Earlier this week, someone was telling me how unmotivated he feels about his job, a dimension of life previously filled with purpose and marked by meaningful structure. Work once ordered his days. Now his job has changed dramatically due to the pandemic. It is disorienting to create new routines. It is tiring to find joy in new tasks that he would not have chosen previously.
As I was listening to him on Zoom, my phone was “blowing up” next to me. A close friend (and pastor) was texting me about an article she had just read. Clearly it was insightful and helpful, otherwise she wouldn’t have sent me multiple messages. I glanced down at my phone and caught the title, “Your Surge Capacity is Depleted—It’s Why You Feel Awful” by Tara Haelle. I chuckled to myself about her serendipitous timing. As soon as my call was finished, I printed the article and read it through. Twice. I quoted it to a group of colleagues in a meeting later that day. Then I sent it to them and a bunch of others. More than one person responded, “This is me. This is where I am right now.” I suspect that’s true of many of us.
Our surge capacity is depleted, writes Haelle.
It’s a great term, surge capacity, since we have been enduring “surges of COVID” spiking throughout the country for the past five months. What seemed like a “let up,” a bit of reprieve, in June didn’t last long, and it wasn’t experienced evenly geographically or demographically. There have been surges of overall COVID cases, surges among young adults, surges among younger children, and surges in colleges and universities. One of yesterday’s headlines read: New Surge in Europe.
Haelle quotes a number of highly reputable psychologists, including some from the University of Minnesota, to define surge capacity and its depletion and to articulate the ambiguous losses of this ever-surging pandemic. As she summarizes it, “surge capacity is a collection of adaptive systems—mental and physical—that humans draw on for short-term survival in acutely stressful situations, such as natural disasters. But natural disasters occur over a short period, even if recovery is long. Pandemics are different—the disaster itself stretches out indefinitely.”
And so we feel weary. Sometimes we cannot focus. We feel off-kilter. We lose patience with those with love the most (even more than usual). It is easy, in these times, to judge ourselves as unproductive, lacking creativity, or unmotivated. Truth is: we are living through a global pandemic. And not just that. We are also living through an economic recession, fractured communal bonds, incivility, resurgences of hate and violence, threats to our democratic institutions, and a near constant need to adapt and re-order our personal and professional lives.
Haelle shares a helpful list of ideas for increasing our surge capacity, strengthening our resilience, and finding hope and inspiration. Many of them can be summed up this way: be kind to yourself. So that you can be kind to others.
The necessity of self-compassion cannot be overstated. When articulating the essence of the law and prophets, Jesus said, “Love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength. And love your neighbor as yourself.” Love of God, love of neighbor, love of self: these three loves directed upward, outward, and inward cannot be severed from one another. We cannot hate any of these three and properly love the other two. We cannot disregard two and still respect the third. In fact, love of God and love of others coincide in any act of compassion. When we contribute to the needs of those who are hungry, lonely, sick, and oppressed, we are caring for Jesus himself, as he explained to his disciples. Likewise, we cannot care adequately for others unless we also care for ourselves. When we are drained, it is harder to listen, to give, to act in solidarity with others. When our surge capacity is depleted, we need retreat of one sort or another.
When we retreat, we dedicate time (and we usually go away) for rest, renewal, and reconnection to ourselves and God. We meditate, practice mindfulness, pray, and enjoy the beauty of nature. We choose silence so that we can hear again. We treat ourselves with gentleness. And slowly our surge capacity is replenished.
After reading and sharing Haelle’s article, I called my pastor friend to process it further. Little did I realize that this conversation would become a miniature “retreat-where-you-are.” As we meandered through a number of topics, I remembered the vastness of God’s love, which is the source of all life. It is like a spring that never runs dry and a current in the desert replenishing all who find themselves there. All we have to do is receive it again and again and again.
How’s your surge capacity today? Are you holding yourself with kindness in recognition of all you’ve been through in the past five months? What will replenish you and ground you, once again, in a love that knows no end?
Theresa F. Latini, Ph.D. is the Executive Director of Mount Olivet Conference & Retreat Center and an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church (USA)