As individuals and as a community, the pandemic may call us to draw upon strengths that we don’t use every day. In days like this, we can’t forget the atypical gifts and vulnerabilities of those of us living with mental illness, addiction or other brain conditions. Of course living with these conditions makes us more vulnerable, but in unusual times, some of our unusual gifts could also prove useful to ourselves and to our communities.
Before looking at the gifts we bring, it is important to honor the fact that this pandemic hits marginalized groups harder, and this is also true for people with mental illness. We are more likely to be in prison or homeless. We are more likely to be poor or to struggle with employment. We are more likely to need medical care. The progress we fought for might be crumbling. The support system that upheld us might be gone. The abyss might seem to surround us. There are no bright sides to any of these things, and I hope the church can hold this in its prayers and in its priorities.
On the other hand, those of us with mental illness have developed gifts that could shine at a time like this. Does the community feel isolated? Lots of us have been wrestling a life out isolation for decades, and we know how to do it. Are people struggling with anxiety or despair? Many of us have spent years honing our coping skills. Does someone need a plan to deal with a crisis? Some of us have been planning for survival every single day of our lives. Do people feel like their world is falling apart? Many of us have watched our worlds fall apart, and we are still here. Is the community reeling as it tries to cope with unexpected change? Many of us are unsurprised by the fragility of our community because we have navigated the places where support falls apart.
Like Job in the Bible, many of us have been through experiences of suffering and isolation that have shown us deep flaws in the dominant culture’s presumption of security. In contrast, friends who come to comfort Job in his deep grief are limited by their understanding that security is possible through good behavior. At the end of the book of Job, God is angry with the attitude of these friends, and says Job should pray for them and make a sacrifice. This response from God shows me that cultural assumptions of security are often questionable, and that changing those assumptions takes some work. Some of us with mental illness are farther along in that work, and so we have relevant gifts for a community that is wrestling with lost security.
Living into the gifts God has given us makes a difference, even when we are burdened by so many other challenges that our contributions seem insignificant and invisible. May we cherish the knowledge that our God-given gifts help to build the reign of peace and love and justice on this earth. May we celebrate that, and may we be given the resources, the wisdom, and the support we need to tend the vulnerabilities that are intertwined with our gifts.
Elizabeth O’Sullivan is a student at United Theological Seminary in St Paul, where she is pursuing an Masters of Divinity with a concentration in UCC Studies. She farms in Dundas, Minnesota, with her husband, three children, four dogs and 2700 chickens.