When you think about how you are responding to the stress of the pandemic, do you feel proud? When you think about how others around you are responding, are you pleased?
When we are under a great deal of stress, as all of us have been since physical distancing started, we may find that we are far from our best. The fear of coronavirus and its consequences is not just limited to a few people, but has infected most everyone. The symptoms of this fear are idiosyncratic. We may feel out of sorts: impatient, frustrated, distracted, overwhelmed and exhausted. We may become more easily angered or want to withdraw. When we are feeling fearful, it is often more difficult to be peaceful and kind.
To navigate this overwhelming time with some peace of mind, forgiveness is key. Recognizing that we are in an unprecedented time, forgiving ourselves is one way we can show ourselves kindness and help us to cope. Extending forgiveness to others can help us maintain relationships that are likely under more stress than ever before.
Most people have pretty high expectations of themselves and others. Many of us were brought up to do our best at all times. Many of us were also brought up to think that if we did our best, we could have some amount of control of our own lives. We Americans love to think that we are masters of our own destinies.
But living through the pandemic is showing us something else. There is a lot about this situation we can’t control. We don’t like uncertainty. We find living with so many new routines deeply uncomfortable. We can not simply perform at our best all the time. In fact, trying to keep “all the balls in the air” — especially if we have children at home — can be especially trying. We may lose our temper. We may be eating the extra cookie (or box!) or drinking the extra glass of wine or beer. If we are fortunate to have a partner, we may be finding that we are out of sync.
Recently I was scheduled to meet for the first time a couple whose wedding I will officiate this fall. When they did not show up on Zoom for the appointment, my first response — I hate to admit — was that they were being irresponsible young people, disrespectful of me and my time.
However, about 20 minutes after our meeting was supposed to start, I received a call from the bride-to-be, nearly in tears, and deeply apologetic. She shared that she is a nurse and her fiance, a police officer. These pandemic days have been so intense, that our appointment time slipped her mind. Hearing her story and emotion, I let her know that I understood that these are extremely challenging times and that, of course, I accepted her apology. I think she may have still apologized four or five more times. I had the sense that even though I forgave her, she would have a difficult, if not impossible time, forgiving herself. I hope she could take a deep breath and not be so hard on herself.
It can be helpful to remember that although we are all in the same storm, we are in different boats. Recognizing that this is a storm unlike any of us have ever experienced, to calm the waves we need to cultivate patience, gentleness and forgiveness with ourselves and each other. At a time such as this, we ought not expect that we can act in the same way we did before the pandemic. That being said, we also ought not allow the stress of the situation to give free reign to our worst impulses or excuse behavior that is unsafe, disrespectful and worse.
This pandemic is difficult enough. If we can resist judging ourselves or others for falling short, we may find that we can manage our thoughts and feelings about this time in our lives more easily. On the other hand, if we hold onto the judgments we may be making about others, especially those with whom we share our lives, we may find emotional distance growing between ourselves and them. Through forgiveness, we can have greater peace of mind and safeguard our relationships.
No one will come through this pandemic the same. This is an experience none of us were prepared for. We don’t have any road maps. Our leaders and experts give us contradictory information and direction. Though we may not feel proud or pleased about how we or others are responding all of the time, practicing forgiveness will even help us be better people on the other side of this pandemic. Besides yourself, who do you need to forgive today?
Rev. Sue Koehler-Arsenault is pastor of the Annisquam Village Church. The Midweek Musings column rotates among Cape Ann clergy.