Potluck | June 23, 2021

Pent-up emotions

A lot of emotion is being released as pandemic restrictions are phased out. Although the pandemic continues to grow and spread in many countries—we grieve for hard-hit places like India, Brazil, Venezuela—here in the US we’re seeing excitement and exuberance.

Many people, however, are still boxed in by anxiety, as Salman Rushdie noted in the Washington Post. His op-ed focused on seeing COVID-19 as an illness and not a metaphor for general social ills, or a political weapon. I was intrigued by his conclusion, the idea that if there is any solution for the social damage done by the pandemic, it will be love:

The social damage of the pandemic itself, the fear of our old social lives, in bars and restaurants and dance halls and sports stadiums, will take time to heal (although a percentage of people seem to know no fear already). The social, cultural, political damage of these years, the deepening of the already deep rifts in society in many parts of the world, including the United States, Britain, and India, will take longer. . . . It isn’t easy to see how that chasm can be bridged—how love can find a way (“What’s irretrievable after a pandemic year,” Washington Post, May 25, 2021).

How many have experienced an outpouring of emotion recently? It happened to me in May, at the baccalaureate service at Juniata College. The baccalaureate is a worship service to bless the graduating class. I was there not because my son was graduating—he just finished his freshman year—but because he was singing in the choir.

The service was outdoors on a gorgeous evening. I was filled with pleasant expectation of meaningful statements of blessing and encouragement for the graduates, and, of course, lovely singing by the choir.

The wave of emotion took me by surprise when the processional music began, and the long line of colorfully robed faculty and graduates walked forward. It was the strangest mix of grief, loss, and joy. What’s going on with me? I wondered. I tried to hide my tears from the people around me, and desperately searched for a tissue.

The procession was formally seated and president James Troha rose to speak. As he went to the podium, I realized that I was hearing another kind of music from the tree above me. A bird had been singing along to the processional, becoming louder and louder, and it kept right on singing through the president’s speech.

In that otherwise hushed space, the bird song, the trees moving to the breeze, the faded gold of the early-evening sun—it felt like the words of blessing were echoed and celebrated by God’s creation, and nature herself was joining in. Being an analytical sort, I spent the next several minutes trying to figure out what that unexpected emotion meant. Where did it come from?

I remembered that my son never had a formal, in-person graduation ceremony at the end of high school last year. I realized the baccalaureate was the first large worship gathering I’d been at in-person for 14 months—after a lifetime of attending church just about every week.

It came to me that I’d spent more than a year worrying about surviving the pandemic so that I could be there for my husband and son.

How many rituals have we missed? How many formal occasions, how many worship experiences? How many losses are not yet grieved? How many joys have not been celebrated? How many blessings have gone unspoken or unheard during our pandemic year?

Dr. Kathryn Jacobsen has said about the pandemic that the church must provide future opportunities for the rituals we have missed. Pent-up emotions need permission to surface, be expressed, be shared—and they need to be sung about, prayed over, blessed.

Perhaps we have a role to play in helping the church create such opportunities. May we meet and welcome those pent-up emotions with love, as Salman Rushdie hopes, and with blessing for each other and for ourselves.

Finally, all of you, have unity of spirit, sympathy, love for one another, a tender heart, and a humble mind. Do not repay evil for evil or abuse for abuse; but, on the contrary, repay with a blessing. It is for this that you were called—that you might inherit a blessing” (1 Peter:8-9).

Cheryl Brumbaugh-Cayford is news director for the Church of the Brethren.