I thought it would be better by now.
It’s the refrain that keeps coming up, both within myself and in my conversations with friends, family, and clients. It’s the refrain that we first started singing it over a year ago, when we thought the restrictions, hospitalizations, and death tolls would all ease up after a few weeks, a few months, a year of living in the shadow of COVID-19, a refrain that we hoped might fade to silence by the arrival of this fall. And yet, here we are, singing it again.
As the fourth wave of viral spread promises to peak, I look back at the optimism I felt in the springtime and early summer, and I cringe. But how could I have known? Vaccines were being administered, case numbers dropped, and activities that I’d deferred months before suddenly seemed possible again. Now, with September in view, it hurts to have to renegotiate my commitments, to navigate a frustratingly familiar sense of uncertainty, and to hear about so many lives impacted and lost to this virus.
Sometimes, I feel defeated. Other times, overwhelmed. And still others, angry. I struggle to stay focused on tasks, not to sink into utter despair, not to cast too much blame. But it’s difficult. ‘Pandemic fatigue’ doesn’t quite hold all that I feel.
And so, I return to the refrain, imbuing it with my sense of lament, my confession, my utter sense of disorientation and helplessness.
How Charts Help Me Make Sense of the World
Quite often throughout this pandemic and again lately, I find myself referring to the image I’ve included here (with permission from the Institute for Collective Trauma and Growth, or ICGT). There are many versions of this image, which charts community responses to disasters or collective trauma (to learn more, visit the ICGT website). I was first introduced to this chart during an intensive seminary course on ministry in times of disaster, and have since used it in nearly every community I’ve lead to help make sense of tragedies, traumas, and disasters that we experienced together. One friend, who works in disaster relief, uses charts like this to help disaster relief entities understand the responses to various phases of a disaster:
- The Heroic Phase: The time immediately following a crisis or disaster in which communities band together and work to head off suffering caused by a disaster. Remember in Spring of 2020, when we applauded health care workers as heroes, sewed masks, imagined ourselves as the best home-school teachers to have ever lived? That was us in the Heroic Phase.
- In the Disillusionment Phase, communities recognize that no amount of heroics will save us from the pain of this crisis or disaster. It can feel like a free-fall into despair, with triggering events distance us from our pre-crisis naivete while also making a return to “normal” seem somewhere on an impossibly distant horizon.
- In the Recovery / Rebuilding / Restoration Phase, a community begins the work of integrating the experiences of the crisis or disaster, while creating ways to honor the grief, pain, and loss they’ve experienced during it. Triggering events can still bring up unresolved feelings.
Let me pause here to say that no experience of a crisis or disaster can be summed up in a single chart or graph, nor is this chart intended to do so. Our experiences vary, depending on personal experiences, previous trauma, and more. At the same time, I think it’s been a helpful image for me to return to, as it helps me locate my own experiences within the unfolding of this pandemic.
I’d love to say that I can fully locate us in the Recover / Rebuilding / Restoration stage, but I think it’s more likely that many communities are still working through the Disillusionment Phase. Between coping with decision fatigue, not to mention compassion fatigue, each wave and setback has continued to reveal new dimensions of disillusionment: with our health care systems, with our political systems, within our personal relationships, with fellow community members who hold differing views of this pandemic as a crisis.
There are so many layers of disillusionment to navigate that it can be difficult to comprehend. I think this is why we each have developed our own “Pet Pandemic Disillusionments” that become our favorite way to articulate our frustrations—whether at politicians or that unvaccinated uncle, our Pet Pandemic Disillusionments enable us vent our feelings without ever actually dealing with the sheer enormity of the myriad personal, social, and systemic issues this pandemic has and continues to reveal in our culture.
And if that’s not enough to make your head spin, this chart also doesn’t take into consideration the cascading collective traumas we are also experiencing. Cascading traumas refer to traumas that occur in such a pattern or close proximity that an individual doesn’t have time to recover from an initial trauma before the next one impacts them. Certainly, a pandemic is a collective trauma, but nestled within its timeframe are the cascading traumas of systemic racialized violence, environmental disasters, and social isolation, and even this view cannot account for any personal crises, losses, or trauma’s you’ve experienced since March 2020, let alone in the 24 months prior.
One begins to realize that the chart of our trauma is no single, clean line, but jagged overlay of any number of personal and collective events. Considered this way, my sense that I’ve been stuck in Disillusionment is likely not far off. And my Disillusionment Ass-Kicking Meds just wore off.
It’s why I like the chart above so much. Because it reminds me that the movement from Disillusionment to Rebuilding and Restoration (and eventually to Wiser Living) doesn’t assume we defeat disillusionment. Rather, it assumes that we embrace it. That we become familiar with it. That we acknowledge that the losses we’ve sustained are real. But that we also hold ourselves open to the possibility that goodness is still possible even here at the bottom of the pit of our cascading disillusionments. It’s a paradox, this movement, a holding of two seemingly opposite truths in order to find balance in an unstable landscape. It is both/and.
Now let me tell you why I think this matters…
So many friends, loved ones, and clients continue to express how heavy the pandemic is weighing on them. And yet, in the same sentence I often hear them judging themselves for not being “motivated,” “productive,” or “capable.” As I’ve sat with my own sense that I should be “better” right now than I am, I trace the roots of this thinking back to a capitalist ethic that demands we be productive at any cost, that productivity, motivation, and capacity are the measures of our wellbeing and worth. In seeking to undo this thinking in myself, I’ve found that trauma-informed approaches to understanding our experience of pandemic have helped me to hold more compassion, grace, and understanding for myself as we navigate a season for which we have no map.
In truth, this has been a very long way of saying that if you’re feeling overwhelmed and defeated right now, you’re not alone. That if you feel like you’re not able to function properly, that if you’re sluggish, anxious, unmotivated, or unproductive, that you’re not alone. As I said to a friend recently, “Shit is still bad, and I can’t pretend it’s not.”
You are legitimately dealing with A LOT. Like, unprecedented levels of A LOT. And we’re not quite collectively to the phase where things ease up and feel a little easier. We have to cut ourselves some slack and ease off the gas as we navigate the strange terrain of this moment.
It’s ok to not feel ok. If you don’t feel hope now, that’s alright. You’re just getting to know your disillusionment. You don’t have to beat it, fight it, or fix it. You just have to keep yourself open to the tiniest sliver of possibility that there may be some goodness out there. Somewhere.
So, how are you doing with holding your Disillusionment? And where might you be seeing sparks of goodness, even in the pandemic pit?
Over the next few weeks, I’m going to continue to process my thoughts about trauma and pandemic and to post them to my blog, linking them here.