By Judith Marklin
Back when the giddiness of a new school year hadn’t yet subsided into permeating exhaustion and overwhelming stress, the Vice-Chancellor, Reuben Brigety, addressed the Sewanee community from All Saints’ Chapel during the first week of classes. Regarding the current pandemic, racial injustices, and upcoming election, Brigety plainly stated that our primary concerns are caring for ourselves and for others.
“We must tend to our mental, physical, and spiritual health on a priority basis,” he said, “practicing those habits which bring us peace and joy and which nurture our body and our soul.”
He continued, “It should not stop us from extending common courtesies and kindnesses a bit more often to each other.” As I listened from the live stream on my computer, I found myself nodding along in agreement.
I needed to hear those words. After all, they were a recognition that currently class is not our top priority (yes, I said it) and also permission to extend grace to ourselves when we don’t live up to all our expectations for this semester. Yet it caused me to pause. Shouldn’t this always be the goal? Sure, this semester is especially difficult, but that’s not to say that other semesters aren’t. Of course, universities are designated spaces of learning, but who’s to say learning resilience is less important than learning the laws of physics? Moreover, how do we practice this resilience in a time when simply getting out of bed is an enormous feat?
We need to grieve. Before we can even begin to think about our capacities to bounce back after periods of intense stress, we have to build a solid foundation. It begins with truth-telling, acknowledging the facts. It is about letting go of denial and actively and compassionately listening. True listening is a terrifying act: we must tuck away our own assumptions and opinions and leave the possibility for us to be persuaded. Our values and worldview could be changed, upended.
Yet true listening is also a freeing act: we begin to realize the gaps and falsehoods in our narratives, while also enjoying the beautiful bits. This kind of listening requires us to no longer turn away but rather, face reality head-on, which in turn, leads to truth-telling, which then leads to grief. Whether we are grieving loss (of individuals, opportunities, relationships) or injustice (enacted by us or against us), it is important to dwell with it. We must create time and space to lament and attend to our mind, body, and soul. Only after this period of mourning, can we begin to act and build resiliency.
In a country that is, on the whole, rather emotionally constipated, we have set up barriers in our systems, our lives, and our relationships that keep us from expressing loss. When there is no room to voice our emotions, we are not encouraged to articulate our feelings, much less recognize them. We need spaces where vulnerability is welcomed and façades cease. Ph.D. candidate, Evelyn Valdez-Ward, recently posted on Twitter: “I don’t understand how any of you are being ‘productive.’ Since March, I don’t even know how to function in science, academia, etc. 2020 has been a complete disaster. Is it just me? Or are y’all faking it til you make it?”
When all we see around us are put-together Instagram posts and all we hear in response to “how are you?” is “I’m good, how are you?”, we can begin to understand why we have such difficulty expressing emotions. We have a warped sense of reality, one in which we must constantly be productive, always photo-worthy, and never asking for help.
Perhaps the first step is honesty. Simply tell the truth. When someone asks you how you are doing, even if it’s just a subconscious greeting, tell them you feel like crap. Tell them your anxiety has maxed out for the past few weeks. Tell them you just want to hibernate for the rest of the year.
Now, I know this goes against the very grain of our society. Heck, we were told to grit our teeth and pull ourselves up by our bootstraps. Now’s not the time to look weak; you just have to try harder. Yet being honest with others helps you to be honest with yourself. Sometimes it’s not until we voice something out loud that we realize how we truly feel. And don’t apologize after you say it! Too often we can be found spewing “I’m sorry’s” after a minor breakdown or a moment of unadulterated truth. But why are we sorry? After all, they did ask us how we were doing, and we simply answered their question.
I’ll be the first to admit that this tactic is extremely awkward. Just last semester before COVID struck, I was talking to two friends outside the BC. Well, it was more like crying instead of talking; it had been a rough few weeks. Someone walks up to our group, greeting my friends. I had never met him before, so we said hi and the inevitable question followed: how are you? I knew my eyes were still a bit puffy from crying, but maybe if I smiled real hard this new acquaintance wouldn’t notice. But before my brain could catch up with my body, I blurted out: “I’m terrible. And I’ve been crying for the past few minutes.” Welp, talk about first impressions.
Naturally, he was taken aback. After a brief pause, he turned his full attention to me and genuinely asked if there was anything he could do to help. I froze, this was not at all what I was expecting. That question held so much. It was like a solid yet gentle hug (I honestly forget what those feel like). It wasn’t a way of dismissing and trivializing my feelings by saying everything is going to be okay (because right now, it doesn’t feel like it, and I’m not entirely convinced it is). That question was about eye-contact, it was about truly seeing me, validating my experience, and letting me know that he is with me.
Proclaiming honestly and unapologetically how we are actually doing and feeling, may not be the habit Vice-Chancellor Brigety was referring to, however, it is an important way of tending to our well-being. Not only that, but it invites others to do the same. We begin to expect truth, without filters, and respond with courtesy and kindness. We start to give ourselves permission to not be our best all the time and extend that grace to others as well.
By pretending everything is okay when it clearly isn’t, we do more harm than good for everyone involved. So yes, Evelyn, I don’t currently know how to function, and I’ve been faking it — but I don’t think I’ve been making it.