Periodically over the past two years, we’ve spoken with several local Christian counselors about emotional and spiritual health during times of tension and uncertainty. For this week, we spoke again with David Creek.
I heard someone joke that COVID is entering its junior year — which none of us imagined back in January 2020. What are you seeing?
The exhaustion of people. Nothing is settled, really. All the different outcomes with jobs and finances and school systems — they are trying to figure it out, and then what is the impact of those decisions on families? People are trying to make some kind of normalcy when there is so much still left that is outside of their control. They might feel like they are starting to make some movement, and then something else changes.
Clearly it’s been a challenging time for mental and emotional health.
It’s also not always about the events and what’s happening. It’s also about how we see ourselves and how we see others in the midst of what’s happening. Take the parent who realizes they are being more short or more angry. They recognize the elements of what’s causing that. But now, the way they see themselves can actually increase anxiety or depression, because they don’t like themselves. So yes, this has stirred up a whole lot.
Are you seeing anger and hostility directed more outwardly, at “those people,” whoever “those people” happen to be?
Oh, yeah. People are angry. Anger is a very valid emotion, but it is often not the primary emotion. A lot of times it’s secondary. It’s what’s seen and what’s exhibited. Think of a picture of an iceberg. Anger is often the thing that’s on top. It’s what’s being seen at surface level. But it’s not what’s pushing it. Underneath it is actually fear or hurt or rejection. When those things aren’t being attended to, I need to find an outlet to direct all this toward.
It really challenges a follower of Jesus when Jesus says you’ve got to love your enemy. And more so, love your neighbor. Well, if I am just exhibiting this hostility, what does that mean about my faith? And certainly there are causes to be angry about. But the way we go about that — if we are turning people into an “other,” I just don’t see that as something that Christ has called us to do. He has called us to be something very, very different.
There is normal, everyday anger and frustration over a lot of this, and then there are things you might identify as issues where a person should seek some help. Where do you see that line?
How is it impacting your life? Anxiety, stress, worry , sadness, depressive type emotions — remember that those are normal human experiences and we should have those. But when they become problematic, when they keep us from doing well, when they cause hostility toward another or toward yourself — well, now it’s time to get at that. Let’s name that. Because that’s not what God wants, either.
If I look at myself and say, Something’s off. I’m not doing this life to the degree of good that I would like or that God desires for me — maybe I need to sit down and try to unpack that. That could be a pastor, it could be a friend, it could be a therapist. It’s looking at all the resources that are available.
Kids and teens seem especially vulnerable right now. What are some things that parents should be aware of in their kids?
Sudden, drastic changes in behavior. They just don’t care about something, or they are isolating more. Or even in their language. Self-deprecation. Those are some of the indicator lights to say, OK, this needs to be checked into.
It may not be much. It may just be that they haven’t been with people. Every individual’s need is different according to how they are wired up. But take a kid who is more social … and then in the pandemic it has been restrictive and with some isolation. So if (social) opportunities then do arise, but a kid chooses not to go, that’s a good time to pause and ask, “What’s going on?”
And it has to not just be, “Hey, are you doing all right?” Adolescents need our focus, meaning our attention. They need to know, “I am here. Here’s what I see. I’m curious about why I am noticing this. Talk to me.” And they will let you know if they trust you. But it’s creating space for them to be vulnerable. And those vary, depending on how they’re wired up, or the kind of family home system they live in. But any time you notice those things, don’t be afraid to engage.
With responses to COVID, there seems to be a spectrum where everyone thinks they are right and others are either over-reacting or under-reacting. Any advice for navigating tense relationships right now?
Here’s what I try to do. Any time the conversation becomes about demonizing the other, to me it’s like debate. All I’m doing is trying to prove them wrong. If I am about debating with you, then I am not about relationship with you. It’s very different than having a robust conversation, which is more like iron sharpening iron.
It’s the posture of being willing to be teachable. Saying, “I want to hear from you. Because you might have something to say that is going to sharpen me. I can hear what you’re saying. And I don’t have to prove you wrong or try to change you.” That might lead to some deeper understanding about the other person and why they are in this camp versus that camp. If I’m able to do that, I might be able to be more empathetic and more Christlike with that person. More gracious.
That is not without challenge and it is not without confrontation. But confrontation does not have to be intense and angry. Truth is going to be confrontational no matter what. But it can be said in a compassionate way. And if a person’s heart and posture are open, they might move to repentance.
You are describing a shepherd’s approach vs. a prophet’s approach, right?
Yeah. And there is a season for everything. But I think in the intensity of it all, the “camp” mentality has become, You are against me. To me, if any of those postures move us toward hate and toward belittling and demeaning other people to dehumanize them in any capacity, we have stepped out of the way of Jesus.
I can still disagree, but I have more empathy and more compassion because something else is so much greater and more important than being right.
What are some basic ways we can take care of ourselves and each other?
One of my undergrad professors taught me this, and it has shaped so much of what I do. Physical, social, emotional, intellectual and spiritual. Those are unique aspects of humanity, and they are all so intricately tied together. In this exhaustion, I think it is important if you can step back and think of your life being played out on a screen in front of you. What would you notice? What are you doing for exercise, to care for your body? What are you eating? Are there things that can change? Is it time to make adjustments?
Sleep is a huge one. How much streaming and device time are we doing? And I say this, hearing my wife’s voice in my head saying, “Dave, put your phone down.” So anything I’m saying here, I have to say into a mirror. But sleep is so, so important. I asked my kids all the time, especially when they are irritable, “How much sleep did you get?” Then it becomes a question of, what happens when we are tired or exhausted? It makes everything much more difficult. I have less energy, I have less desire.
And then, who and what do you interact with? And what does it do for you? Who are you when you leave their presence? Are you more irritable? More anxious? It may be cause for limiting or even stopping certain things.
What about our intake of information, even good information? It’s flying at us constantly.
There is a whole lot to say about stop watching the news. It’s constantly changing. There is a time and a place. But if you find yourself constantly trying to stay on top of it … the people reporting the news are just on top of whatever it is right now.
So give yourself a break. If we trust that God is able to handle all of this, that God is in control, maybe an act of trust is saying, “God, I don’t need to know all the ins and outs right now of what’s happening in the news and social apps. My soul needs a rest.”
One of those health indicators you mentioned was spiritual. Can you say more about that?
I would look at your spiritual habits. Spiritual discipline. What are you doing and what are you not doing? What’s going to be helpful? And how do you engage in those habits? Because all of those habits are a means of connecting and being in the presence of God.
So, if we trust and if we believe that Jesus is the Prince of Peace, and he says “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world” — then how are we disconnecting from all of these other things so that we can connect with the author, the creator, the giver of life and peace, in order to find rest so we can continue in our daily walk, our daily life, in a manner that is consistent with the way of Jesus?
David wrote, “Search me, know me, see if there is any offensive way in me. Lead me in the way everlasting.” So it’s: God, help me to find new paths — not only with myself but by being open and vulnerable with others. If we can do that together, that can be a really beautiful thing.
Where to find help
Here’s a list of local Christian counselors recommended by First Free Rockford. In addition, during the pandemic the state of Illinois is partnering with Call4Calm, where anyone can speak with a mental health professional free of charge.