These are times that try our souls. Nobody needs me to say so. This truth is becoming even more glaringly obvious with each passing day.
What began in disbelief, perhaps as a bad dystopic dream, has become undeniably real – and we’re all affected in our own ways. The first days brought an adrenaline rush or perhaps a surreal novelty, along with fervent hope that worrisome public health projections were overblown.
That first phase is ending.
As our region and country drag into this second week of corona crisis, the reality of a long-duration history-shaping experience is starting to sink in. As we absorb that reality, we’re starting to see signs of meltdown.
What do we see? At the individual level, initial reactions to the crisis are melting away: people are even using words like meltdown to describe what they feel. Collectively, governments and economies are melting from structures of decades if not generations.
For some, the first response has been positivity, strength, determination, focus, resilience or defiance. For some, the first response is to feel impatient, irritable, angry, worried, scared or numb. Odds are that you feel a jumble of impulses shifting within: me, too. We might adapt by reaching for routine, familiar comforts, familiar vices or reserves of strength.
Whatever anyone’s first feelings and initial responses to the corona crisis, odds are that you or someone you love is starting to melt past those first responses. If that describes you, whether now or in the days ahead, know that you’re not “doing it wrong.” To the contrary, you’re on a path that spiritual tradition knows very well.
Meltdown is part of spiritual life. From ancient Israelite civilization’s Bronze Age and Iron Age foundations, our ancestors used the metaphor of melting down metal to describe one of our fundamental relationships with the One we call God. In this metaphor, the soul is like metal, and God is like the metal worker who uses heat to refine and transform us.
With today’s eyes, I see the Bible’s “melting down” metaphor repeating in our sacred texts. It’s in Isaiah 48 and Proverbs 17, Jeremiah 9 and Malachi 3, Psalms 66 and Zechariah 13. Words attributed to different prophets and leaders, in different parts of Bible in different centuries and situations, similarly depict God like the smelter, the refiner’s fire melting us down.
Some might read these texts to depict a God of fury or punishment, as proof that the corona virus is a divine punishment. Well-meaning sages wrote that about the 1300s black death (bubonic plague outbreak): anything so big and seemingly un-natural had to be holy punishment. More recently, similar ideas attributed divine punishment to the late 20th century AIDS crisis, deadly hurricanes, and the 9/11 attacks.
That’s not my theology. I don’t believe that “God did this” as “punishment” – though this moment certainly has much to teach about how truly connected we all are. We must learn those lessons.
Rather, I receive these sacred texts as teaching core truths about the soul and spiritual life that tend to be revealed during times of challenge that try our souls.
To me, the One we call God is a loving power of transformation. That’s the Name that Moses heard at the burning bush: Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh / “I will be what I will be” – Ever Becomingness, the Power that Transforms. Our desert ancestors followed that divine pillar of fire wherever it led them, through many dark nights, finally to the Land of Promise.
God as refiner’s fire, burning bush, pillar of fire – all metaphors for an enduring foreverness that can light any darkness. And as Viktor Frankl wrote, what gives light must endure burning.
Us, too. We who are made in the divine image shine inherently: that’s what spirit does. Even if our light is concealed behind layers, the light is still there. Into all life – as individuals, and as groups small and large – come times that melt away those layers and even transform our core. The spiritual alchemy of meltdown reveals anew the radiant essence.
This holy transformation might be slow or swift, smooth or jarring, but one common adjective – then and now – is that it can feel like melting down.
Meltdown is not fun. It can so scramble us that we might feel like we don’t fully know who we are. If we could interview a caterpillar inside a chrysalis, it might have a tough time describing what it feels like to melt down, because it’s melting down into mush. It might not know that the mush is Becoming a butterfly.
The corona crisis will challenge us, maybe to our core. As we move into Week 2 and absorb the realities of long-duration uncertainty, we ourselves may feel like we’re changing, even like parts of our lives are melting. Our usual ways of being and coping might melt down, too. They may leave us feeling vulnerable, unmoored, like mush, scrambled, sometimes even unknown to ourselves.
During spiritual meltdown, it’s normal to feel irritable, impatient, afraid or out of sorts – and that’s without a pandemic and social distancing, without harrowing news and uncertain times. Lots of emotions may come, perhaps quickly. Some of us may lock down and go numb. It’s all part of it.
So, spiritually speaking, what to do?
First, know that you’re not “doing it wrong.” If meltdown moments come, know them for what they are. Know that your feelings fit these times. Know that our spiritual ancestors knew these kinds of experiences and described them much as we’re describing them now. Know that there’s continuity and familiarity in that, even if this moment feels immense and unprecedented to us.
Second, know that other people are feeling it, too. Know that others might be feeling any or all of the emotions of meltdown. Know that people’s reactivity and your own may bounce off each other like pinballs. Knowing that others might feel as you do, let yourself feel kindness, patience and compassion – and let others feel kindness, patience and compassion for you.
Third, dedicate this time, and any inner sense of meltdown, to this process of spiritual alchemy. Intend that our meltdown be to reveal our clearest and brightest light in partnership with the Source of Light. Dedicate this time to learning and becoming – for yourself, your loved ones and community.
Fourth, take good care of your bodies – the physical vessels for heart, mind and soul. Eat well. Exercise. Get fresh air safely. Use the physical flow of time, light hours and dark hours, to help structure your days to keep the physical body resilient.
Fifth, reach out. I’m here for you. We’re here for each other. Nobody must travel this path alone.
If there’s magic here, it’s not a magic that I or anyone can manufacture. In so many ways, now more than ever, we truly are together and connected by shared experience and shared essential humanity. There’s magic in that. There’s also magic in the spiritual alchemy of meltdown – in our choice to name it, claim it and use it wisely.
That’s what our ancestors did. That’s the path that our sacred texts and traditions map for us. Especially now, let’s travel that sacred path together.