Personal Reflections on Self-Isolation

Rachel Wigram     –    March 2020

In these strange and bewildering times, I know that many of us are reeling as life shifts into a different gear and we face an uncertain future.

I know very little about the ins and outs of coronavirus, but I realise that I do know something about life suddenly moving onto a different footing, about not being able to be out and about doing the things I expected to be doing, and about needing to be separated from people I love and care about.

It’s been nearly two years now that a resurgence of severe CFS/ME has meant that I have been mostly housebound living in one room, one chair and one bed, with an occasional foray outside or an occasional visitor.

I’m wondering whether some of the things that I’ve been learning through this last couple of years might be helpful to some of you, particularly if you are self-isolating. So, in no particular order, here are a few things from my own experience:

1) ‘My Life is for Living’

‘Normal’ life may be on hold but life is not on hold.

As illness overtook me and stripped me of the ability to do most of the normal things of my life, it felt like I’d fallen off the road I was travelling along into a layby and I was stuck there. It was tempting to think that my life was on hold, waiting until I was able to re-join the road and get back to it. However, it gradually dawned on me that I was still alive(!) and that my life was continuing even if it looked very different to what I was hoping for or expecting. I realised that if I persisted in thinking that my life was on hold until it got back to ‘normal’, I would be missing living the life that is gifted to me here and now in this moment. I am a pilgrim on a journey and this is part of my journey not an interruption.

So, one of my ongoing refrains or mantras is ‘My life is for living!’ My life – which means my life as it really is with all the pain, illness and disability (or now with all the constraints of the coronavirus threat), not my life as I wish it was. Of course, it’s not always easy. It takes accepting and making peace with the limitations that are now mine and then embracing the gift of life within those boundaries. Sometimes that process of accepting, making peace and embracing has to happen several times a day. Sometimes it’s pretty impossible. But, over time and with practice it has got easier and, oftentimes, I find that life and hope rise up within me.

I hope and pray that all of us who are now facing weeks of self-isolation to protect ourselves and others from coronavirus will be enabled to embrace the life that is now ours and to live it as fully as is possible for us.

2) Thankfulness

When life is tough going it is very natural for the problems and difficulties to take all our attention and block out everything else. I find the pain and extreme fatigue I have been living with day by day very demanding. Pain clamours for my attention. Fatigue makes every thinking process and every task a huge challenge. Working out how I’m going to get from my chair to the bathroom can feel like planning an ascent of Everest. This is all a part of my life for now and most of my capacity is used in managing these things. It needs to be this way but I have been aware that it would be all too easy to be so absorbed by the struggles that I miss the good things.

I remember, as a child, being told to count my blessings. At the time I found it very annoying, especially if I was in a bad mood and wanting to indulge in a satisfying sulk. However, now I am discovering more than ever the importance of noticing the good things that I’m receiving and the good things that are happening around me. So, I have been developing a discipline of thankfulness. Most days I write down something that I’m thankful for. I do what I can to express that thankfulness in conversation and communication and prayer. I’m thankful for food and drink, for breath and life, for birdsong and daffodils, for a doggy head on my lap with big brown eyes looking up at me, for crochet yarn and creative possibilities, for signs of love and grace around me, for all the everyday blessings of our everyday God.

Maybe it sounds trite or a bit forced, but I have found it to be profound. The more I have done it, the more I discover there is to be thankful for. Sometimes I am utterly overwhelmed by how much I am receiving in each moment, and the best thing for me about thankfulness is that it seems to be the gateway to joy.

I wholeheartedly commend a discipline of thankfulness to you in the days and weeks ahead.

3) Lament

Life is full of gift and life is full of loss. Alongside thankfulness, it is equally important to allow ourselves time to lament and grieve.

As I have been engulfed by this illness once again, a lot of things have been stripped away. I have lost health, mobility, concentration, independence, social interaction, the opportunity to worship in church, the ability to work. In addition, as the months have passed, people I care about have died and I haven’t been able to say goodbye or go to their funerals. At times the impact of the different losses has welled up into a wave of grief that has swept over me. In those times, I have discovered it is best to make sure I’m in a safe place and let it happen. To weep. To sigh. To wail. To cry out in pain. There is a time to mourn. At other times, it is frustration and anger that have risen up in me. In those times, too, I have discovered it is best to make sure I’m in a safe place and let it happen. To rant. To rail. To complain. To object to what is going on. There is a time for that, too.

I have found myself turning to the Psalms in the Bible once again. I am so glad they are there, full of the real stuff of life. There is plenty of grief and desolation expressed there, plenty of complaint and objection as well. They give me permission to get really honest with myself and really robust with God about how I’m feeling. As I look at some of the Psalms of Lament, it seems to me that there are three important elements involved:

  1. The full expression of distress or complaint, no holding back. It doesn’t matter if it’s theologically correct or not, it is raw and honest and real.
  2. A robust appeal for help, telling God exactly what you want, no holds barred.
  3. An expression of hope and trust, sometimes leading to a shout of praise.

Sometimes it’s only possible to do 1 & 2 and all I can do is trust that 3 will come at some point in the future. Fortunately, I’m in good company when it’s like that. Some of the psalms only get that far or you get the impression that the trust and praise part was added some time later.

I don’t think that any of this is about being negative or wallowing in pain. Rather it’s about looking pain and loss and bewilderment in the face and confronting God with it in the context of faith – even when that faith is hard pressed or feels like it’s slipping through my fingers. It may not feel like it, but I have come to believe that lament like this is one of the most faithful and trusting things that any of us can do. It is, in fact, a form of worship – an honest offering of ourselves to God. And as we make that offering, I believe we are planting seeds of hope in the midst of our brokenness and desperation.

In the face of all that is going on around us and all that is in store in the coming days, lament is an entirely appropriate response. I pray that tears will be able to flow, that objection to what is happening will find expression, that we will discover new ways of pouring our distress out to God and that, through it all, we will experience the compassion of God that goes deeper than we have yet known.

4) I am a Human BEING

When you stop being able to do all the things you’ve been doing it is easy to start wondering quite who you are and what your value is. I became a wife, mother, daughter, sister who could do little to support her family; a church minister who could not serve the congregation or community; a friend who could not be in touch – where did that leave me? Honestly, it left me adrift for a while but, by the grace of God, it has led me to a deepening understanding of what it means to be a human being not a human doing. My value and identity do not lie in what I do but rather in who I am as a child of God – called by name, loved and valued right here, right now whatever I can or cannot do. I don’t matter because I do lots of useful, helpful things, I matter because God made me and loves me. Whether I am ever able to be more active and do more again or not, that love and value will never change.

There have been times when I have been frustrated, feeling that I am failing in fulfilling God’s call to me in my family, in All Saints, in Ripley and beyond. I have come to recognise that that frustration has more to do with my own expectations than with God. God invites me to do what I can, not what I can’t. He’s not the one who is caught out by my limitations, I am. So, I am coming to know more and more that it’s ok if, for a season or for the rest of my life, I am able to do very little. I am loved and I am of value.

I know that in this time of self-isolation many of you will find all sorts of creative ways to support and help others online, by phone and in prayer. I also know that there will be ways you will feel thwarted and frustrated because you cannot do the things you wish you could or you normally would. I pray that you will find the freedom of knowing that God is calling you to do what you can (not what you can’t) and inviting you to discover afresh what it means that you are a wonderful human being and a beloved child of God.

5) Facing Fear

Fear rises up in us when we feel threatened. At its best, it warns us of danger and keeps us safe. Fear makes us change our behaviour to avoid the danger. To a certain extent, fear is very good for us. But fear can also get out of hand. It can take hold of us and paralyse us so that we can hardly breathe or think or function.

I have been afraid at times over the last couple of years. Afraid of not being able to cope. Afraid of losing my support network. Afraid about the outcome of medical tests and so on. Sometimes I have felt like I am in the grip of an almighty storm of threat and fear, with dark clouds massing overhead, rain lashing down on me and tumultuous waves surrounding me. Sadly, I have discovered that I am not some super-saint able to glide through such times with grace and poise. Instead I have been tossed around, struggling to find my balance. In such times it has encouraged me enormously to know that God understands my fearfulness. The Bible is full of encouragements not to be afraid and to receive peace. There are so many of them, no doubt, because fear is such a big part of our lives.

I love the verse from the hymn ‘Praise, my soul, the King of heaven’, which says:

Father-like he tends and spares us,
Well our feeble frame he knows,
In his hands he gently bears us,
Rescues us from all our foes…

I may not be a super-saint, but I am super-known and super-loved! I have had the sense, more than once, that God has been saying to me that it is ok if all I can do is screw myself up in a tight ball. It is ok if all I can do is hold my breath until the storm has passed, that he will be right here when I’m ready to look. But, at the same time, I have sensed his invitation instead to open my eyes, to look for him and to trust him.

I remember, as a child, suffering from sea-sickness on a choppy channel ferry crossing. My Dad urged me to focus on the horizon and not on the lurching boat or heaving waves. He was right. Looking at the still point of the horizon helped. In the same way, in the grip of fear I need to focus on a still point. I am reminded of Jesus’ disciples on the Sea of Galilee as the wind whipped up the waves around their small boat and the well-founded fear of seasoned fishermen rose up within them. And, suddenly, they saw the figure of Jesus walking on the water. When Peter took courage from Jesus’ invitation to come to him on the water, he kept his poise and balance whilst Jesus filled his gaze. However, when he shifted his focus to the wind and the waves, he plunged into the depths of fear and doubt, and wet and cold. Jesus was Peter’s still point – the constant, steadying, enabling presence within and beyond the swell and the storm. I know that the invitation to fix my eyes on Jesus is there for me, too. When I do that, the fear may not go away, but I have found that I am somehow steadier, the storm seems calmer and peace finds its way into my soul.

There is a lot of fear around at the moment in response to the coronavirus threat. When that fear threatens to overwhelm us, I am praying that we will know first and foremost that God understands – ‘well our feeble frame he knows’. I am praying, too, that we will hear Jesus’ invitation to fix our eyes on him and we will discover that God is both with us in the storm and far bigger than any storm – constant, faithful and true.

I have found this prayer from ‘Celtic Daily Prayer’ extremely helpful:

‘Calm me, O Lord, as you stilled the storm,
Still me, O Lord, keep me from harm,
Let all the tumult within me cease,
Enfold me, O Lord, in your peace.’

6) Receiving Help

We have lived for a long time in a society where independence and self-sufficiency are celebrated and valued as signs of strength and freedom. In the church we put a high value on serving others as followers of Jesus Christ, our servant King. But what happens when we need help ourselves?
Through this season of disabling illness, I have found myself in the position of needing help from others in all sorts of ways. My husband, John, and my son, David, have become my Carers and help me with things I would much rather be doing myself – getting me around the house, pushing me in a wheelchair, supporting me in the bathroom, bringing food and drink etc. Others from our wonderful church family have given help with cleaning and gardening, cooking and baking, and lifting my spirits in all sorts of creative ways from a distance. I am incredibly thankful for all the help I receive.

At the same time, though, I have to acknowledge that receiving help in all these ways is a challenge. There is something in me that finds it deeply humiliating to be so dependent on others. It makes me feel weak and vulnerable and I don’t like it. Added to that, there’s a temptation to feel indebted to others in ways that I can never repay. But I am discovering something about grace at the heart of it all that is awesome. It takes courageous grace to ask for help, it takes humble grace to show vulnerability to others and receive their help, and the help that is given is an expression of abundant grace, flowing out of the love and care of God. As I receive help from others I am part of a wonderful cycle of grace.

This current global crisis reveals how much our feelings of independence and self-sufficiency are an illusion. We are scarily and wondrously inter-dependent on a global scale and on a local scale. We are all affected by others and we all need each other. In this time ahead, many of us who would rather be serving and helping others will find ourselves in positions where we need to receive help and allow others to serve us. I encourage you to take courage and ask for the help you need. Don’t be afraid to show your vulnerability to others – it is a gift of grace you give to them. And, I pray that, by the grace of God, the cycle of grace will flow strong and wide and deep in our lives, in Ripley and in our nation.

7) ‘The Morbs’!

My daughter, Hannah, came across the Victorian saying, ‘Got the morbs’ recently and it is now part of our family vocabulary. It means ‘feeling a bit down in the dumps’ or ‘stricken with temporary melancholy’ or, in other words, ‘having a touch of the Eeyores’! I know exactly what it’s getting at.

I am prone to getting ‘the morbs’ or what I have been known to call my ‘Ecclesiastes moments’ – named after the beginning of the book of Ecclesiastes in the Bible where the teacher declares, “Meaningless! Meaningless! Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless!” Sometimes I know why, sometimes it just comes upon me and suddenly I feel like there is no point to anything, that everything is useless and nothing good is ever going to happen again. Maybe that sounds melodramatic but it feels very real when it’s happening. Spending so much time on my own can encourage ‘the morbs’ and so it’s been important to develop good ways of coping when it happens. Please understand that I’m not talking about clinical depression here, but the everyday ebb and flow of mood that happens to all of us to a greater or lesser extent.

One thing that never helps is beating myself up or trying to force myself out of it. Fighting myself when I’m already down is a waste of energy and always counterproductive. Instead I am learning to be gentle with myself – to breathe, to eat and drink, to give myself a hug, to accept how I feel. I am learning to encourage myself that how I feel is not the whole story, to choose to believe that this will pass, that this is not the truth however much it feels like it is. And I am finding that, even when I don’t have it in me to cling to God, I can decide to trust that he is there, holding me secure and that he’s not going anywhere.

If you get ‘the morbs’ in the coming days, I pray that you will find ways of being gentle with yourself and that you will somehow know that the one in whom there is meaning and purpose, truth and love, hope and light is with you even in the darkness and that a new day is coming.

Conclusion

Wonderful people of God, we may be disconnected physically in these days, but we are connected by love and held in the everlasting arms of God. The knowledge of that loving connection has sustained me through the last couple of years and I trust it will sustain all of us through the weeks and months ahead.

My prayer for you and for all of us comes from our Church’s liturgy for Evening Prayer:

Keep your people, Lord,
in the arms of your embrace.
Shelter us under your wings.
Be light in our darkness.
Be hope in our distress.
Be strength in our weakness
and be our joy and our song
for all eternity.
Amen.

With love and blessing,

Revd Rachel Wigram

24th March 2020