by Lindsey Abston Painter | 5 July 2023 |
Here is my confession: I have been really struggling recently.
For a number of reasons, my life has become increasingly difficult. Each day feels like getting up to climb a mountain. I feel like I’m failing at most things most of the time. I’m tired to my bones. There never seems to be time to rest. Even resting feels impossible because when I try to rest I just end up feeling guilty for all the other things I should be doing instead of resting.
In the midst of my struggles, I sometimes look at other people’s lives with envy. How do they seem to have it all together when it feels like everything is falling apart for me?
But then I started paying more attention to those around me who confide their real lives to me.
And you know what? They’re struggling too! People around me are struggling with death, suicide, abuse, divorce, depression, discrimination, panic attacks, mental health disorders, cancer, failure, debt, job loss, marriage struggles, substance use, and more!
And those are just the people who know me well enough to confide in me.
I have come to the conclusion that pretty much everyone is struggling.
So why has everything gotten so difficult?
For one thing, the speed and expectations for people in the workplace today are much higher than they used to be.
I saw a documentary on Netflix a few weeks ago that identified email as one of the culprits. Once upon a time if I needed to communicate something in writing to someone in another agency I had to mail a letter. Email changed the game. Now I don’t even need to get up from my desk to talk to someone who works in the same office as I do. I just send an email. Things happen faster and faster. Productivity expectations went up, and now the demand to maintain that productivity is higher than ever.
But have wages increased as productivity increased? Obviously not. Unchecked greed has infiltrated into every facet of our lives. Everything we do must be monetized. All the things we love and all the things we hate and even everyday experiences.
I don’t have anything against rich people. I’d be rich if I had the chance. The problem here is that the way capitalism works is that other people do the work and the rich get richer. I don’t expect everyone to have equal amounts of money; I just want people to have fair amounts of money.
And that is not happening at any level of our current society. The gap between the rich and the middle class has reached and far surpassed the gap in medieval times when there were serfs and fiefdoms and lords.
I posit that COVID has caused a national trauma in the United States. All of us went through terrible stress during the first year of lockdown—especially those who are most vulnerable. And probably no one hasn’t lost some friend or family member.
Many have written about the breakdown of truth in our society. Nobody trusts anything anymore. Lies and fake news are pervasive. It’s becoming more difficult to tell what is and isn’t true, and people’s biases are more likely to be confirmed and entrenched. Families are divided by political ideologies. Protests, and even violence, are breaking out across the country. There is a general unrest in society today that is getting worse instead of better. And it is not helping anyone’s state of mental health.
All of this points to the fact that life has gotten infinitely more complicated than it used to be! Social media, parenting, work, relationships, politics, health, every facet of our lives is more nuanced and more difficult to navigate. Have you ever tried to figure out a contested medical bill between your doctor, insurance, and you? My grandparents never had to struggle with that!
Healthcare is difficult to access, and our health histories are getting more complicated. As happens when a person is under tremendous stress for a long period of time, the body begins breaking down. Our bodies simply weren’t built to withstand the pressure of this modern world with its fast pace and unrelenting demands.
My kids are in middle school—and the stories I hear…. When you were in school did you have to handle the nuanced politics of texting, group chats, and social media in addition to the regular dog-eat-dog politics of middle school? I surely didn’t.
Not to mention most of us end up taking on more than we can handle. We’re raising kids and working full time and volunteering at church and having too many pets and too many hobbies and eventually we just can’t keep up.
Some of us are experiencing trauma from our relationships. Parents and children who disagree about how to raise the grandkids, or the right way to live our lives. Some of us experience trauma in church, from the global church politics down to their local congregation. “My little church is dying,” they think, “but I thought God was going to protect and care for it! Where are all our children?”
We’re succumbing to a whole host of trauma- and stress-related illnesses. Depression and anxiety are increasing. Suicide rates are up. People are struggling everywhere!
So far what I have written is pretty bleak. But I want to focus our attention on the fact that life today is harder than it used to be. My kids are facing challenges and threats that didn’t even exist when I was a kid. The speed of the world is getting ever faster. My hypothetical grandkids will have to run like The Flash to keep up if society keeps speeding up at this rate.
Our bodies just weren’t built to live like this. The amount of stress we tolerate now is not normal, and it shouldn’t be normal. We’re killing ourselves with stress, in the most literal sense.
So what can we do in a world that seems to be crumbling around us? We can take care of ourselves and one other, and we can do what little we can to improve the small sphere of the world around us.
Taking care of ourselves
Recently I’ve been studying the concept of mindfulness. Some Christians are uncomfortable with meditation, and that’s fine—meditation isn’t for everyone and if it makes you uncomfortable, don’t do it. But mindfulness just means that we take time to quiet our busy minds in order to replenish ourselves.
Jesus even advocated for mindfulness!
Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light (Matthew 11:28-30).
Or one of my favorite Bible verses,
I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world (John 16:33).
You can practice mindfulness while gardening, fishing, taking a long drive, hiking or walking, baking—anything that allows you time to reflect, focus, or be quiet. In fact, prayer and Bible study is a form of mindfulness. If you have a regular habit of prayer and Bible study, then you’re already doing a really powerful form of self care according to the latest science!
Research into stress also shows that being connected to other people is very powerful for our mental health. And I don’t just mean saying “Happy Sabbath” at church once a week. We are designed to be connected to one another. Finding and cultivating close friendships with each other can literally make us healthier.
Taking care of one another
Jesus called for us to take care of others. Churches are sometimes great at doing this, and sometimes terrible. But we shouldn’t just be taking care of “our people.” We should also be caring for our coworkers, neighbors, family, and friends. The criterion Jesus specifies for those who are commended in the final judgment—what we have done for “the least of these my brothers and sisters”—should tell us how important helping others is, to God, for the others, and for our own spiritual health.
Taking care of each other means recognizing that there are some categories of people who suffer more under the crushing weight of societal stress than others.
The people on the bottom of any company’s hierarchical structure, for example. If you have employees, demonstrate resistance to the status quo by flouting the expectation that employees should sacrifice their health, their relationships, and their personal lives to their job. Be kind to your employees.
I remind my staff that their personal life is their real life. Work is just work. Don’t think only about what is best for the company but what is best for you! I adjust my expectations based on their needs. And I’m always on their side if there is a dispute with management.
Also, any community that is disadvantaged by the status quo needs your full-throated support, and sometimes physical or financial support. I’m thinking about marginalized communities like LGBTQ folks who are in danger in our current world climate. Be their fierce protector. Also minority people, immigrants, people living in poverty, those with disabilities, women, children, and those with mental illnesses.
In summary, in a world where everyone is having a hard time, where crushing stress lives on all of our shoulders, let us practice kindness and advocacy everywhere we go, to strangers, acquaintances, friends, family, and ourselves.
Lindsey Abston Painter is a mental health training supervisor living in Northern California. She is also a member of the Adventist Today editorial team. She is passionate about feminism, social justice, and sci-fi. She is a proud parent and has too many cats and one goofy dog.