. Sometimes comparisons are damaging for us not because we’re comparing ourselves but because others are and we stop being honest because that isn’t fun to hear.
Most people aren’t experiencing their “normal life” right now. That can be a great thing, as it offers us a moment and a breather to evaluate whether this so-called “normal” is what we still want to choose. But this isn’t a step-away vacation. It’s a world-wide crisis. So even trying to gain perspective becomes really difficult with the uncertainty and bubbling anxiety.
Added to that, at least in my case, is a constant anger/frustration/discouragement about the current state of politics and especially how people are behaving and treating one another. Turns out, continuous anger for months on end is awful on the body. Who knew? I feel like I’m in a constant wrestling match with myself between lashing out and trying to show grace–trying to figure out how to show grace in this context and in these circumstances. If you are going through this, it is depressing you. I don’t mean “that’s a bummer” depressing, I mean medically-speaking, sustained anger over long periods of time is terrible for our bodies physically and leads to depression.
So don’t do that. Don’t be so angry.
Obviously, it’s not that easy. But it is that important to address it.
I’ve written quite a bit about depression. If you’re prone to depression, of course this is a more difficult time because it’s harder to keep our healthy, balanced maintenance routines. You also likely know how to identify your symptoms, so it’s more a question of rebuilding these routines with the available pieces.** But if you’re not used to depression, you may find this disconcerting or even bewildering.
I think many of us are suffering malaise.
Malaise is a general feeling of discomfort, illness, or uneasiness whose exact cause is difficult to identify.
It’s funny, as I picture who might need to hear this, I’m like the guy who has spent his life on crutches explaining how to use them to someone who’s never had to deal with a limp before. I can’t beat a healthy person with two good legs in a sprint, but I’ve gotten pretty used to getting around on these and I’m surprisingly agile. If this is your first time having your legs not work and trying to make sense of “crutches first going upstairs or downstairs?” then it really can be a hard learning curve.
Don’t beat yourself up for not feeling normal. Feeling bad or off is challenging enough without attacking yourself for it. You can’t just take a club to your malaise to get rid of it. Don’t feel bad about feeling bad.
Pay attention to your symptoms. That means recognize what things are symptoms. A wise friend taught me that when my body is trying to tell me something, it’s counter-productive to get angry at it for sending the message (thanks, Rowena). I don’t mean freak out because you had one bad night of sleep. I mean if you’ve noticed that you have no appetite for the last three months but are drinking more…stop brushing that off. I’m not a tea-totaller. I’m saying pay attention.
Pay attention when others, especially those you love, are telling you what you’re not seeing. Some people are hypochondriacs and some are muscle-through-and-tough-it-out. This is for the latter group (the former are already researching their symptoms, believe me). If you know you’re off but just choose to ignore it, someone else may be trying to tell you what you won’t let your mind or body tell you.
I’m using “malaise” because, if you’ve never dealt with depression, this sounds much less daunting. I’m using “malaise” here because for many of us right now, everything is wrong and yet nothing is wrong for us personally and it feels like we should be fine, especially because so many people have it so. much. worse. There are big, serious crises happening all around us. This is a stupid time to feel sorry for ourselves. But self-care is not feeling sorry for ourselves (self-pity is, and that’s another topic). It may help to frame it like this: if the crises happening right now matter to you, then what do you need to do to take better care of yourself so you can help? Contribute? Do your part?
It’s okay if you aren’t doing great. Suffering malaise makes sense right now. I think we should probably have enough empathy and compassion that, even if we are personally doing wonderfully, we also feel a bit off, a bit sickened, seeing how many are suffering all around us. Compassion and empathy aren’t weakness. We need to cultivate these, not stomp them down.
Since the definition of malaise ends with “whose exact cause is difficult to identify,” I’m not going to pretend I have all the answers. I just know how to get around on crutches. Identify two or three things you can do–not would do if you had the strength and felt up to it but can do, right now, feeling like this–that you know will lift your spirits. There’s a balance between paying attention to why you feel down and doing what helps to raise you up again.
Pray. Ask God to help you pray if you can’t. Pray for help even if you only believe 1% that God hears and that might help. God doesn’t hold that against us.
BE PATIENT WITH YOURSELF. I can’t stress this enough. Feeling this way doesn’t mean you’re weak. Breathe. Breathe again. Go for a 20-minute walk (or 5 if that’s all you can manage) and breathe deeply and mindfully the whole way. Don’t expect to snap out of it. The only people who say “snap out of it” don’t get how this feels (or, you know, we say it to ourselves even though we’d never say it to someone else). If you can make yourself, cut back on the doomscrolling or whatever your version of overloading on negatives might be. Stop reading the replies. Stop arguing in your head with strangers. Stop arguing on social media with acquaintances. Stop spending your precious energy on things that can only drain you and don’t help anyone.
Take the time you saved by refraining from that and go do one of those two or three things you identified. If at all possible, make yourself do that thing you enjoy (I’m assuming these are safe things to do). This is a fine line, too, being gentle to yourself and forcing yourself to do what helps.
Two last things. First, you may realize that you are suffering depression for real. No shame in that. What we’re calling “malaise,” when you finally look at it, may be a deeper problem with more established roots. That may mean you need to change your habits or even your lifestyle. It may mean you need professional help. Hoping it isn’t a serious problem won’t make it go away Facing ourselves honestly takes courage. Doing so is also crucial to loving ourselves, as in “love your neighbor as yourself.”
Finally, you aren’t alone. That might sound cliched or false. When we get into these negative spirals, whether malaise or depression or guilt and shame, the biggest and strongest lie is that you’re alone, no one else understands or cares, and therefore you’re cut off from the rest of humanity. I really hate that lie. It is a lie. Don’t let that lie smother you. I urge you to pray or ask me or someone else to pray for you (or both). Talk to someone who has earned your trust. You are not alone.
*There are a million different ways to be a reader, but I’ve noticed that one easy classification is those who will not start the next book until theyv’e finished the current book and those (like me) who have no idea how many books they have going right now. More than one.
**I know, that makes it sound easy. “You know, just find replacement activities and structures to rebuild your healthy maintenance routine in our very constrained circumstance that will help just as much as the ones you spent years discovering.” Oh, is that all?