Reaching to pick yet another leaf off the back of my shoulders, my husband finally asked, “Where did these leaves come from?”
It was a reasonable question: The days of rain would have suggested I had neither cause nor opportunity to work in the yard.
But I was covered in evidence of a wrestling match with a previously dwarf, now mighty, Loropetalum. The Loropetalum was in my way.
While rescuing a collection of fairy-garden miniature figures from the rain pooling at the back of our yard, balancing a box full of spray paint, tape, and the other trappings of a DIY project abandoned to days of rain in one arm while carrying hook-nosed clippers in the other, I reached a point where my forward movement was complicated by wet branches that had well overgrown the stony path.
Standing in the rain at dinner time while my children bickered inside on this week when all of their summer camps have been canceled because of COVID-19, in this season where there is no clear path forward and my tolerance for uncertainty and inefficiency is being tested mightily, I threw everything down and started cutting off and tossing aside rain-laden branches.
Executed on the spot with no plan for disposal, it left my children’s play area littered with cuttings.
Even at the time, I thought it was funny. I knew how silly I looked. I knew the need to assert control over the situation is a stress response.
And I knew that cutting a clear path through tangled branches in my own yard was a benign endeavor.
For 20 years, I have been the one who shapes our landscaping, and it was not overstepping for me to do it, even in the pouring rain. It was just funny. And a little messy.
But what happens when we unleash this need to assert control in spaces that are not as private and clearly “ours” as is my fenced backyard?
Being church amid pandemic grief requires self-awareness about the impact of our efforts – and our failings – to keep it together amid grief and uncertainty.
Most churches have overgrown tangles right now because of all that has been halted or made more difficult by COVID-19.
Staff and lay leaders alike, along with those who simply need church to be a place of meaning and devotion, find their tolerance for uncertainty and inefficiency tested.
And those without Loropetalum at which to chop away might just dump their trauma-driven angst into the church system.
So many members of congregations are operating with “trauma brain” right now. And trauma brain can really make a mess of relationships.
Trauma brain offers alternative narratives. Trauma brain convinces us to fret and to try to assert our control over situations that are not ours to control.
Trauma brain makes us defensive, fragile and ready to attack. Trauma brain lies to us.
And this messy behavior often comes out in the communities we most depend on – like our families, our work (or academic) communities, and our faith communities.
When individuals within the system, and then the system as an institution, are self-aware of the impact of trauma brain and the misguided efforts this messy thinking inspires in us, when these normal but unhealthy ways of being are named and curbed, the community can continue to thrive and to provide comfort, healing, and assurances of God’s love.
But when trauma brain goes unchecked, unnamed, and unaddressed, our churches become littered with the debris of our strivings, and those whose job it is to do the work of bearing grace and mercy find themselves knee-deep and stymied by the fretful offerings of control by those who really do love the church – and really are God’s beloved – whose grief is overtaking them and leaving a mess for others.
One of the most loving things church leaders can do is to provide receptacles for these fretful offerings of trauma brain, finding ways to accept this outpouring of anxiety and treat it as the toxic waste that it is.
Leaders help lovingly clean up the mess, participating in efforts to mitigate trauma in the community. Your people are suffering, and the church has healing to offer.
One of the most loving things church members can do is recognize trauma brain in others for what it is.
Friends need your support, your encouragement and kindness. They also need you to take the hook-nosed clippers out of their hands because they probably should not be holding them.
One of the most loving things individuals can do is to act with self-awareness about the impact of their willingness to dump into the system and their eagerness to assert control. Learn to stop yourself.
Our path forward as institutions and as worshipping communities is certainly full of tangles, but the way forward is navigable.
In the coming weeks and months, all of us can choose whether we name our grief and our trauma and proceed with caution or whether we let it fuel our misbehavior in the world around us.
For your sake and mine, I hope we can choose the former. I hope when we feel angry, upset or frustrated with the way things are going at home, at work, or at church, we can push back against trauma brain and seek out healthy responses.
That we can say to ourselves:
- I will assume good intentions rather than ill intentions, competence rather than incompetence.
- I will reflect and meditate before I respond.
- I will remember I do not have to control this situation or even know all of the details of how it is being handled.
Together, we can anticipate that trauma brain is going to rear its ugly head for decades to come. So, we need to figure out how we are going to be together through this.
Because there is enough grace to cover all of us. And we are beloved. And we are never alone.
Mary Elizabeth Hanchey is the Parish Associate for Pastoral Care at United Church in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. A graduate of Duke Divinity School, she lives in Durham with her family. She is the editor of “Though the Darkness Gather Round, Devotions about Infertility, Miscarriage, and Infant Loss.”