Features | Mental Health

Meet me at Boundaries Blvd.

Learning to rest when the world is too much.

One year and one month. Fifty-six weeks; 396 days; 9,504 hours. That’s roughly how long we’ve been deep in the COVID-19 pandemic. Depending on where you live this timeline may be longer or shorter. I still recall where I was when I received the news. I was co-leading an “alternative spring break” trip with a group of students in Atlanta. We’d only been at the shelter for a few days before the angst began to set in. As we cautiously watched the headlines and tried to retain some sense of normalcy, we had no idea what was ahead of us.

Thankfully, we made it back to our home campus safely. And as the days turned into weeks and the weeks turned into months, we settled into what would become our pandemic lives. I initially embraced the slower pace. I delighted in the quiet moments, the nonexistent commute and increased time to be still. I never anticipated what was ahead.

By May, four of my family members had died – two under the age of 45 from COVID-19 and two from age-related illnesses. The news was no longer something that was happening “over there” but a very real thing that had hit my own backyard. While some friends became sick and recovered, others are still dealing with the persistent effects of “long-haul COVID” – ongoing side effects of the virus even after recovery. Last spring, our university students seemed increasingly irritated by the lack of immediate access to faculty members, and I had to guard my boundaries carefully, knowing I didn’t have the capacity to be all things to all people.

By June, I felt like I had reached my breaking point. The pandemic itself was one thing. Managing solitude and social isolation was challenging yet possible. But witnessing a disregard for human life was crippling. A blatant disregard for Black lives. A blatant disregard for elderly lives. A blatant disregard for immunocompromised lives. A blatant disregard for essential-worker lives. Violence, the politicization of wearing masks, and the death tolls weighed heavily on my heart.

The sad part is that I am not unfamiliar with such disregard – it’s something I have witnessed and experienced due to racism. I grew up in a small, rural community in South Carolina. I’ve known racism my entire life. I move about in particular ways because of this awareness. But 2020 brought a heightened sensitivity not only to racism but of the blatant and unapologetic violence toward marginalized communities. And one of the most challenging parts was the gross and utter denial, as well as justification, of these acts. Ahmaud Arbery: why was he in that neighborhood? Breonna Taylor: she was a suspect in an ongoing investigation. George Floyd: he was less than a model citizen.

(Cagle Cartoons)

Time Apart

By fall of 2020, I was desperate to find new rhythms to help me manage my hurt, anger, disbelief and confusion, while committing to finding my lane within a new wave of justice work. I dove into writing. I began to pursue creative outlets with abandon. I embraced and cultivated alternative forms of being in community. I gained a new appreciation for family and safe ways to gather. And … I rested.

Over the past year, I have learned and watched. I have witnessed fatigue set in and health ignored. I felt the sentiments of hardened hearts and hatred creeping into places they didn’t previously reside. I saw shifts in perspectives and noticed patience wane. I grieved. I also felt this verse deeply: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Rom.12:2).

Yes, the time for change is long overdue. How long have we been discussing discrimination, inclusivity and diversity? How long have scholars and practitioners written about, talked about, and preached about equity and justice? For how many decades have I been reading about health disparities, inequitable access to care, and the impact of racism on health, as well as health outcomes? Yes, there was and remains much work to do. Yes, we must all be involved in this work. But we also can’t do the work if we’re not here – literally. We can’t do it if we’re sick and unhealthy and fatigued and run over and rundown. We can’t do it on empty. “Darkness cannot drive out darkness,” as Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said. “Only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.” What does it mean to inhibit the darkness, not to cultivate it, not to live in it? Again, I rested.

By the beginning of winter, requests to participate in panels and presentations and movie screenings abounded. The demands on my time outweighed anything I could reasonably accommodate. And then guilt set in. Should I volunteer for all of these events? Shouldn’t I show up and make my voice heard? Should I speak to these people or that group? I learned more often than not that the answer was a resounding “no.”

The Weariness of the World

We were never meant to be all things to all people. We were never meant to be everywhere for everything. Our voices are not able to reach every single group within every single sphere. There is fulfillment and delight and joy in knowing where we end and someone else begins.

So I embraced boundaries. Healthy boundaries. Transparent boundaries. Persistent boundaries. Pesky boundaries. Protective boundaries. I become ever more convinced that “no” is a complete sentence. It is indeed okay to change my mind about a previous commitment. One of my most important tasks is to steward my time and attention well. This stewardship further equips me to be where I truly need to be, to be there 100 percent, and to effectively reach those I’ve been called to reach. Boundaries.

In January, an angry mob stormed the U.S. capitol with “Jesus” signs and confederate flags. On the day of the riots, 61 people were arrested. At the height of the Black Lives Matter movement, more than 300 people were arrested at a single protest. To date, there have been over 300 people charged in relation to the riot at the capitol. News sources report that nearly 14,000 arrests have been made in connection with Black Lives Matter protests. Still, I rest.

In February, we celebrated Black History Month here in the U.S. But we also heard the verdict in the Daniel Prude case; we honoured Trayvon Martin’s birthday on Feb. 5; acknowledged the anniversary of the killing of Ahmaud Arbery on Feb. 23; and, as I write this piece, we are witnessing a rise in anti-Asian hatred and violence, both in Canada and the U.S.

Rest.

Helping Ourselves

These events have left me weary. Hopeless. Tired. But I have learned and am learning that when I take a moment to retreat, I can also be recharged. And when I do, my work is more intentional, more fulfilling, and, with prayer, more significant. When I acknowledge that every area of my life needs boundaries, I can say no to all the “good” things as I am prepared for the God things.

For clergy, academics and justice-seekers, this last year can feel like a heavy load. It can feel like too much to bear. But then I remember that I was never, ever meant to bear it all. I can do what I am called to do. I can be discerning in my “yeses.” I can serve with purpose. And then I can retreat to Rest and Boundaries Boulevard, reminding myself this work doesn’t start or end with me.

I’d like to invite you over. Will you meet me – physically distanced, of course – for a cup of tea at Rest and Boundaries Boulevard?

  • Sabrina is an Assistant Professor of Public Health at the University of North Carolina, Wilmington and resides in the Southeastern United States. She spends much of her time teaching, researching and writing about health equity and social justice.

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