A beloved late mentor often advised and enthused: “Keep you world big!” He was referring to cultivating one’s mind and heart and having an expansive and open consciousness and spirit.
The mentor encouraged that keeping one’s world big was also essential during difficult or painful times when the world seemed to be closing in, getting narrower, more claustrophobic, less beautiful and joyful.
While occasional solitude is necessary, self-isolation or being disconnected from wellsprings of well-being typically steers us down unhealthy emotional pathways, navel-gazing, self-pity, increased anxiety, self-absorption and sometimes breaks with reality and perspective.
We are social beings, our social networks as essential for work life, as the work of life, including building and sustaining healthy lives and relationships.
After a laughter-filled chat by telephone with a good friend the other night, made even more exuberant by the telling of a bawdy joke about Catholic and Anglican priests and a Baptist minister, we both felt a little lighter and a little less stressed.
She sent a note the next morning which read: “It was so good to chat with you last night. Being able to laugh and talk with special friends is indeed a special blessing, especially in these difficult times, and we thank God for it.”
More than ever, this is the time for friendship, which offers us greater perspective and encouragement. Isolation can deaden our spirits and sometimes leads to suicidal and self-harming mindsets.
There is an ineffable paradox about our nature: we need social life and sustenance in order to better see ourselves through the more open eyes of others who can see or know parts of us better than we can ourselves.
We need others to liberate us from our worst selves and to encourage our better selves. Good relationships are as vital as the air we breathe. Indeed, friends often help us when we are sometimes gasping for breath spiritually, mentally and emotionally.
The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated poor mental health and led to greater isolation. It has induced a broad variety of mental health challenges and lack of well-being.
Tending to one’s mental well-being and health is akin to pruning and caring by gardener cultivating positive practices and habits likes an enjoyable hobby or pastime.
An overgrown or uncultivated garden or orchard overcome and crawling with weeds, nettlesome nettles and bugs is like an unsettled mind overgrown with mental vermin and cobwebs, poorly functioning, unproductive, stymied from creativity and fruitfulness, incapable of imagining news ways of being and belonging.
Just as there is a range of physical illnesses from the common cold to stage four cancer, there are as wide a spectrum of mental health matters, personality disorders, psychological dysfunction, and the plethora of addictions, which affect most humans in some form or another.
During COVID-19 there has been an uptick in challenges such as depression, greater anxiety, panic attacks, acute loneliness and increased stress.
During stressful times in an individual’s life or the life of a community, even the smallest tasks and added stresses, like dealing with a commercial bank, standing in traffic, buying groceries, calling the cable company about why a certain channel is off for the umpteenth time this month and other daily chores, often snowball until we snap in some fashion or become snappish.
Over the course of the pandemic, with tens of thousands needing food, unemployment, social and other assistance, the level of stress in the country has mushroomed.
Many of us are more irritable, less patient, easily angered, experiencing poor sleep, eating more junk food, exercising less and more prone to lashing out.
The inability to move around more freely, to get on an airplane to a Family Island or overseas has made us even more isolated and stir-crazy. A good friend recently thumped: “If I could do it safely, I would jump on a plane right now, get off this island and head to New York City where nobody knows me!”
Many are literally sick and tired because of the pandemic, including those who have had the virus and those who have not attended to other physical and mental health needs over the past year.
The US Center for Disease Control (CDC) advises: “Public health actions, such as social distancing, are necessary to reduce the spread of COVID-19, but they can make us feel isolated and lonely and can increase stress and anxiety.
“Stress can cause the following:
• Feelings of fear, anger, sadness, worry, numbness, or frustration
• Changes in appetite, energy, desires, and interests
• Difficulty concentrating and making decisions
• Difficulty sleeping or nightmares
• Physical reactions, such as headaches, body pains, stomach problems, and skin rashes
• Worsening of chronic health problems
• Worsening of mental health conditions
• Increased use of tobacco, alcohol, and other substances”
The CDC also suggests ways of dealing with stress: “Take breaks from watching, reading, or listening to news stories. … Take care of your body. … Make time to unwind. Try to do some other activities you enjoy… Connect with others.”
Lent is a time in the Christian calendar for fasting from various habits, conceits, mindsets and indulgences. After a year of COVID-19, this Lent is an opportunity for greater mindfulness, conversion and renewed paths to holiness and health.
A beloved relative has decided to give up watching too much American cable news. Likewise, abstaining from the toxic wasteland that is much of social media is another way of getting rid of the daily junk of memes and viciousness to which we are exposed.
Lent is a time to examine the depth of the deadly sins of pride, greed, wrath, envy, lust, gluttony and sloth, which are permanent boarders and habitués in our bodies and spirits. The deadly sins “are often thought to be abuses or excesses of natural faculties or passions. For example, gluttony abuses the natural hunger for nourishment.” Virtue is defined in the Catechism of the Catholic Church as “a habitual and firm disposition to do the good.” Virtue ethics are not so much focused on right and wrong per se, but on the practices we should cultivate and foster to promote conversion and holiness.
Lent is a holy time to mediate on and to practice the four cardinal virtues of prudence, justice, temperance and courage (or fortitude) along with the theological virtues of faith, hope and charity.
The late Archbishop Lawrence Burke was often bewildered as to why many Bahamians seemed more transfixed or taken with Good Friday rather than the joy of Easter Sunday.
There is an element in our deeply fundamentalist culture which often seems more fixated on human sinfulness rather than Christian hope.
There is also often a relentless nauseating negativity in our national culture. By example, there are those whose commentary or journalistic pieces cannot rise from the torpor and inebriation of being drunk and possessed with unremitting anger and a certain intellectual paralysis.
For those who have been in dark places for years, the pandemic has plummeted some into greater darkness. Some, who are given to endless negativity, have become more feverishly negative.
Easter, like Christmas, is a season of new light and hope.
The Lenten journey, which includes honest and at times painful, though life-affirming examens of conscience and consciousness, of habits and patterns, of well-being, of joyfulness, and of good and ill-health spiritually and psychologically, is an opportunity to cultivate our spiritual gardens, often thick with fear and feelings of despair and hopelessness.
Christopher Hale, a US politician and Catholic non-profit executive, noted in a Lenten meditation in 2015: “According to [Pope] Francis, fasting must never become superficial. He often quotes the early Christian mystic John Chrysostom who said: “No act of virtue can be great if it is not followed by advantage for others. So, no matter how much time you spend fasting, no matter how much you sleep on a hard floor and eat ashes and sigh continually, if you do no good to others, you do nothing great.”
Hale invites: “If you want to change your body, perhaps alcohol and candy is the way to go. But if you want to change your heart, a harder fast is needed. This narrow road is gritty, but it isn’t sterile. It will make room in ourselves to experience a love that can make us whole and set us free.”
Fasting is not primarily about what we give up. Fasting is mostly about what we make space for in our lives. Space for the poor and neglected, space for deeper friendships and community, space for hope, space for love, space for a broader moral imagination, space for new habits of body, soul and mind.
And space, for keeping one’s world – big! And open!