The anxious middle

The Bishop of London has been quoted today observing that it is okay to be anxious at the moment, we are still in the middle of the Coronavirus pandemic and there is a real possibility of a second wave striking. 

The heart of her argument is that well-worn phrase “It’s okay to not be okay” and her primary concern is to encourage people to talk about mental health and well-being. I agree with her that this is vital.  There is a high level of anxiety at the moment and we have seen how quickly isolated people can become overwhelmed.  Bishop Sarah is also right to link this with the ongoing threat. 

Jesus’s invitation to us when he said “Do not worry ..” was not a command to ignore real danger and live life in the stoic’s bubble.  A few weeks back I had the privilege of interviewing Jeremy Marshall, a former high flying banker who was diagnosed with terminal cancer a few years back. Jeremy talked about his won experience of fear and commented that it is okay to be afraid. Fear is actually something in built that helps us stay alert to danger and either fight it or flee from it. The problem comes when our fear overwhelms and paralyses us distracting us from our trust in God.

However, whilst the Telegraph’s report refers particularly to the elderly and vulnerable, I’m not sure that this is where the big need is.  Now, I am picking up that those who are shielding are understandably the most anxious about the ending of lockdown. However, throughout the pandemic I have tended to find that the elderly have been the most bullish and least anxious.  People in the 70s and even into their 80s have taken great offence at being placed in a vulnerable category and told to stay home. Ninety Year olds have been determinedly getting out and about, walking to the shops and catching the bus.  I’ve been assured once or twice not to worry about someone’s health because they know where they are going and have peace with God about his timing.[1]

Similarly, whilst I’ve seen a few Youtube videos where young people have shared their anxieties, we also see many of them out and about enjoying a bit of freedom from school, meeting up in the park and generally getting on with life.

I am of course generalising here. There are many teenagers who are struggling with their emotional health and there are plenty of older people who are staying safe at home and choosing not to go out. However, I think that the burden of anxiety is generally speaking falling elsewhere.

It is primarily falling on those in the middle. That makes sense. There is a whole group of people who are very anxious about their elderly parents, desperate to get them to comply with advice, knowin g full well that dad or mum is determined to get out and worried that the lifting of lockdown may encourage them to be off to church or the shops before it is really safe for them to do so. Similarly, they are anxious about their children as the schools start to re-open. After all, they are responsible for their kids’ welfare. At least during lockdown, you know where your youngsters are and can watch out for them. You can supervise their social interactions and ensure they stay 2 metres apart. But when they are out of your sight, back at school that’s when you worry.

So, if you are in that group, sandwiched in the middle with parents and children to worry about, I want to echo Bishop Sarah’s words. It really is okay to say that you are not okay. You may be trying to stay strong and hold it together for those you have responsibilities to. But don’t hold it all to yourself, find people to talk to. Christians are called to share one another’s burdens (Galatians 6). This is why as a church, we have worked had to ensure that lockdown does not mean an end to pastoral care. Much of our online content has actually been about facilitating support groups and we’ve encouraged the whole church family to stay in touch by phone, video call and social media. We are now arranging doorstep visits and social distance walks. Often this is not about stepping heavily into deep conversation, it is often about just having people around again to shoulder some of the care, to say “We are in this together.”

I would also encourage you to find comfort in Jesus’ words. When he tells us that we do not need to be anxious, this is not to create a legalistic burden. Jesus knows well the challenges and pressures of this life. He is the one who has been tested in every way, he is the one who sweats blood in the garden of Gethsemane, this is a condition known as Hematohidrosis and is a sign of severe anguish.  Yet, we are invited to cast our anxieties onto him knowing that he cares for us.  This means that we can come to him in prayer and say “I am anxious about this.” We can trust him to be with us through dark and uncertain times so that we do not have to be overwhelmed. He can bring us safely through. So whether you are young or old, shielding or out and about, remember again today that you are not alone, not without hope. It is okay to not be okay but it is also possible to face these anxious times without being overwhelmed.

[1] My response tends to be “that’s great but be alert to the risk you might be causing to others who are not so ready to meet their maker.”

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