Almost four months into the COVID-19 world, I have increasingly wondered why I feel so weird. I don’t mean physically; thankfully, despite a couple of exposures to the coronavirus along the way, I have so far dodged it. I mean existentially weird: frustrated, sad, vertiginous, displaced…sometimes in a cycle of all four plus several other feelings all within the span of an hour. I was greatly helped in my understanding this past week when my good friend and brilliant priest, the Rev. Mary Vano, shared with me her podcast, “J.O.Y.” Mary interviewed fellow priest and life coach Marna Franson, who offered several helpful insights into our present condition.
First, Marna points out, in our regular, non-COVID lives, many of us step out of our homes each day into different activities: work, recreation, volunteerism, and more. Each time we step into an activity, we also step into a different persona. We become, for a little while, “work me,” or “church me,” or “school me.” Each persona moves through the world a bit differently from all the others, and each gives us a break from the “me” who resides at home. We need that blessed variety, but now, with virtually everything happening — virtually! — in the home, the activities all still occur, but we never get the chance to change personas. We do everything as “at home me,” and we become exhausted with ourselves. We become for ourselves that college roommate we couldn’t wait to get away from on spring break…and yet the break never comes.
Second, Marna Franson shares an insight from psychologist Martha Beck who makes a crucial distinction between “clean pain” and “dirty pain.” Clean pain is the pain caused by an objective event itself, such as the coronavirus. Clean pain is the physical symptoms of having the virus, the anxiety caused by potentially contracting the virus, the loss of work, or concern for aged family and friends. Dirty pain, by contrast, is the overlay of meaning we place on that pain. For example, dirty pain is when one feels like a terrible child because she cannot go and visit her mother in the retirement center. Dirty pain is when one self-indicts for losing one’s temper as the four walls of the house seem to crowd in. Dirty pain is almost always misplaced. It isn’t actual. It is a story we tell to make sense of the clean pain, but it is a debilitating and untrue story. Dirty pain simply makes us feel miserable on top of having to manage the unavoidable clean pain in our lives.
So, how do we alleviate dirty pain so we can constructively and healthfully address clean pain? I have two suggestions; and the first is, again, from my friend Mary Vano. First, when my college-student son was sent home along with all other students mid-spring, his university graciously allowed him to take his spring courses for credit only. The university recognized that these are bizarre and uniquely trying times, and striving for A’s might not be the most appropriate response in the circumstances. That seems to me not a bad mantra for everyday living right now. Give yourself the grace to live “for credit only” in this season. You will get frustrated; you will get sad; you will feel vertiginous and displaced; you will get tired of yourself, not to mention all those around you. And you will likely respond in ways you’d otherwise not. Be gracious to yourself. Don’t strive for an A in life right now. Take life for credit only.
And finally, I’ll share a life tactic that I’ve followed for years. Each morning when I awaken, I sit up, plant my feet on the floor, and in the three seconds before I rise, I quote Psalm 118, “This is the day the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.” I then recite to myself the important reminders of the day. These days, this includes, “We are enduring a global pandemic. Texas is presently at great risk. Stay in as much as possible. Wear a mask when you go out. And be generous to yourself and those around you.” These reminders, at the very outset of the day, reset my expectations and remind me that my day, my life, and my world are permeated by the God who loves me and walks with me each step of the way.