by Hillary Raining
We are living under unprecedented levels of division, trauma, and declining levels of mental health. In my dozen plus years of being a priest, I have never seen such deeply painful rifts in the fabric of our collective psyche and spirit. Countless studies are showing the effects that this negativity is having on all of us—our heath is terrible, our planet is dying, and we are so lonely that the isolation has hit an epidemic proportion. On top of all of that, we are now certain that things like trauma and depression are passed down to future generations—not just by way of environmental/nurturing factors—but by changing a person’s very DNA, making them more predisposed to suffer from those ailments. So, our trauma might already be affecting those who are coming after us.
Clearly, this is a major problem for those of us who are actively trying to help change this world for the better. It’s a major problem for those of us who hold to the hope that things can be different. It a major problem for those of us who want to shape this world in God’s loving image and not let it stay a-washed in the images of terror and fear that are served to us every day in the media.
It’s a problem for us who are trying to stave off the effects of compassion fatigue. “Compassion fatigue” is a term that mental health practicers are benign to use to talk about the amount of energy it takes to care and act on deeply important topics. It takes effort and strength to be empathetic—even in the best of times! Empathy is formed by being willing to actually step into a situation even if it means that your emotions will also be triggered. For example, sitting with someone who is going through a season of grief is an act of empathy and will likely touch your past griefs as well. This is exactly what we need in a time like this, and yet the emotional load that we are all handling makes it harder and harder to do. When we find ourselves overwhelmed and too exhausted to even try to change that state, we are in the middle of compassion fatigue.
It is clear that we need reserves of caring to call upon in these times so that we can be a light in the darkness. It is clear that we need a rest and a reset to be able to do that. It is clear that we need practices that help us rest and let go some of this toxic fear.
So, let me offer one.
This is a meditation that I learned years ago, through the Fund of Theological Education, called “a walk to the future.” The gift of this meditation is that it will help us see the vision that God is calling us to, so that when we find ourselves in compassion fatigue, we can remember to rest in the hope that the fear we live in now is not the end of the line. There is more beauty and joy to come and we are to help birth it into the world. But we can only do that when we make the space for such work.
A Walk to the Future Meditation
Turn off all the lights around your for a moment. Relax. Sit or lay in a comfortable position.
Take a deep breath in through your nose and out through your mouth. Take another one. And another one.
Search your body for any tightness or anxiety. When you find some, tighten the muscles around that spot as tightly as you can. Hold that for 10 seconds. Then release that tension and feel it start to melt away.
Spend some time relaxing and creating space for visioning.
Take another deep breath.
In your mind’s eye, visualize a door in front of you. Behind that door is a hopeful future.
Feel your anticipation for what is behind that door growing with each slow breath.
Reach out and turn the knob. Feel the warmth coming from beyond the threshold. And take a step in. And another.
Don’t forget the breath.
Give yourself time to absorb all that you see around you. Take a 360 degree view.
But don’t just stop with your vision. What do you hear? What do you smell and taste and feel?
Who is there with you and what are they doing?
What emotions are you feeling and what is showing on the faces of those around you?
Who isn’t there?
Now, turn around and look back at the door you walked through.
What steps did you have to take to get here?
What advice do you need to remember to give yourself?
What moments of rest and restoration did you need in order to have the strength for this journey?
What was essential to hold onto?
What was essential to let go of?
Take another breath. And walk back into the present, free from the fear that you will not come back to this future.
Rest in the knowledge that you are creating the space for this future by resting and resetting.
Hillary Raining is the rector of St. Christopher’s Episcopal Church in Gladwyne, Pennsylvania. In addition to parish ministry, she is also a published writer in both church and academic fields. Her doctorate in ministry from Drew University included a concentration on worship, preaching, and reconciliation. She's had the opportunity to serve on several diocesan and national church wide ministries as well as in ecumenical and interfaith efforts.
She's also a yoga instructor, bee keeper, and musician and enjoys skiing, hiking, and gardening. She's married to Ken Raining, a reference librarian, and together they have a daughter, D., who is their light and joy!