Then I said to them, “You see the trouble we are in: Jerusalem lies in ruins, and its gates have been burned with fire. Come, let us rebuild the wall of Jerusalem, and we will no longer be in disgrace.” I also told them about the gracious hand of my God on me and what the king had said to me.
They replied, “Let us start rebuilding.” So they began this good work. (Nehemiah 2:17-18)
A young teacher explained to me recently that she just needed a break. Assigned this fall, to a first-grade classroom, she felt a deep fatigue as she began the school year. School is, of course, in person again. After a year of remote teaching, she recalled what it was like walking into her classroom this September. “I felt exhausted, and sad, and like everything was futile.” She worked hard throughout those intense Pandemic months to give her students a caring and rich experience despite remote learning. She wrote emails to parents in different languages when needed. She ensured that everyone had a computer. She planned, in her evening hours, how to creatively connect with students and help them to learn better. In other words, she gave it her all. And she loved the students. In April 2021, the children returned to school. “They were so happy to be in school.” She grew tearful as she recalled their joy.
This summer she moved with her husband to a new town and into a new house. A house that needs a complete do-over. Depression had crept in on her before. First when she went to college, and again after a dear friend died of cancer.
Now she is in that space again. Perhaps you know it, too? Her foundations have been shaken; she feels spent. She deeply cares for her students, and yet she feels like she is not measuring up. When she falls into bed at night, she is exhausted. At 5:30am the day begins again. Her commute by car is one hour depending on traffic. In her depletion, she wonders about her chosen vocation. “The students with supportive parents thrive, and the students who don’t have that familial support will continue to fall behind.” She does not know how to remedy this gap. Too, the computers that she was able to get for her students during the remote learning months, seemingly have disappeared. “Now, my classroom has 3 computers. Three computers for an entire class.” She wonders where the resources have gone. Disillusionment, frustration, and sadness rest on her shoulders. It is so hard not to take on all of society’s ills; the ruins that have been revealed. The grief that stays in our hearts.
Nehemiah cried when he heard the news:
3 They said to me, “Those who survived the exile and are back in the province are in great trouble and disgrace. The wall of Jerusalem is broken down, and its gates have been burned with fire.” 4 When I heard these things, I sat down and wept. For some days I mourned and fasted and prayed before the God of heaven.
“I love teaching, but I just need a break,” said the teacher. The question is how to find respite in a time when there are limited resources left; when we need to keep on, keeping on. People are running on fumes. My own heart breaks for this teacher as it does for our nurses, doctors, administrators in patient care, and first responders of all types who are indeed carrying on when they desperately need rest. As a clinical social worker and therapist, I have completed more leave of absence forms than I ever have prior to this time. One doctor I know, believes we should declare a mental health emergency.
Not too long ago, I experienced some familiar symptoms of panic. Where and when does the healing begin? If only I could reduce my caseload, change my work hours, take a month off. Yet, at the same time I love my work in mental health. I am grateful to God for my vocation in this time of returning and rebuilding. I am grateful for the witness and love of others. Is this a form of rest I wonder, this reframe, this truth?
May the witness of caring others, and the love of God permeate that which lies in ruin. Nothing can silence the movement of the Spirit. May we take time to seek goodness and see anew. May we rebuild together our world. May sacred moments of community stir our hearts. Let us begin this good work.
Jennifer Stuart is an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ. She serves as a community minister at First Church in Cambridge, MA, UCC. Jennifer, a clinical social worker specializing in psychological trauma, is a psychotherapist at the Danielsen Institute at Boston University.