As summer arrives, and the trend lines for vaccinations and Covid deaths in the United States head in opposite directions, it feels like freedom is finally within reach. But let’s face it: The pandemic has taken its toll. We’re not the same people we were 15 months ago.
So now, what? To help us use the lessons of the recent past to move forward in the future, we sat down with Kirk Bingaman, a professor of pastoral mental health counseling in the Graduate School of Religion and Religious Education.
Full transcript below:
Kirk Bingaman: On the one hand, it seems like everyone lives happily ever after, we’re back to normal. But with this missing year, I think there’s going to be like, re-entry time with some hiccups.
Patrick Verel: As summer arrives and the trend lines for vaccinations and COVID deaths in the United States head in opposite directions, it feels like freedom is finally within reach. But let’s face it. The pandemic has taken its toll. We’re not the same people we were 15 months ago. So now what? To help us use the lessons of the recent past to move forward in the future, we sat down with Kirk Bingaman, a professor of pastoral mental health counseling in the Graduate School of Religion and Religious Education at Fordham. I’m Patrick Verel, and this is Fordham News.
When you think about this summer, what besides joy do you expect to be a prevailing feeling?
KB: We’re social beings, right? We humans are social beings. But we couldn’t be fully social beings the past year or so with the spread of COVID. We did the best we could under the circumstances, but it’s had an impact on all of us, on our psyche, whatever our age, even my own psyche. I wonder, working at home, thanks be to God, I can continue to do what I love to do, but it’s not been the same. So yes, it’s summer, there is joy, there is hope. But it’s a different kind of summer. There’s a mix. With the joy and hope, there’s anxiety, there’s still anxiety. There’s still this cautionary note. And there’s confusion. When will we be on the other side of this? Are we on the other side?
PV: Yeah. Have you heard this term that has been going around? Some people have been calling it the Hot Vax Summer.
KB: I’m not sure.
PV: Yeah, the Hot Vax Summer. And it’s all like, “Wait, really? Are we going to… Oh.” I mean, it’s obviously meant to be this kind of thing. Like, “We’ve been cooped up for so long. Everybody’s just going to cut loose and go wild.” And I just keep thinking, “Ah, I don’t know. Maybe…”
KB: You’re illustrating that’s where we are, in that tension.
PV: Adults and children have had to deal with a lot of mental health challenges during the pandemic, and the end is in sight now. But I would think that those challenges won’t just go away. Can you talk a little bit about that?
KB: The challenges don’t go away, I think for all of us, but particularly those of a young age, who the past year has been a significant developmental time for them. I work with parents who have young children, who were in, whatever, the first grade, the second grade, and then all of a sudden they had to go home. “Go home, we don’t know when you’re going to come back.” “Well, when do I see my friends? When do I see my teacher?” “Don’t know. Don’t know.” So the challenges don’t go away, because that leaves an imprint on the psyche, and we just have to be aware of that. Young children in the formative years are educated in other ways, particularly in the school system, not just the three Rs, reading, math and all of that, but socializing and increasing their social intelligence, their emotional intelligence. So there wasn’t the in-person education, couldn’t take my children to play dates.
So what’s now important, it seems to me, is going to be the re-entry back into summer activities and, ultimately, back into in-person schooling in just a couple of months. On the one hand, it seems like everyone lives happily ever after. We’re back to normal. But with this missing year, I think there’s going to be like re-entry time with some hiccups. It’s going to be normal for children to have, with the joy and the excitement, a variety of feelings. Some apprehension maybe. They are, after all, leaving the nest, the sheltering at home and back out into the world again. And it’s not just children, it’s adults. I just talked to a neighbor, who, beginning of the week, who’s going back into the city to resume in-person work, but doesn’t feel comfortable getting on the train, let alone the subway, driving in, just that re-entry back into the real world.
PV: Your job is to train the folks that help us make sense of crazy things in life, like pandemics. But, of course, they’ve just lived through this, too. What kind of self-care do you tell your students that they should be engaged in right now?
KB: Whatever your education, your level of knowledge, or income, your credentials, we’re in it together, and we have to take really good care of ourselves if we ever hope to be providing effective care for others, which presupposes self-awareness. So I’m self-aware of when I’m feeling depleted, when I’m feeling anxious, when I’m feeling irritable, when I’m ruminating about, “When do we get to the other side,” or catastrophizing. And not only am I aware of that, but I know what to do about that, or where to turn in terms of my own self-care practices. It could be spiritual practices, meditation, contemplative prayer, calming the anxious brain, as I’ve done research on already, physical activity, exercise, and just getting out and into the natural world. A change of pace helps me reorient. It’s restorative. Be about our own therapy, meaningful relationships, whether that’s friends, family, faith community, people that we can be really real and open and honest with. So these are the things that we recommend for those in our care, that we have to be doing for ourselves.
PV: Yeah. I like that idea, that being self-aware. I feel like that’s something that I’ve been, myself, trying to do more of, to actually take note. And, as I think the phrase is, make a mental note of the things that are going on and say, “Oh, wait. I know what’s going on here.”
KB: The popular term these days is mindful.
PV: Mindfulness, right, right.
KB: I’m mindful of what I’m just experiencing right now, whether it be a thought or a feeling.
PV: Three years ago, you wrote a book called Pastoral and Spiritual Care in a Digital Age: The Future Is Now. And it was about how technology was affecting our brains in ways that made spirituality and human connection more difficult. Has the pandemic changed any of your thoughts on any of this?
KB: It hasn’t changed my thinking. It’s only reinforced it, or brought it into sharper focus. While we’ve been sheltering at home, us human beings, digital technology, AI, it hasn’t been. The past year, we’ve had a change of pace. It has not. It has kept evolving full speed ahead. So the human brain was already on overload. That’s what I talk about in the book. Before, to begin with, and certainly before the pandemic, trying to keep up with the tsunami of digital information, trying to parse through all the information that comes our way, more and more, each and every day, information about the pandemic, how it’s impacting our health and wellbeing.
PV: When I think about this past year, the word that keeps coming to mind is exhaustion. What would you do and not do to recharge your batteries, so to speak?
KB: I think it’s important to be patient with one another, even kind and empathic and compassionate with those near and dear friends, family colleagues, and with ourselves. In my own faith tradition, there are Gospel stories of Jesus being into preaching and teaching and with people big time. And then the stories end with, “And then he went away for a while.” And I used to think about that like, “Oh, okay. That’s a rhetorical device for whoever the Gospel writer is.” But no, I think there’s more to it. He went away for a while, like you’re saying, to recharge the battery, to calm the mind for what was coming the next day. So that’s from my own Christian tradition, but there are other traditions. A couple of years ago, trekking in the Himalayas in Tibetan communities, I would hear them, villagers quote the Buddha, an expression attributed to the Buddha, who has also said as much, “Learn to calm the mind. Learn to control the mind, or it will control you.”