Coming Out of Our Caves – 5/16/21

I remember the day everything changed as the pandemic descended.  I was doing my residency at BroMenn, and my supervisor called me before my shift telling me to meet her in the atrium.  When I arrived, the hospital was eerily quiet.  There were very few people present, no patients walking around, no volunteers present.  There was a tension in the air, a sense of foreboding.  My supervisor told me I was not allowed to see patients for the time being, that more information would be coming.

In the days that followed, I was overwhelmed with anxiety.  I worried about what would happen to my wife, knowing she worked as a physician in the ICU and would be continuously exposed to this virus.  I worried about what would happen to my parents, both in their eighties with health issues.  I worried about how I would manage with my son’s school closing and both Kathy and I working in a hospital setting.  I remember the fear that filled me as I entered the grocery store and seeing empty shelves, beginning to stockpile the necessities which may no longer be available.

But as time began to pass, there were aspects of living with the pandemic which became comfortable.  I enjoyed being home more, eventually stopped missing going out to dinner, became accustomed to seeing people only on a computer screen.  The pandemic restrictions gave me a sense of control over my environment, allowed me to retreat into some of my introverted tendencies.  Not knowing how long this would continue, I accepted this way of living as my new normal.  Even began to embrace it.

At this time last year, there was no end in sight for the pandemic.  The length of time predicted to generate a vaccine was anywhere from 12 months to years.  Now, many of us have received the vaccine and more are receiving it every day.  And the reality of emerging from our shelters is beginning to hit.

A study conducted in China indicated that thirteen percent of people aged 14 to 35 showed signs of post-traumatic stress disorder just one month after the start of the pandemic.  In August 2020 the CDC published results of a large US web-based survey of more than 5000 adults in which 40.9% indicated at least 1 adverse mental or behavioral health problem related to the pandemic. Symptoms of trauma were reported by 26.3%, symptoms of anxiety or depression by 30.9%, substance use to cope by 13.3%, and serious consideration of suicide in the prior days by 10.7%. Suicidal ideation was significantly higher for younger respondents aged 18 to 24 years, minority groups, nonpaid caregivers for adults, and essential workers.  Results of an Italian survey showed a relatively high percentage of PTSS related to the pandemic, suggesting that the pandemic itself could be considered a traumatic event. Similarly, an online survey of almost 3500 people in Spain found symptoms of PTSD, depression, and anxiety, with loneliness the strongest predictor of symptoms.

This trauma does not just disappear with the receipt of a vaccine.  For those struggling with anxiety before the pandemic, leaving the safety of our homes can be difficult.  For more than a year, we may not have come face-to-face with our stressors – going to school, being physically present in an office, interacting directly with coworkers or family members.  Some speak of the pandemic which will now arise as a mental health pandemic.  Problems developed during the pandemic, like substance abuse, won’t just go away with the removal of the stress which brought it on.

Even those who do not have PTSD will still suffer the lingering effects of trauma.  The most helpful definition of trauma I have found is “a rupture in meaning-making.”  It happens when the way we see ourselves, the way we see others, the way we view the world are disrupted by an event leading to a feeling of helplessness and a lack of orientation to those things which were once foundational.

I see a metaphor for this rupture in meaning-making and its consequences in our reading for this morning.  Elijah was a prophet for Yahweh at a time when the people and the rulers of Israel worshipped Baal.  As we enter the scene, Elijah is desperate.  The queen of Israel, Jezebel, has just issued a threat.  Because Elijah had killed the prophets of Baal, Jezebel is angry.  Jezebel was not an Israelite by birth and was a devoted follower of Baal.  When she learns what Elijah has done to the leaders in her faith, she sends a messenger to Elijah pledging to kill him.

In response, Elijah sinks into a deep depression.  He flees into the desert.  In the midst of his brokenness and sense of isolation, he asks God to take his life.  After Elijah travels forty days and forty nights into the wilderness, he arrives at Mount Horeb.  When he arrives, he finds a cave and spends the night there.  After Elijah spends the night in a cave, he hears the voice of God saying, “What are you doing here Elijah?”  When Elijah explains that his life is in danger, Elijah is told to go and stand out on the mountain because the Lord was about to pass by.  When Elijah went out, he had an expectation of how he would encounter God.  When God had appeared before the people of Israel in the past, it was a dramatic experience.

But in contrast to the usual way that God had appeared to his people – accompanied by fire, wind, thunder, lightning, and earthquakes – Elijah hears from God far differently.  We read that there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces.  But to Elijah’s surprise, God was not in that wind.  We next read that there was an earthquake, but God was not in the earthquake either.  Finally, there was a fire.  But again God was not in the fire.  It was what came next that Elijah experiences God in, when Elijah is on high alert trying to decipher the sound of God’s voice.  We read that Elijah experiences God in the sound of sheer silence.

When Elijah hears the silence, he goes out to the entrance of the cave to which he had retreated.  And at the entrance to that cave, he hears the voice of God.  Elijah is mentally and physically exhausted.  He has reached a point of desperation, not knowing what to do next.  When he shares with God the depth of this desperation, he receives the encouragement he was seeking.  And God gives him the direction he needs, guides him in the path he needs to follow.  God gives him a sense of certainty in the face of great uncertainty.

For more than a year, all of us have been hiding in a cave.  And like Elijah, we entered our caves running in fear of our lives.  Like him, many of us entered a deep depression over the threat not only to our lives, but to the lives of those we love.  And like Elijah, the things which formerly gave us a sense of purpose, those ways we felt direction in our lives, even the ways we experienced the Divine shifted, may even have disappeared.

Like Elijah, we too are entering a time when we must exit the caves in which we have been living.  A time in which the safe haven of our homes is left behind.  And while this may give some of us a sense of excitement, for many of us it is also a fearful experience.  As one who struggles with anxiety, it has become comfortable to remain hidden in my cave, away from those things which could do me harm.  It is hard to move from a place of refuge, a place we ran to amidst turmoil and fear.  When we have been inside our refuge so long, we sometimes don’t want to leave.  As in our second reading for this morning, after going so deeply inside our caves, outside has become another idea.

Being around people has been filled with danger.  Although many of us have been vaccinated, there is still some uncertainty about how well they work particularly as new variants emerge.  As we emerge, we should acknowledge the trauma each of us has endured, recognize the way each of us responds now will be different.  It is okay to take your time with transitioning back after emerging from our caves.  We might start with prioritizing a few high priority outings, such as medical appointments we have been putting off.  We can structure our weeks around these high priorities, helping us to pace ourselves and maintain a sense of safety and control.  We might look for someone to be a support or a buffer as we engage in those activities.  We might look for new ways to address the stress and anxiety we feel about emerging.  During the pandemic, many of us developed unhealthy ways of coping with stress.  Our time of reemerging may mean finding more healthy ways of addressing it – starting to exercise again, finding a professional to speak with.

I have heard a comparison about emerging from the pandemic which struck me as particularly fitting.  That coming out from behind our computer screens, showing our faces from behind our masks, leaving the safety of our homes, is something like waking up in the morning.  Sleeping in a dark room and suddenly having the lights turned on or the curtains thrown open is shocking to the system, creates a sense of panic and shock.  But when the room slowly fills with light from the sun, when we are allowed to slowly gain our bearings and awareness, the process of waking is more comfortable, allows us to reacclimate to our surroundings and feel less overwhelmed.

Emerging from our cave may also give us an opportunity to experience the world and our spirituality in a new way.  To give us a new perspective on what we value, what and who we want to devote our time to, where we will invest our energy.  Times of trauma, times of being shaken from our routines can give us a unique opportunity for renewing ourselves spiritually.  Like Elijah walking out of that cave, we may not experience the Divine in the way we expect or in the ways we used to.  What we need spiritually may have changed in the time in our caves – our practices, our ways of interacting with our community.  We may recognize the things we value have shifted.  May we be open to these shifting perspectives, be attentive to our needs as we emerge from our cave.