Taking one step at a time
Taking one step at a time
2 June 2020
I don’t think I’m alone in feeling like I’ve wandered onto the set of a Hollywood pandemic drama. The world keeps turning and yet each revolution brings new and alarming information of sickness, restrictions and deaths. Ironically, a phrase that by definition should not become a cliché, has become one: “We are living in unprecedented times.” Yet the truth is, though there may be differences in the context of our crises, humanity has faced numerous threats throughout history and across cultures.
King David, who lived through political oppression, life as a refugee, war and the death of his infant son from illness, wrote words that are still quoted at funerals across the world: “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I will fear no evil, for you are with me, your rod and staff they comfort me” (Psalm 23). In this we find seeds of the hope that psychologists still draw on today to help people find strength when they are fearful.
“Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death” is a reminder that we are not stuck in our crisis, but only walking through. Try to be still and observe the changes that are occurring, from the breath that fills our lungs, to the wind in the trees. This practice of mindful awareness can be profoundly helpful when we feel overwhelmed.
As any mountain climber will tell you, it can be helpful to focus simply on taking the next step. In the same way, psychologists speak of separating time into segments that feel manageable. If you feel overwhelmed by what the coming months hold, shift your focus from the whole journey to just the next step. What can you do in the next five minutes, hour or day?
In Psalm 23, David deliberately shifts his focus from the shadows that threaten, to the things that bring him comfort. Our biological response to threat actually narrows our focus, fixing attention on potential danger and making it harder to reason and see the bigger picture. We can learn from this and deliberately limit the attention we give to negative information, so that we can increase our ability to switch focus.
David talks about being comforted by a rod, used by a shepherd to protect his sheep from predators. What are the sources of protection we have available to us? Spending time being grateful in a journal or writing thank-you letters to our essential workers, can be a way of opening our minds to see a fuller picture.
He also talks about being comforted by a staff, used by shepherds to lean on as they walked, but with a crook that could gently redirect wandering sheep. It represents direction, and is a reminder that many of our heroes have not made a difference because of the absence of hardship, but because of it. People like Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King are heroes to us, not because their lives were problem-free, but because they continued to pursue the things they believed in despite the obstacles. We can also draw strength from knowing what direction is important to us in life. What are our values? What can we do to live out our values? Knowing what you are living for, psychologists have found, is a source of strength, enabling endurance through hardship.
The middle stanza of the poem reads, “I will fear no evil for you are with me.” Neuroscientists note that time spent in relationships helps relieve the biological markers of distress and improve reasoning and resilience. Social distancing will bring distress, but we can still have relationships. Now is a good time to be creative and explore new ways of connecting.
David, however, is not talking about the ‘you’ that is other people. Rather, he is talking about finding comfort in the ‘you’ that is God’s presence. If you have faith in a God who loves us and is with us through our trials, it is hard not to be comforted. Research shows that people of faith generally experience lower levels of anxiety than those who don’t have faith. It’s not that they aren’t afraid, but that they are able to find comfort, direction and protection in their fear.
Christians, though, don’t have a monopoly on God. If you’re not yet a person of faith, this time of social isolation might be the opportunity to find for yourself the God who is beside you in all your troubles.