“I’ve had crazy crap erupt all around me the last few days. What’s in the water? Things that should be easy are melting down.”
— First Church Clergyperson, Name Redacted
This week, on top of the text message above from a colleague, I’ve gotten calls from three other youth pastor friends telling stories of being blindsided by parents making totally out of character demands and ultimatums, and a teacher friend told me they flipped over a stool in their classroom this week in frustration.
I also watched my own team struggle to get through the week, parents mentally dis-integrate over seemingly small inconveniences, and a school board meeting turn fiery and drag out until 4:00 am over when to return in-person. It left me wondering the same question my colleague texted me — what is happening?
May I present what I spent a lot of time this past week learning about: the six-month wall. The six-month wall is a phenomenon apparently well known to aid workers, trauma specialists, and professionals who work with or around persistent acute crises.
According to Professor Aisha Ahmad, quoted in Forbes about the phenomenon, it’s one of the most predictable parts of a crisis, even for her personally:
The six-month mark in any sustained crisis is always difficult. We have all adjusted to this “new normal,” but might now feel like we’re running out of steam. Yet, at best, we are only one third of the way through this marathon. How can we keep going? First, in my experience, this is a very normal time to struggle or slump. I *always* hit a wall six months into a tough assignment in a disaster zone. The desire to “get away” or “make it stop” is intense. I’ve done this many times, and at 6 months, it’s like clockwork”.
The six-month wall is here, friends, and it is not pretty. So, what’s happening, physically and psychologically, that’s causing the wheels to come flying off in so many areas of our lives? According to experts (and this excellent article by Tara Haelle) its about the depletion of our surge capacity — our capacity to utilize physical and psychological coping mechanisms, alternate energy sources, and resiliency reserves to sustain us through the up-ending of our daily lives and shifting uncertain reality of our present. This capacity was developed to help us survive hurricanes that destroy our homes, to push us through from crisis into cleaning up and rebuilding.
But what happens when the hurricane just keeps coming? How do we start to clean up when the wind is still ripping the windows off the shutters? And what difference does it make that, unlike a hurricane, we can’t look out the window and see the results of what has happened – that the damage is invisible, catastrophic, and ongoing?
Perhaps the biggest casualty of the invisibility of this crisis is that it tricks us into thinking we should be fine. We believe, because we aren’t sick, because working from home is a possibility, because we still can work, we’re fortunate (and we are), and we’re used to this reality, and that we should be fine.
So we’re frustrated that we’re not.
In my experience of the past two weeks, and in the experience of the youth pastors, clergy people, and teachers who make up most of my social circle, this leads people to lash out at anyone in arms reach and to try to exert some kind of control over any aspect of their lives they think they can make any headway on. I can’t speak for what the six-month wall looks like in traditional corporate America, or inside families with children at home, or in retail or service environments, and I am confident those worlds have capacities and struggles I know nothing about, but from where I stand, it feels like the seams are ripping out. Maybe it feels like that to you, too.
So what do we do? How do we scale the six-month wall? Well according to Professor Ahmad, there’s good news and bad news,
“The wall is real and normal. And frankly, it’s not productive to try to ram your head through it. It will break naturally in about four to six weeks if you ride it out.”
Bad news, we can’t magic it away. Good news, it will break, probably sometime around early November. At that point, we’ll be looking at a holiday season very different than what we’re used to, so that will have its own challenges, but this slump, this malaise, which Haelle describes as an “anxiety-tinted depression” will play itself out on its own.
In the meantime? First, lower your expectations of yourself and those around you. A year ago this time, I would lose sleep over any program not going well – right now, I would say about 2/3 of what we’re doing is going well, and I’ve decided that’s a pretty good proportion to shoot for. If we can keep tweaking and re-working and get from 2/3 to 3/4, that’s great, but maybe a batting average of .67 isn’t bad this year.
Second, find new sources of joy. Brene Brown in her podcast this week, recommends creating a “Play List” — a list of activities that are fun and serve no explicit purpose – along with your family and carving out time to spend on them. Play, joy, the reminders of the glory of being alive, is one of the best ways we can survive the wall. Lance’s sermon, with an assist from Mark Burrows at The Gathering this week, lifted up the same idea: we are meant to enjoy being alive, and for us to do the work we are called to, we have to find ways to refuel ourselves, to rebuild our resiliency piggy bank, our surge capacity, our energy resources.
So, yeah, there’s something in the water, the wheels really are coming off right now, but give yourself and those around you a break, and go do something fun. We can ride it out. We got through the first six months. We can do six more. You’ll be ok.
Love and Grace (especially for the next 4 – 6 weeks),
Director of Youth Ministries