Years ago I was introduced to Laura van Dernoot Lipsky’s book Trauma Stewardship: An Everyday Guide to Caring for Self While Caring for Others. It addresses all of us “who are exposed to the suffering, hardship, crisis or trauma of humans, living beings or the planet itself.” It has been crucial for me to stay attuned to how my exposure to trauma is affecting me.
I believe in my bones that such work is not merely a career for which I am trained, it is a vocation — a gift from God. That doesn’t make me immune to the stress of it.
Even as I try to simplify my work and home life, sometimes I feel overwhelmed by the opportunities to make a difference. My congregation already partners with multiple organizations addressing food insecurity, gun violence, immigrant rights and more. There are always more efforts we could join. In my work as a chaplain, there are always more people to visit, listen to and pray with.
When I saw Lipsky had written another book, The Age of Overwhelm: Strategies for the Long Haul, I headed to the bookstore. Among the many insights in it, there are several that I continue to ponder:
— Being distracted and disconnected from our daily lives is both a result and a cause of feeling overwhelmed. Rather than adopting more practices recommended for taking care of ourselves, Lipsky suggests starting by being aware of what we’re doing and feeling in a given moment. There are myriad ways we can distract ourselves and numb our sense of being overwhelmed. Lipsky recommends being intentional if seeking a temporary escape. Of watching television, she writes, “If you need an hour, or a day, to lose yourself in your favorite show, do it deliberately.”
— Setting specific intentions for the work we are doing is a way to be less attached to results. Victories in social change are rarely permanent, complete or free from compromise. As Lipsky writes, “Our individual desire to witness results is often not a crucial part of the collective process of creating meaningful change.”
The ideal can guide us without being the goal we expect to attain. I translate this to attuning my perception for glimpses of God’s kingdom — or kin-dom — and creating the conditions to allow more of those glimpses. We don’t bring about the kin-dom by our own efforts, but we can be part of God’s work in the world, joining the great cloud of witnesses and many others in God’s family along the way.
— Continuing to learn can foster a healthy sense of humility. Mennonites excel at humility, right? I’m not sure it’s always healthy, though. Lipsky recommends building true humility through trying a new activity that you don’t know how to do.
“Strive to learn something with a bit of levity and grace,” she writes, “and then translate that posture of not presuming to know and feeling free to ask for help whenever you can, however you can, to other realms of life.”
Her words reminded me of one February when abundant snow covered the ground during my congregation’s annual retreat. A few people invited me to try cross-country skiing. After the second or third time that I fell down and needed help just to stand up, I started laughing at myself. I yielded to repeatedly falling like a toddler onto the cushion provided by my winter coat and the snow.
Jesus told us we have to become like little children in order to enter the kingdom. Or to get a glimpse of it.
Celeste Kennel-Shank, a former MWR assistant editor, is an editor and community gardener in Chicago.