“What in the world is this?” my daughter asked holding up a picture she had found on my phone. “Is that Cinderella?”
“That’s the inside of Cinderella,” I said.
“She looks craaaaaazy!” The 5-year-old proclaimed.
This particular Cinderella did look craaaaaazy on the inside, which is precisely why I had taken the picture of the backside of a craft project I’d been working on for my kids.
I am not a crafty person by any means. My creative gifts are in crafting sentences, not art (trust me- even my stick figures end up sideways). Yet, I find enjoyment and stress-relief working with my hands. In the last many years, I’ve gotten into sewing projects, using kits (because we all know, I could not create something on my own without it being crooked and silly). With kits, I’ve made my family Christmas stockings and wreaths. This Spring, when my family was stuck in COVID quarantine after our Disney trip, I ordered a fun sewing kit to make Disney Princess dolls. The kids are loving picking out a character and watching her come together from thread, felt, and stuffing.
I noticed something, however, after I completed the front of each doll but before stuffing her and sewing on her back. On the front, she looked like a pretty, brave, adventurous doll, ready to face the world. But on the flip side – on her inside – she was a complete mess. String everywhere. Seams showing. Globs of thread. Imperfect stitching. Crazy eyes.
That’s the princess I relate to. Not the shining, beautiful one who acts perfect and looks perfect. I relate to the crazy mess on her inside. Strings of thought every which way. Imperfect stitching. Seams of exhaustion and confusion showing. Globs of doubt and insecurities. Crazy unfocused eyes.
I venture to say, dear reader, that you relate to the inside of the princess too. We may show our polished selves on the outside, but that’s not how we feel on the inside. Yet, we won’t admit it. We refuse to admit it. Our society tells us never to let those parts show. Our culture teaches us from a young age: put your best foot forward. Cover those pimples. Hide those wrinkles. Lose that weight. Smile through it. Fake it ‘til you make it. Or as one of those Disney Queens puts it: “Don’t let them in. Don’t let them see. Be the good girl you always have to be. Conceal don’t feel, don’t let them know” (Let It Go. Kristen Anderson-Lopez & Robert Lopez, 2013). But now, we find ourselves singing that last line: “Now they know!” Something about the stresses of the last few years has let our seams show – we all now know that we’re all struggling. Every one of us.
We’re at a different and interesting point right now. COVID is over-ish. Yet, we’re still struggling … and many of us are struggling because we’re still struggling and we can’t figure out exactly why. We feel like we should be out of this by now. We’ve dulled COVID to a manageable virus with vaccines and anti-viral meds. We’ve gotten back to work, school, and worship. We’ve gone on vacation. We’re having parties and celebratory gatherings. Life has returned to normal. Well normal-ish. The truth is: our lives have forever changed. Our bodies are forever changed. Our priorities have forever changed. The way we operate at home, school, work, and church has forever changed. Now, we’re trying to fit our new selves into our old world.
And it isn’t working out well. We’re still trying to show our shiny front princess and prince faces, instead of our inner struggling kings and queens. In the aftermath of our society’s great upheaval, we haven’t taken the time to grieve our losses, to accept the change, to recognize the trauma, to name our struggles, to say: ‘this is too much, and I just can’t do it.’ We haven’t take the time to allow everyone to say: ‘this is too much, and we just can’t do this.’ We’ve come out the other side with no idea what to do next. So we do the only thing we know: we just keep going and going and going.
But let’s face it – even the Energizer Bunny had to stop and change batteries.
Last week, I attended a webinar on “burnout” hosted by the Presbyterian Church (USA)’s medical plan for clergy and church staff. When the presenter did a survey of all the attendees’ levels of burnout, 60% identified as moderately – severely burned out; 90% identified some level of burnout; and only 10% identified no burnout experience. Let’s sit with that: 90% of PC(USA) clergy able to zoom into a webinar on a Thursday afternoon are burned out. What an astounding number! Granted, this wasn’t an official, data driven survey, but it surely speaks volumes about the mental, emotional, and spiritual health of our spiritual leaders. I venture to say a survey of all helping professions would produce a similar result.
Yet, and this I know to be true, we have no idea what to do about it. Our answers to burnout are the same as they were pre-pandemic. Focus on self-care. Get a massage. Exercise. Get a therapist. Take a nap. Do yoga.
While these are definitely good ideas, they do not seem to be addressing the larger problem. Societal trauma isn’t something individuals can all fix by a solid nap or a good run. I say this not just because I’ve heard this voiced by colleagues and friends, but because I’ve tried this myself. In fact, just recently I was proud of myself for scheduling 3 self-care appointments: a doctor for my physical health, a spiritual director for my spiritual health, and a therapist for my mental health. I was knocking it out of the park … until … one after one, each appointment was cancelled all in one week. All for good reasons: illness, surgery, emergency.
Our helpers are also struggling people. As a society, the current solution to our problems is to seek individual help. Yet who is helping the helpers? We are asking for individual solutions to a systematic problem.
No one knows what to do next, so we just keep doing what we’re doing. We keep pretending we’re fine, when every single one of us looks like the innards of a sewn doll. We don’t allow for space for grace. We don’t allow time for grief. We don’t allow time for recovery. We aren’t giving each other grace.
What if we got crafty? What if we all threw away our old kits and tried something new? What if we all said: Enough! Let’s stop. Let’s breathe. Let’s declare a Jubilee, which is an ancient Biblical concept that declared a year of rest every 50 years. The Jubilee year was a full year of rest, release, and restoration for the people and the land. (Check out Leviticus 25). It was a year of return to home and loved ones. It was a time to recommit to God. It was a time to reset the whole society.
Let’s Jubilee! Let’s reset our world. Let’s reset our organizations. Let’s reset our expectations. Let’s offer grace. Let’s find a new normal that normalizes this: it’s okay to not know, to be tired, to not have all the answers, and to admit we’re having a hard time. Let’s stop trying to fake it. Let’s help each other make it.
May we honor the truth of our flip-sides: our inner strewn together, messy, imperfect parts. May we name those parts as beautiful: the loose strings, the showing seams, the globs of thread, the imperfect stitching. For these are the parts that make us truly brave, adventurous, and beautiful.