Real Talk With Mary Ellen: Tools for the Occasion

A key precept in the dialectical behavior therapy toolbox is a generous attitude of “you are doing the best you can.”  I’ve hauled that phrase out often with my own kids. “Look, I’m doing the best I can.” Sometimes we would laugh and add “it’s just not very good.”  When they became adults, I revealed my big horrible secret: “Parents don’t really know what they are doing; they make it up as they go along.” At first my emerging adult children seemed disappointed.  Then came this “aha” look like THAT explained a lot of things. And empathy soon flowed.

It goes without saying, this coronavirus season hasn’t come with any how-to instructions. Every day we find ourselves assaulted by curves, numbers, models, tragedy.  And the idea that the worse is yet to come? Honestly, my mind can’t take it in.  

Last week I experienced a dizzying bombardment of every feeling, yoyo-ing, all competing for first place in an exhausting emotional marathon. Like a cowboy, I exerted herculean effort trying to rope in all those feelings.  I should have lost weight, the strain was so aerobic. (I didn’t). I’ve wondered if my zealous pursuit for clarity or order isn’t some kind of “denial.” Even wanting to caption my experience of this stage of the crisis as “denial” is denial! 

I want to chart this experience in  some known or familiar schema so badly I can taste it.  If I’m in denial, can anger be far behind? That would give me hope that I might progress towards bargaining, depression, and on to acceptance.  Maybe a little remedial work along the way. I could do that. I would know what to look forward to!

I’ve experienced  trauma, grief, depression before.  I recognize the sensation of an elusive, unknown future.  By nature I’m extraordinarily optimistic. I’m forward thinking, can-do.  I see limitless possibilities. As a “1” on the enneagram I operate with a near constant inner dialogue of innovation and prospects. I love the future! In crises like this, though, the world feels very small.  I can’t see a horizon. I can only see one next step in front of me. I hate it. But I recognize it. And I remember that God has met me in these small micro-places before. There is every reason to believe He will meet me there again. I believe it.  I don’t believe it. Lord, help me in my unbelief.

The stillness, the smallness of my now-world reveals something else too. I like operating with a constant driveness! This leveling exposes my hubris; that I ever thought I was the author of my destiny!  I am exposed.

I will keep on leading children in simple truths.  But I’ll be the one listening.

Author: Mary Ellen Lehmann

Director of Children & Youth Ministries at All Angels' Church in New York City. Mary Ellen and her husband, Mike, have been married 30 years, and have four children. Several of them are adults.

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