What if every day is a tragedy?

What if every day is a tragedy? November 2, 2017

The American Psychology Association just published their Stress in America™ survey. It’s not good.

More than half of Americans (59 percent) said they consider this the lowest point in U.S. history that they can remember — a figure spanning every generation, including those who lived through World War II and Vietnam, the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

So. Just think about Sept. 11th. Churches across the country created the space we all needed to process our grief and fear. But what if the grief didn’t have an arc arising out of a single tragic moment? What if there was a new grief every day?

As a clergy person I am convicted (but not surprised) to learn that over half of Americans of all generations (and all political persuasions) feel this is the lowest point in U.S. history they can remember. I am convicted because the church today has a significant pastoral care opportunity and responsibility. I am not surprised because, well, good Lord, can’t you just feel it? I can!

But what is our responsibility? How do we minister among a people who are experiencing low-grade tragedy and trauma every day?

There are many sources of trauma. We are aware more than ever that climate change is increasing the frequency of major weather events. We wring our hands, not knowing what to do, as North Korea gains nuclear weapons. We watch the president of the United States politicize the most recent tragedy in New York City.

And it is this last low point that is most on my mind. If we’re honest, I think we can recognize that we are at the lowest point in U.S. history largely because of Donald Trump… and our reaction to him. And it is honestly both of those, the president himself and our reaction to him.

Donald Trump

Even Donald Trump’s emotional state is the top of the news, with articles today indicating he called the New York Times to tell them he isn’t angry. 

It’s like the mom whose husband has bouts of anger, so when the kids come home from school, she says to them, “Don’t go in the living room, and be quiet in the kitchen, because your dad is in a bad mood.”

Except the dad is almost always in a bad mood, so the whole family adapts their behavior to the mood of the mercurial father. This is what it is like to live in a Donald Trump nation. But in this case there’s an added factor. Trump invades all our spaces with his daily Twitter-storm, and the press amplifies everything he writes by making his morning tweets the basis for daily news.

This can’t be good, and takes us to the flip side. He’s a bad president, and nothing should deflect us from the dangers of a Trump presidency, but we are also called to consider our reaction to him.

Our Reaction To Him

The APA report goes on to say:

The most common issues causing stress when thinking about the nation are health care (43 percent), the economy (35 percent), trust in government (32 percent), hate crimes (31 percent) and crime (31 percent), wars/conflicts with other countries (30 percent), and terrorist attacks in the United States (30 percent). About one in five Americans cited unemployment and low wages (22 percent), and climate change and environmental issues (21 percent) as issues causing them stress. 

Adults also indicated that they feel conflicted between their desire to stay informed about the news and their view of the media as a source of stress. While most adults (95 percent) say they follow the news regularly, 56 percent say that doing so causes them stress, and 72 percent believe the media blows things out of proportion. 

With 24-hour news networks and conversations with friends, family and other connections on social media, it’s hard to avoid the constant stream of stress around issues of national concern,” said Evans. “These can range from mild, thought-provoking discussions to outright, intense bickering, and over the long term, conflict like this may have an impact on health. Understanding that we all still need to be informed about the news, it’s time to make it a priority to be thoughtful about how often and what type of media we consume.

The survey also found that 51 percent of Americans say that the state of the nation has inspired them to volunteer or support causes they value. More than half (59 percent) have taken some form of action in the past year, including 28 percent who signed a petition and 15 percent who boycotted a company or product in response to its social or political views or actions.

So the actual stressors are not the president or other politicians, but rather a set of concerns: health care, crime, war, trust. But almost all of these topical stressors are exacerbated by, if not created by, the politicians. Then it is the media, which in this case includes the actual media, plus social networks and the use of such networks by leaders themselves, that amplifies everything in a pummeling downward spiral.

So the APA wisely recommend making it a priority to be thoughtful about how often and what type of media we consume. Personally, I recommend 14-year-old Gabe Fleischer’s Wake Up to Politics, and long-form journalism.

As a pastor, I’ve landed on what I hope is a balanced and engaged approach, a shape for Christian witness that is pastoral and caring while also justice-oriented and active. It looks like this.

We must offer and receive challenge.

We cannot be disengaged. If the noise of the present moment lulls us into inactivity, or if we quietly avoid doing what is right, we are complicit through our silence. In a future post, I’m going to address the quietude of the American church of the 20th century that resulted in the loss of voice from which we are still recovering. Somehow Christians have forgotten that if we are walking in the way of Christ, we will meet resistance. Christians should expect to be challenged. Regularly. And they should challenge each other. 

When you are silent at the neighborhood party or on the golf course because you don’t want to make waves with your neighbors, inevitably you are then contributing to a culture through your silent complicity that makes minorities and other groups far more unsafe in our community than you will ever be in your silent complicity. This is neither right nor fair. You don’t get a pass.

Happy are people whose lives are harassed because they are righteous, because the kingdom of heaven is theirs. Happy are you when people insult you and harass you and speak all kinds of bad and false things about you, all because of me. (Matthew 5)

Heed challenge and translate it into action. Repent. Get over guilt. Then “do.” This reduces the stress.

It is very stressful to feel responsible while living in the absence of a possible. If you can’t change anything but know things need to change, this is disempowering and frustrating. But we can always do something even if the doing isn’t huge. Your letter to the editor might not change the mind of a senator, for example, but it might make your immigrant neighbor feel safer. 

The APA noted that lots of people very wisely found ways to get more involved, volunteering or taking action of some kind. I do not believe we have yet gotten to critical mass action. We need many more people to get out out of their stuckness in silence and complicity, and do things. 

If you can’t write a letter to the editor, then identify a sick member in your congregation and take them a meal. Don’t know how to advocate for a better relationship to Muslims in America? Then start by visiting your local mosque to meet some new friends. 

Judge for yourself.

You might be going through a lot in your life right now. Maybe you are caring for an ailing loved one. Maybe you are snowed-under at work, or dealing with a health crisis yourself. Maybe you are deep at work on your dissertation. We all have to prioritize. So if you hear the call to action, but you already believe you have to stay focused on a different set of concerns for your own well-being and the well-being of those you love, then by all means, judge for yourself.

I truly believe we are at this low point because collectively we have not and are not speaking up enough, acting enough, on behalf of vulnerable groups, or even on behalf of our best self-interests. But that is a statement about the collective, not individuals, and individually we can show each other (and ourselves) the grace to recognize that there are times and seasons in our lives when we do what we can, and that is good enough.

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