Anger, boredom, fear – and their antidote

Mar 25, 2020 by

By Andrew Symes, Anglican Mainstream:

“It’s absolutely disgraceful. The government should have ordered a much more draconian lockdown two weeks ago. And why is there no toilet paper in the shops? Someone is to blame for this.”

“I’ve been self-isolating for two days and I’m already bored. There’s only so much you can take of scrolling through darkly comic memes about self isolation and toilet paper, and watching reruns of Netflix box sets and old FA Cup semi final classics.”

“Well it’s alright for you. I’m trying to work from home – you try having a serious office Zoom call with three bored small children behind you climbing up the walls”.

“I’m really worried. Will mum or dad be safe? Might I die? I won’t have a job when this is over – how will we survive?”

Anger about what other people have done or failed to do in the past, boredom in the present, fear about the future. Each one of these can be debilitating. Together they are a toxic and dangerous combination.

While it’s important that leaders are accountable, and act democratically and from the best advice not autocratically and in self interest, the human instinct to “witch-hunt”, to find individuals and groups to blame for our predicament, stir up resentment, and attack them in a mob can quickly get out of control. Similarly, on a local level, grievance about past hurts can fester in homes and even in churches. It can lead to bitterness and fragmentation when the nation desperately needs unity and kindness.

Boredom can easily set in when we have our basic needs met, but there is no incentive to do today what can be put off till tomorrow or next week. As most of us start at least three weeks of self isolation, we might begin with noble aspirations; to read War and Peace or some of the unread Christian books in our collection, to do those long postponed DIY projects, to renew contact with friends and family usually on the lower priority list, to sort out the piles of admin and unanswered emails. But as we don’t have to do any of it today, we enjoy just lazing around – and very quickly the prospect of those activities seems in our mind a bit like…work. A mild mental paralysis can take over – “I know I should tidy the garage, but I’ll watch just one more episode of ‘Homes under the hammer’ from 2013 – I’m bored now, but I can’t be bothered to do what should be done.” This can be when the mind starts to seek excitement in unhelpful ways – drinking, gambling, porn or flirting texts with a work colleague perhaps. We’re yet to see whether boredom can lead to widespread flouting of the restrictions in weeks to come.

Fear, worry, even panic about what we think might happen in the future are rising. There is the basic one: will I and my loved ones survive? Governments around the world have had to take incredibly difficult decisions to protect health services from being overwhelmed (and cameras being there to capture it) and try to reduce the number of deaths in each country to thousands rather than tens or even hundreds of thousands. The result has been in effectively shutting down most of the world economy, creating huge widespread concern about future livelihoods. This fear about the future puts massive pressure on already fragile mental health, and relationships in families cooped up for weeks. We don’t know yet what this might do.

Are there some simple things that we as Christians can do to first prevent ourselves succumbing to mob anger, sinful sloth and debilitating anxiety, and then to offer practical examples and words of hope to communities around us?

A key way to avoid sinful anger is to constantly remind ourselves of the gospel of grace. Jesus’ story (Matt 18:21-35) about the man who had been let off his debts, only to try to force others to pay him back much smaller amounts, warns us about how easy it is for all of us to forget how much kindness has been shown to us despite our sinfulness, first by God and then by the allowances given to us by other people. Deep gratitude for the undeserved forgiveness we have received should make us pause before rushing to judge and attack what we’re sometimes stirred up to consider to be incompetence and failure in government, who are doing their best in having to make quick and difficult decisions. Thanksgiving, what the Psalmist calls “the joy of salvation” (51:12) and seeking to encourage others around us, must be a better way of living in our homes and as citizens than bitterness, self-pity and recrimination.

Boredom can seem harmless but if it originates in selfishness and results in destructive self-medicating it needs to be recognised, named and resisted first, and then replaced with what’s good: renewed internal attitudes, and practical action. That delivery to the foodbank, that half hour participating in the online prayer meeting, tidying up the house to help a busy family member, starting to learn a musical instrument, completing that work report early so I can dig a new vegetable bed while listening to a sermon on headphones – these and many other things need to be intentionally planned and followed through as part of our new enforced simple lifestyles. Perhaps this is a challenge to establish new rhythms (or rediscover old ones) based around worship, intercession, learning from the word, service of others, creative hobbies, essential work and rest. If the things I’ve mentioned seem insufferably worthy and over-wholesome, maybe we’ve become cynical, or at least got used to on-tap entertainment and complete freedom as default instead of a privilege. Even children can learn this (acknowledging that practical issues for families are a huge challenge).

And then, fear. None of us is immune. My wife and I are currently showing the symptoms of CoVid 19; not yet unpleasant enough to seek medical help. I confess I have been renewing the emergency file so that in the event of my demise, other family members will have access to key documents and logins! Of course as Christians we can be confident in the protection of Jesus and his healing power in this life, his shepherding through the dark valley, and in the certainty of the resurrection in the future. The vast majority around us know nothing of this; levels of distress, despair and anger will be rising behind the facades of humour and “we’ll soon be through it” bravado.

But as severe anxiety about the future can be contagious, so is faith, and courage. By faith I don’t mean a certainty about how God will act, for example that he will bring about a desired outcome – healing of an individual; the miraculous slowing down and elimination of the virus (although of course we pray for these things). Rather faith is first a conviction rising up among God’s people that he is really there as described in Scripture, that his demands and assurances for us are true, and that he and his ultimate purposes – the glorification of Jesus united eternally to a refined, multi-cultural church of all ages – loom large in our consciousness. It’s the excitement about this and the growing love for him which casts out the paralysis of fear, and should underpin keeping busy with the balance of practical and spiritual activities as part of “keep calm and carry on”.

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