Updated: Apr 23, 2020
by Tessa Robertson
Interim Associate Director of Student Care and Programming
Last year, I left a well-paying ministry position because I was extremely burnt out and disillusioned with an unhealthy church context. I had grand, idealistic hopes for my time of unemployment—I was going to rest and recover, start multiple hobbies, work out regularly, read the enormous stack of books awaiting me, discover my true passions, and the list goes on. I launched into the first week with all the energy and zeal of someone set free from a stressful situation, eager to “lean in” to the open space. But halfway through week two, I couldn’t ignore the steady hum of anxiety flowing beneath the surface. I was so focused on “making this time count!” working really hard to “heal and rest” (the irony is not lost on you either I’m sure) in order to avoid the underlying panic of not having a job, and the fear and shame of being an “unproductive” American. I was beating back the chaos of uncertainty with self-reprimands of, “You’re doing fine—everyone wants free time so just be grateful,” and, "If you can't do this well, how do you expect you'll be able to work again."
I started to realize that beneath the drive to “do unemployment well” was frustration and anger that I had done all the right things (college, grad school, job in field) and still found myself in a crappy situation. And then, underneath the anger, was an acute sense of sadness, the grief of dashed hopes, and a deep fear that I don’t know how to be with God in the midst of so much confusion.
While not an exact parallel to this time we’re experiencing, I’ve been noticing a lot of the same feelings and temptations creeping up. A few weeks ago, social media began bombarding us with the “shoulds” of productivity—don’t lapse into depression, entertain children in creative ways, make a work from home schedule etc. You may be able to relate to my frantic need to push through, to continue to be productive and make the most of this strange new life.
As we enter week three of social distancing and now are required to stay at home, the temptation might now be to numb out. I’ve noticed myself wishing I could just float through… and am having a hard time waking up in the morning.
Whatever it is that you’re experiencing right now, I want to invite you to feel your feelings.
This can be a terrifying prospect, especially when our norm is to distract ourselves from seeing what’s really in our hearts. We desperately avoid what’s scary, perhaps ugly, maybe painful. I deeply resonate with this fear—most of the time, I do everything I can before I stop running and choose to face myself (Enneagram 7s anyone?!). But, when we find the courage to drop in and let the smoke clear, we may find something unexpected.
A number of years ago at the urging of my therapist, I began going on long walks without listening to music or a podcast. As instructed, I practiced focusing on the movements of my body. Left leg extending, foot planting, weight shifting, right. My mind then was left free to roam. Never before had I been able to let all of the to-do lists, anxieties and frustrations cycle through till they were exhausted. Waiting beyond the surface was a much gentler Tessa; the one who really needed to be heard. It took practice and patience and courage to set out on those walks—especially after I learned what being by myself would entail. The Spirit needed to bring up the shame and hurt, even the sin, in order to show me where he so desperately wanted to love me.
And here is the unexpected mercy; when you commit to feeling your feelings, you get to encounter the reality that Jesus is in there too. He already knows and sees. And he has already paid for your sin. He is not scared.
He’s not only with you when you’re good and shiny; he’s actively loving and caring for you in the hidden depths of your fear, your pain, your “badness.”
This is not a pop-culture, postmodern, platitude that “you’re good the way you are.” As believers, simply feeling our feelings is not an end in and of itself. Rather, we feel our feelings so that we can be with God in the depths of our souls and surrender to his transformation.
We feel our feelings so that we can know we are so very loved.
What might it look like this week, to resist berating yourself when you don’t feel the way you think you’re supposed to, and be open to the reality that God loves you even now?
What might it be like to treat yourself with kindness and tell Jesus what you are experiencing? Not to solve anything or correct yourself, simply to be with him in your present reality?
If you struggle with clinical depression or a diagnosed anxiety disorder etc., this will probably look different for you. As you are attending to your symptoms in the way you need to, what does it look like to lean into Jesus’ presence?