How Are You, Really? Confronting the Other Pandemic
How are you, really? I ask the question simply because it needs to be asked — both of others and myself. Like so many, my mind is preoccupied with an abundance of concerns. Like the one about my 70-year-old friend who is on day eight of COVID seclusion, having his food delivered outside his bedroom door by his wife. Or my 15-year-old daughter’s question playing on repeat in my mind regarding when, or even if, she’ll ever be able to go to high school without a mask. She said she misses seeing her friends’ faces. I said, “Be glad you’re even in school.”
Add my grocery store encounter yesterday to the list. I made eye contact with a fellow shopper across the aisle and smiled at them. I was immediately hit with, “Did they know I smiled? Could they read the smile through my eyes? They certainly couldn’t see it through the mask!” Compound these fleeting thoughts with a hundred others each day exacerbated by our current realities. Together, they suggest that we’re in the midst of a mental health pandemic of epic proportions. The weight of these realizations, along with a sense of selfless duty that “we all need to bear our own load” made me feel very alone in my thoughts. Chances are I am far from alone in feeling alone.
A ‘New Normal’
Maybe we would all benefit from admitting that there’s a collective “dis-ease” at work on our emotions. Let’s consider that it wouldn’t be uncommon to find ourselves in some kind of dystopian social no man’s land — disconnected from connection, removed from feeling understood and perplexed in our purpose in the here and now. Not the fodder of small talk, but perhaps the conversations we need to be having.
We put on a brave face to make the best of our “new normal.” We adapt, we smile, we act like we have it together, but inwardly, we wonder who actually knows and understands the thoughts that keep us up at night. Anxiety about the future, about unforeseen change that might leave us vulnerable, about what we can and can’t control. These are the mental and emotional weights that hide behind a mask, not on our faces, but over our souls.
Was the Trade-Off Worth It?
If we were to be honest, as the whole world got on board with social distancing to protect our collective physical health, we willingly exposed our mental health to something far worse. We reasoned that because that small sacrifice could protect others from physical death, the trade-off was worth it. So we allowed a little suffocation in our souls for the greater good of ensuring uninfected air for everyone else. Deviant trains of thought from this narrative would bear out in only one predictable result: cultural shame and self-perceived further isolation.
The Toll on Our Collective Mental Health
According to a joint international study released last September, humans are “unable to live isolated from others, since the absence of relationships removes essential conditions for the development of personal identity and the exercise of reason.” The study goes on to allude to the negative effects of long-term social distancing and lock down measures and their ability to wreak havoc on our collective mental health. “Rather than connecting people, restrictive measures are creating rivalries and arousing discord between people. As conveyed by the Latin phrase ‘Divide et impera’ (literally divide and conquer), an authority that exerts high levels of control and division in governing a population, tends to fragment them.”
Is this one of the puzzle pieces we were missing? Part of that empty and abstractly ill-at-ease feeling we didn’t know how to verbalize? Just as we needed others more than ever — in the midst of a global health crisis and a national political crisis — we felt baited into previously nonexistent rivalries and pulled into a political discord we didn’t ask for. We found out that friends who we thought were friends weren’t really friends at all. 2020’s socio-political earthquakes shifted the map of our interpersonal relationships, leaving us to search for elusive middle ground.
Do we then conclude that last year made us feel lonelier than ever? Our collective gatherings, such as football games and church meetings, if allowed to happen at all, were put under mask mandates and social distancing guidelines, erasing the impact and power of societal togetherness in generally positive environments. Ironically, these truncated gatherings are now a reminder of our soul life within society writ large. Although we are with other people, we aren’t really with other people. Divided, but in one place. Seen, but not recognized. Belonging, but still alone.
According to the same study, “Loneliness is associated with feelings of emptiness, sadness, and shame, alongside the subjective perception that one is disconnected from others. It not only can occur in the context of social isolation but can also persist beyond this and can be experienced even when others are physically present.”
This is the other pandemic, and one for which there is currently no vaccine.
God’s Presence, Not Man’s Platitudes
For anyone struggling right now, I want to validate what you’re feeling. Well wishes, platitudes, and quick-fix answers can’t — and won’t — placate the deep “dis-ease” we are experiencing. We want to know that someone cares. We want to feel understood. We don’t want to feel guilty if God seems far away. Or condemned if we find ourselves doubting whether He will deliver us from these persistent feelings of isolation, confusion, anxiety and loneliness.
Perhaps we ask ourselves a simple question: Do we believe God is there? Do we believe that God is near to the downhearted and asking, “How are you, really?” — all the while knowing exactly how we are and reading our deepest, hidden, and most vulnerable thoughts. Yet He still asks … and waits for our answer. He desires to not only know us, but to be known by us, up close and personal. And without fear of rejection or further isolation.
1 Peter 5:7 tells us that we can go to God and throw everything that’s haunting us on him because he cares for us. The Greek word for “care” means He “has regard for, concern, interest in.” Psalm 40:17 echoes this truth by declaring, “As for me, I am poor and needy, but the Lord takes thought for me.” The psalmist acknowledges (not denies) his current state, while declaring God’s predisposition toward him. The psalmist knew by faith that he would not be abandoned by God in his dark night of the soul, but rather looked to God as his “help and deliverer.”
Are We Rejecting God?
Could it be that we don’t experience breakthrough because we are rejecting Him? As if we can’t wrap our heads around the thought that the God of the Universe regards us with tender care, even in the midst of muddled feelings we don’t fully understand?
It’s time we start meditating again. Not on the news. Not on our current realities. But on God — who He is and how deep and wide and vast His steadfast love is for us. As Isaiah 54:10 proclaims, “‘For the mountains may depart and the hills be removed, but my steadfast love shall not depart from you, and my covenant of peace shall not be removed,’ says the Lord who has compassion on you.”
There is compassion in this world and it’s coming straight from the heart of God. His sustaining love is the antidote to “the other pandemic.”
Annemarie McLean is a four-girl mom, freelance writer, and co-founder of Brave & Beautiful, a ministry focused on challenging young women to live purpose-driven lives full of courage and character, while developing Christ-centered inner beauty. Annemarie holds a journalism degree from Oral Roberts University, with graduate work in organizational leadership at Palm Beach Atlantic University.