Keeping Heart in a Pandemic

By Sam Jolman | March 24, 2020

Where do we go for peace? Where do we go to get our bearings again? So much of what we’ve leaned on, those givens in our lives, are cascading around us like a tossed deck of cards.

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed life as we know it for the near future. I don’t even have to guess that your life has been altered dramatically by the unfolding chaos. The disruption is everyone everywhere. 

This preparation is important and proactivity towards stopping the spread will save lives. I imagine you’ve had that science explained already. The novel nature of this virus has us fighting something new and dangerous. There is hope our actions will prevent the majority of our society from suffering an infection with the actual virus. 

But to fight one pandemic, we’ve had to start another. Its fighting fire with fire. We’ve lit our lives on fire burning down plans and routines and so much more to create a fire line that keeps this inferno pandemic from taking life itself. And its left us living this pandemic of fear and grief

We lost a family vacation and probably the whole school year. A couple in our small group cancelled their wedding. Many have closed restaurants and businesses or made other career ending decisions. And we traded this life to panic shop the aisles of Costco and Walmart, buying on instinct what we need for what feels like the end of the world.

None of us have escaped the pandemic of fear and loss. 

Fear is Contagious

We don’t often think of fear as contagious but it actually does get passed on person to person, face to face. We are so profoundly relational that even when we don’t realize it, we read the mood of those around us in a room or grocery store or news article. Its because everyone of us finds our comfort most in relationship with others. Its called co-regulation and its the best and most robust means of calming down.

But when every face  we see carries fear or stress, we feel more afraid. Fear is in fact easier to pass on than calm. Anxiety is more infectious than peace.

Fear is meant to be your friend. It’s there to keep you alert to danger and mobilize you to get out of harm’s way in the face of a legitimate threat. You need your bodies alert system to mobilize a plan for your life. I’m using it right now to write this email to you. It can be empowering.

Fear is not helpful when it persists in your body and grips your attention without breaks. It becomes chronic stress. When there’s nothing to hit or run from, we have all this energy and nowhere to go with it. We are left pacing the house, trying to find another way to calm down.

Fear Doesn’t Feel Like Fear

You may not resonate with feeling all that afraid. Fear doesn’t always feel like fear, especially when you’re still in the crisis, though someone may be able to read it on your face. Its often only after the fact we say, “Wow, that was scary.” 

If we stop and tune in, we may just say we feel stressed or anxious. Maybe its just our tight chest, tense muscles, wandering thoughts. You may know it as a being irritable, having a short fuse, or a struggle to do the tasks of your day. This is anxiety. This is embodied fear.

No one has ever calmed down by being told to calm down. You can’t fight fear by yelling at it or thinking yourself out of it. When angels showed up in the Bible and commanded people to not be afraid, they gave them comforting news, like “your prayers are heard” or “a savior is born”. When Jesus disciples fell to the ground in fear at his transfiguration, Jesus came and touched them before he told them to not be afraid.

We can only overcome fear by seeking calm to our bodies. We don’t fight fear. We bring calm.

Grounding and Calm

So where do you get grounded? Where do you find calm? A week ago, as this all came home to me, I had no idea what to do with myself. But I had this one line from a Wendell Berry poem in my head, the one where he describes the “Peace of wild things.” You can read it here. I just craved that with everything in me. So I went on two walks in the wild. And after caking mud on my shoes for a few hours, I found the ground still under me.

I invite you to get the actual ground under you. Go for a walk. Layout on your floor. Bury deep in the covers of your bed and feel wombed. Leanne Payne describes digging your toes in the dirt and remembering that all this was made for you.  You are right where you belong. The earth is your home.

You probably need to find a kind face too. Talk to someone who loves you about your anxiety. Naming something can provide containment and a sense of power. And remember, there is such a thing as healthy dissociation. Limit your engagement with the news. Take a hot bath or cold shower. Play music. Sing. Get sleep. 

This grounding will of course will be unique to you. And its in these times we have an opportunity to learn ourselves more, to experiment with what brings us calm.


And then grief. My goodness, this is the harder one to get to it seems because you have to actually stop and sit with it. As my therapist told me this week, there’s more layers to get through now to get to your heart. And our losses grow by the day. We’re all stuck in a story “…in search of an ending,” as NT Wright says.

You have loss in this time and it matters. A job, a vacation, a wedding, a routine, a graduation, a loved one. Do not fall into the trap of comparing your loss to others. Yes, people have it worse than you. But minimizing your loss doesn’t actually make it go away. 

And loss often doesn’t feel like loss either. Right now I can feel my grief as a low grade depression, a dull ache in my body. My body holds it in tight muscles, tiredness and low energy when it shows.  A few moments have brought the release of it. Maybe you hold it as CS Lewis said, “No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear.” They are so commingled in these days. And loss can keep bracing for more loss.

Make space for your grief. In a journal, in a walk, in a conversation, in prayer. My grief always has to sneak up on me it seems and catch me. I often can’t make myself go there. I have to welcome it like the surprise visit from an old trusted friend. 

Befriend your heart

Let me say again: We are all stuck in a story in search of an ending. And despite the deluge of expensive opinions, no one really knows how this ends. Your body and heart are holding that dramatic tension.

In these hurry up and wait days, its not often you’ll be invited to pay attention to your heart. But it’s your heart that will be feeling all this the most. This isn’t one to push through. 

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