The scriptures referred to are Isaiah 40:1-11.
Prophets essentially did 2 things: comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. For the last 2 Sundays we have been reading things that Jesus and Isaiah said that afflicted those who were comfortable with the world as it is: unjust, merciless and indifferent to the suffering of others. This week we see the other side of the coin.
Isaiah is told to comfort God's people. What they need comforting about is the exile: 70 years spent as aliens in Babylon. They are wondering how long will this go on. Cyrus the Great, king of Persia, would conquer Babylon and let the Jews return to their homeland. Their captivity was a disaster, albeit a man-made one. They, like us, had to go home and then rebuild. They, like us, would be stressed out. What they needed was comfort. As do we.
Friday I went to a 4 hour seminar from AHEC and the Red Cross called Psychological First Aid in Disaster and Recovery. About 95% of the attendees were nurses. And all of us were dealing with the aftermath of Irma in our personal lives.
The seminar covered things like the way stress affects us and how it manifests itself emotionally, cognitively, physically, behaviorally and spiritually. We discussed the difference between the ways adults react and the ways children and teens react. We discussed the 12 steps of psychological first aid, like the importance of being kind, calm and compassionate, even when dealing with difficult people. Because this was psychological first aid, we were instructed to know our limits and know when to refer the person to a professional based on the 3 Rs: their reaction, risk factors and resilience.
A couple of months ago I talked about resilience. What I want to talk about on this, the 3 month anniversary of Hurricane Irma's landfall, is the ways we find ourselves reacting to this catastrophe, as well as both negative and positive coping strategies.
Emotionally, the stress of having gone through a disaster or any trauma can manifest itself in things like rage and irritability, anxiety, despair, numbness, guilt, sadness, helplessness and/or feeling overwhelmed.
Cognitively, people dealing with a lot of stress will often have difficulty concentrating and thinking and making decisions, and will experience forgetfulness, confusion, distortion of space and time, intrusive thoughts, memories and flashbacks, a sense of being cut off from reality, self-blame and even thoughts of self-harm.
Physically, stress manifests itself in fatigue, sleep problems, physical complaints, increased cravings for caffeine, nicotine, food, alcohol,or illicit drugs, increased or decreased sex drive, increased or decreased appetite, and susceptibility to being startled.
Behaviors that stress triggers include crying spells, angry outbursts, withdrawal and avoiding people, places and situations, risky behaviors, school or work problems and inattention to appearance, personal hygiene or taking care of oneself.
Spiritually, the stress of a disaster or other major trauma can show itself in a change in our relationship with or belief about God, abandonment of prayer, ritual, or devotions, struggles with questions about the meaning of life, justice, fairness or the afterlife, and the rejection of those who provide spiritual care.
But unlike all the other categories, some of the spiritual effects of a disaster can be positive. A disaster can lead to increased trust in God, gratitude such as when losses are primarily material but our loved ones survive, an increased sense of a mission or purpose in life, and an increase in spiritual rituals and service to others. In fact, our presenter, a psychotherapist, said that people who regularly attend religious services tend to do better in recovering from a disaster. Part of that might be that they have the support of their faith community. Part of it might be the help their faith gives them in finding meaning. Remember what psychiatrist Viktor Frankel discovered in the concentration camps of Nazi Germany: if you have a reason why you need to live, you can endure almost any way how you need to do it.
I think another part of the reason that the spiritual effects can be good is that faith provides you with coping strategies. As I said we talked about both negative and positive coping strategies. The negative ones are fairly obvious: drinking, smoking, taking illicit drugs, and risky behaviors, such as reckless driving, gambling, getting into fights, having multiple sex partners or unsafe sex. In fact even otherwise positive coping strategies can be bad for you if they're overdone. Since stress can interfere with sleep, getting enough sleep is healthy. Staying in bed for days on end is not. Exercise is good; exercising till you drop or hurt yourself is not. Helping others is a good strategy; doing so at the neglect of your own self-care is not.
Positive coping strategies are “anything that relieves tension without negative consequences.” We mentioned a few: rest, exercise, volunteering. That last one you can do through the church or by visiting the nursing home, acting as a Big Brother or Big Sister, working with St. Paul's and St. Mary's Star of the Sea with their feeding program for the poor in Key West, driving people to their doctor's appointments, and leading Bible studies or helping provide worship services for the inmates at the county jail.
Setting short term goals and tackling easily accomplishable tasks are positive coping strategies. Rather than looking at the enormity of restoring your entire property to the way it was, say, "I will clean this room” or “I will plant some tomatoes.” Those are doable and will give you a feeling of some measure of control at a time when so many things are out of your control.
Socializing is another good coping strategy. We are social animals and just being with others is a great way to take your mind off of your own concerns. That said, taking some quiet time to meditate, pray or just relax is also good. However withdrawal from and avoidance of all other people is not a healthy way to deal with stress.
Taking care of a pet can be a very positive way to cope. Pets can be very affectionate; they don't judge you and if you need to walk them, you are also getting exercise.
Maintaining a routine helps. In fact, if you have kids, one of the things that affects them the most is the loss of routine. Getting them back to school and daycare, observing meal and bedtime rituals help them feel that their world is predictable again. For kids, routines make them feel safe.
Kids can manifest their reaction to a disaster or major trauma differently than adults. Physically, they are more likely to have stomachaches or return to bedwetting. Their behavior may regress to thumb sucking or not wanting to sleep alone. They may cling to parents or caregivers and suffer separation anxiety to the point that they don't want to go to school or don't want parents to leave for work. Children are susceptible to magical thinking and may even blame themselves, thinking the disaster is somehow their fault. Or God's. As one nurse at our seminar told us, her son asked “Is God mad at us?” That's a good time to let children know what kind of God we have: one of love and healing.
It doesn't help that we often classify natural disasters as “acts of God.” You might read to your children the passage from 1 Kings. Elijah is hiding in a cave in the desert, feeling sad and persecuted and all alone. “The Lord said, 'Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.' Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind, there was an earthquake but the Lord was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake came a fire but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper.” (1 Kings 19:11-12) God was not in the hurricane or any disaster but in the gentle voice that encourages people to help. As Mr. Rogers' mother said, “Look for the helpers. There are always helpers.” God is in the helpers. And if we are helpers, God is in us, too.
Listening to music can lift your mood and is a great coping strategy. And you are welcome to join us as we practice this coping strategy every Wednesday evening and Sunday morning. (Hint, hint, hint!)
A key positive coping strategy is staying in the “here and now” and not letting your mind conjure up either wildly wonderful and unlikely futures (“All will be as it was!”) or equally improbable dark and dismal ones (“We will never get over this! This will irreparably break us!”) We humans are terrible prognosticators, especially when we look far beyond the present. It is better to focus on the job and joys at hand.
Nevertheless, we cannot totally ignore the future. Instead we must maintain hope. Without hope, we give up. The seminar also addressed the stress of being a helper. It gave us principles for staying psychologically, physically and spiritually healthy. When it came to maintaining hope it said to “believe in something that has strong meaning to you.” As Christians, we believe in a loving God who is not aloof but who came, lived and died as one of us to rescue us from death and despair. We believe in a God who sends his Spirit to live and work in us, to equip and empower us to help make this world better. We believe in Jesus, which means we believe that death and destruction do not have the last word; rather, our hope lies in the Living Word, the risen Christ, who is the God of Life Incarnate as well as the Life of God made manifest.
And how can we help offer psychological first aid? Well, I recommend you take the seminar if and when they offer it again. But I can share a few key points. And remember: this is only first aid. If you see someone bleeding on the street, you call 911 and put pressure on the bleeding wound till help arrives. You don't do surgery. In the same way psychological first aid is responding quickly, helping people with their immediate basic needs and connecting them with those who can best meet their deeper needs.
So here is the essential part: Listen. Listen, listen, listen. Just be there for them and really listen: don't be waiting till they take a breath so you can jump in. And what if you don't know what to say to someone dealing with a huge loss? Don't say anything. Just hear them out. It means being tolerant because their world has just been upended and you cannot expect them to be calm and rational. People need to wrap their heads around what just happened to them. They need to vent; they need to mourn; they need to curse and cry and know that someone has heard them. And whether they are nice or difficult, we need to be kind, be calm and be compassionate. Half the time the things they are talking about on the surface is not really their root concern. We saw a video at the seminar showing people really upset because building codes would not let them stay in their damaged apartment. Our instructor pointed out that if you paid attention, you realized what they were really concerned with was where were they and their children to stay that night. You only pick that kind of thing up if you really listen.
Our instructor was also keeping in mind that he was not merely talking to people who wanted to help but also to people who themselves had survived a disaster. That meant that this was not academic to us. It meant that, more than most disaster responders, we also needed help dealing with the emotional, cognitive, physical, behavioral and spiritual effects of this event. We were, in the words of Henri Nouwen, wounded healers.
And therein lies the paradox: how can we who suffer offer comfort to others who suffer? But to paraphrase Nouwen, how can you lead someone out of the desert if you've never been there? Because we have suffered, we know suffering. And because God in Christ has suffered, he knows suffering. But because he overcame pain and abandonment and the grave, he can lead us out of the desert of disaster. And if we, in Christ, know triumph and healing, we can pass it on to others or at least put them in touch with him.
There is another meaning to the word “comfort.” It comes from the Latin for “strengthen, support.” And I picture Moses, holding up the staff of God, as the Israelites fight the attacking Amalekites. “As long as Moses held up his hands, the Israelites were winning, but whenever he lowered his hands, the Amalekites were winning. When Moses' hands grew tired, they took a stone and put it under him and he sat on it. Aaron and Hur held his hands up—one on one side, one on the other—so that his hands remained steady till sunset. So Joshua overcame the Amalekite army with the sword.” (Exodus 17:11-13) His brother Aaron and the man named Hur supported Moses when he needed more strength and with their help the people were saved. It is a model for us.
To paraphrase the Rev. John Watson, be kind for everyone is fighting a hard battle. They can use our support. And we in turn can use the support of others. As Paul wrote, “Bear one another's burdens and so fulfill the law of Christ.” (Galatians 6:2) If we all help each other, we can make it through the days to come. Nor are we left to rely on our own strength alone. Paul knew affliction, and from prison, facing death, he wrote, “I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” (Philippians 4:13) In Jesus he found a well of strength and comfort. As he says in 1 Corinthians, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we are comforted by God.” (1 Corinthians 1:3-4)
Our hope and our comfort are in the Lord. He knows our weaknesses. He knows our pain. He knows how stress and trauma feel and how they assault the mind, body and spirit. And on the night he was betrayed and handed over to suffering and death, he comforted his disciples with words that speak to us: “Now is your time of grief, but I will see you again, and you will rejoice, and no one will take away your joy....I have told you these things so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” (John 16:22, 33)