I’ve been thinking a lot about mental health and well-being lately. The inauguration last week removed a layer of stress for many of us. Yet, the reality is that it’s going to take a long time to undo the damage done over the last few years. It will be years before we see a significant decrease in the level of public hatred, violence, and divisiveness. That isn’t to say we don’t have reason to feel better; we do. And we should. Then again, there is still pandemic, and even with the vaccine, the prognosis isn’t awesome.
In my mind, I keep hearing Psalm 34:14: Turn from evil and do good; seek peace and pursue it. Seek peace and pursue it. This is awesome advice from the psalmist. It isn’t easy, though, is it. Lately, I’ve been struggling with some physical health issues that prevent me from getting regular exercise. This, along with the chronic pain, tends to make me a bit short-tempered, irritable, impatient. When I feel the tension building, tension that I can’t release with a good, long walk right now, life is less complicated when I remember to breathe. If I remember to breathe deeply, and remind myself that everything isn’t horrible, I can regain a bit of peace… at least until the tension builds up again.
It’s important to remember that stress comes at us from outside and from the inside. There is much we cannot change. Other people’s words and actions, be they family members’, friends’, neighbors’, or politicians’, there isn’t much we can do. We also can’t always control what happens in our bodies, physical pain, symptoms of mental illness, hormones, and the like. However, we can pay attention. We can try to notice more about our own stress levels.
Before an unfortunate stream of words comes spewing out of our mouths at unsuspecting folx, we can take a moment, breathe, seek peace. We can ask ourselves where this current frustration, irritation, or anger is coming from. Is it related to the person(s) sharing our space in this moment or does it have more to do with physical pain, anxiety, lack of sleep, hunger, hormonal flux, unresolved tension in another situation, PTSD, or other things? How might taking a moment to seek peace, pursue peace, change how we deal with the current stressors?
I’m generally not a fan of “breathing meditations” because I often experience shortness of breath. However, I do like to take breaks throughout the day and imagine breathing in bright, sunshiny light, and breathing out murky, heavy, tension. I imagine the sunshine gathering in my feet with each in-breath and the murkiness flowing out with each out-breath. If time allows, I keep doing this until I envision my whole body filled with sunshine, and I can feel the warm relaxation. When I don’t have time for the full exercise, just of few breaths of sunlight into my lungs, can release the tension in my shoulders and make the physical pain diminish, even for a few minutes.
Seeking and pursuing peace in these stressful times isn’t always easy. It’s worth the effort, though. That string of unfortunate words doesn’t always need to spread tension to those around us. We can take a moment to breathe, and remember that we are not alone. The only way we will get through these challenging times is to remember we are deeply connected one to another. If I can pursue peace, and you can pursue peace, maybe the air we share will calm others who breathe it in. Whatever you feel is okay. Though, maybe, taking a moment to seek and pursue peace will help clarify why you feel what you feel in the moment, making getting through the challenge a bit easier.
Rev. Dr. Rachael Keefe
Rev. Dr. Rachael Keefe is an author, and the pastor of Living Table United Church of Christ in Minneapolis, MN. You can find links to her blog, video series, and books at Beachtheology.com