During my junior year of college, I was diagnosed with depression and anxiety. I also learned that my primary way of dealing with my mental illness was through avoidance. Anytime an event or situation triggered difficult emotions in me, I would shut them off and do whatever I could to separate myself from what was causing me to feel anxious or inadequate. This had dire ramifications. I avoided going to classes, because I had convinced myself it was better to not go to class rather than interact with the stress I felt while trying to manage assignments. I avoided people that were part of my life rather than engaging in difficult conversations that needed to happen. I rarely spent time in silence or reflection for fear of what I would find, instead choosing to constantly be surrounded by a cacophony of media. I became more and more closed off to the world around me because I did not feel equipped to navigate the internal storm of emotions that came in response to external circumstances.
I am not unique in this. Many people have trouble finding healthy outlets for negative emotions. However, in a time of global pandemic when we are stuck in our houses with nowhere to hide, it becomes increasingly difficult to avoid our negative emotions and thought patterns. How can we begin to train ourselves to confront negative emotions that arise due to COVID-19?
The practice of lament might be a start. Lament is the biblical practice of allowing ourselves to be honest with God about our thoughts, fears, and the state of the world through prayer. Lament allows us to tell God that we do not think things are as they ought to be. In lament, we begin to see God as commiserating alongside us. We are reminded that in Christ, we have a God that is familiar with suffering and loss. Lamenting will allow us to access the full depths of our grief and begin the journey of processing through it.
So, how do we begin to practice lament in prayer? I imagine the first step for many of us is to create a place of quiet and solitude. I know that one of the ways I disengage from negative emotions or experiences is by drowning them out with television, the internet, music, or even a book. By engaging with the thoughts and imaginations of others, I drown out my own. We have to become intentional by creating regular opportunities to sit in quiet with God and ourselves so that we can search our interior lives for pain or grief.
Once we can do this, we must bring our anxieties and hurts before God without heaping judgment on ourselves. It does us no good to condemn ourselves for our hurts when God does not condemn us for them. As we hand these things over to God, we may find that we experience internal resistance. This is a normal part of the process; like any worthwhile growth, health takes time and effort. What you do once by great effort, you will do eventually by force of habit. Cultivating a practice of lament takes time and discipline for us to access our own emotion, then process it, and finally hand it over to God.