It’s been over eighteen months since the outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) spread around the world leaving a trail of devastation and disruption across six continents that irrevocably affected the lives of millions of people. This virus has aggravated existing inequalities in society, tested the limitations of health systems and impacted our most basic social, political and economic structures.
As we move toward a post-pandemic society, it’s time we consider the opportunities that lie ahead of us as a church to rescue, restore and rebuild a broken world, much like Nehemiah’s reconstructive work in Palestine in the mid-5th century BC, when he led the rebuilding of Jerusalem’s ruined structures after it had been conquered and destroyed by the Babylonians.
Although the catastrophic events of the last eighteen can feel overwhelming, psychological research shows that most people bounce back and often it’s in times of disruption that the best human systems can flourish and our individual and collective resilience can grow.
So here are three key reminders that can help us focus our attention on what we need to do in order to rebuild our wellbeing and galvanize a more purposeful future in a post-pandemic world.
1. Accept the brokenness. Being mindfully aware of loss and discomfort is an important part of building resilience and nurturing wellbeing. Without experiencing disappointment or hardships we wouldn’t learn how to deal with it so accepting brokenness (instead of suppressing it, denying it or pretending it’s not there) is a healthy way of building self-acceptance, which can help build resilience. Projecting perfection may seemingly protect our ego but it stunts our growth and shuts people out. Take the concept of Kintsugi for example, also known as golden joinery, the Japanese art of repairing broken pottery with powdered gold. This is a metaphor for embracing flaws and imperfections to create an even stronger and more valuable piece of art, where breakages and “scars” become part of the design (rather than something to disguise). In the process of rebuilding things that have been broken, we can actually create something even more unique and more beautiful. Like the scriptures point out in 2 Corinthians 4:7 NIV, we have this “treasure in jars of clay, to show that the all-surpassing power is from God and not from us.” Jars of clay can easily be broken but that doesn’t take away their beauty nor the power that is held inside them. In fact, those are opportunities for God to mend our brokenness and those stories of redemption and restoration strengthen our personal growth and our learning, generating value for ourselves and for others around us.
2. Manage your focus. Your ability to focus on something is a precious yet limited resource, which decreases every time you use it. The expression ‘paying attention’ is absolutely true – there is a significant cost to our attention because our minds can only concentrate fully on one thing at a time, so our ability to focus should be used wisely. What we focus on literally grows – our attention amplifies things. Even at the best of times, as humans we tend to notice threats, weaknesses and flaws with a lot more intensity than positive stimuli. This negativity bias serves us well as a self-defence mechanism against danger however it can play against us when it hijacks our faith in the God of miracles and impairs our ability to focus on the positives around us and within us, because we will literally miss what we’re not focusing on. This means we need to be intentional about changing our focus during difficult times and tuning into hope, faith and purpose. Austrian psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor Victor Frankl, who lived through some of the most horrific conditions in Nazi concentration camps, studied the importance of focus, particularly how focusing on the quest for meaning and purpose sustained those who survived those experiences. Frankl believed that “between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”This ability to choose our response, to direct our focus to the resources, strengths and regenerative opportunities in the midst of chaos, loss or pain can significantly amplify our resilience and wellbeing.
3. Change the narrative. Our language can shape perceptions and therefore impact our experiences and those of people around us. What we say to others can have a significant impact on how they feel. The Bible even points out in Proverbs 15:4 that “gentle words bring life and health; a deceitful tongue crushes the spirit”. Our narratives can also impact and shape our own emotions and attitudes. We’re living in a world that is currently immersed in a negative narrative, with a model of deficit-based change that rewards problem-solving rather than solution-focus. Our vocabulary for change and development is dominated by terms like “gap analysis”, “organizational diagnosis” and “root causes of failure”. Like Abraham Maslow pointed out, “if all you have is a hammer then everything looks like a nail”. This pervasive and problematizing perspective can be limiting and constraining, as it creates and perpetuates narratives solely focused on finding, analysing and framing problems, which isn’t necessarily the same as finding and amplifying solutions. Our post-pandemic societies are not machines that need fixing – they are living and breathing systems of human connections and relatedness, alive and energized by interactions, imagination and potential. The more we focus on understanding that potential and inquire into what gives life (versus what is wrong), the more we can move in the direction of what we study. In physics, the Heisenberg Observer Effect suggests that the mere act of observing a phenomenon can change the phenomenon itself. In human systems, inquiry and change are not separate – inquiry intervenes, it’s generative. The questions that we ask, the stories that we tell, they not only signal change – they create change, as they have the power to generate thoughts and shape attitudes. We live in worlds that our conversations create, so what questions can you ask yourself and others, to help shape more positive, faith-filled and constructive experiences? What narratives do you need to change in order to maximise hope and leverage the already existing strengths and resources, to restore and rebuild your world?
During this pandemic we have seen glimpses of how vulnerability can create a kinder and more connected world that understands how much we all deeply depend on each other. As Pastor Brian said in his recent message ‘Get Up and Get Going’, in this year of rebuilding we need to strengthen our connections with each other, like Nehemiah when he needed to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem (Nehemiah 2:20), he gathered other builders around him. Deep social connection is a key protective factor for mental health and wellbeing and as a church we have a real opportunity to provide a context of rich and life-giving connection where everyone feels accepted and embraced as we embark on this mission of restoring and rebuilding our world together.
CBP, MBPsS, MSc, MRes, DrOP
Psychologist, Executive Coach, Mental Health & Wellbeing Specialist