By Doug Talley
Prior to mid-March, I often greeted people with the rhetorical question, “How are you doing?” or “How’s it going?” It was a way of saying, “Hi.” I didn’t really expect anyone to fill me in on what was happening in their lives. I was just being friendly. Then COVID-19 hit. Now when I ask, “How are you doing?” I’m looking into tired eyes and waiting for a response, maybe even a lengthy one. We need to talk about how we are doing because this new reality is really tough on everyone.
We are five months into shut down/semi-shut down stage of the COVID period. As economies and schools try to reopen, the number of cases keeps spiking. More children are getting the virus now. People continue to become seriously ill and even die. People are disheartened, discouraged, irritable, edgy, anxious, opinionated. We are all experiencing pandemic fatigue. People are wearing masks, fussing about masks, and pitching fits in public as they defy mandatory mask orders. Every conceivable area of life has been dramatically affected by the “C” word. Leaving home feels like a risky endeavor, as if COVID-19 were stalking us looking for its next victim. First responders and care givers continue to be overwhelmed. Though we were created as social beings who need contact with each other, we’ve been socially distancing out of necessity. Well, not everyone. Some think the “C” word means “conspiracy” and believe they can’t catch COVID. And that stirs up all kinds of emotions, too.
A lot of my job involves talking with people, especially pastors and church leaders. Though it is a bit difficult to quantify, one of my roles is helping people process what is going on in their heads, their lives, their churches, and their worlds. A lot of that has been happening these last five months. At the same time, I’ve been experiencing a wide range of emotions myself. Generally, I am in a good place but my emotions can change so quickly. I want this to be over so life can move forward. I hate the Ground Hog Day aspect of each day. I hate the uncertainty. I hate feeling like I am stuck in suspended animation. I’m tired of the COVID-19 phenomena.
I recently led a team building day for a church staff that was experiencing not only the COVID effect but also sorting through what it meant that the lead pastor of the church would be leaving at some point. In preparing for the sessions, God reminded me of a multiple day workshop I attended based on the book Managing Transitions by William Bridges. Let me share an overview of what I talked about with that church’s staff. I think it is relevant to every one of us.
There is a difference between change and transition, yet we often think of them as being the same thing. Change is an event that is situational and external to us. Some common changes are getting married, having a baby, working from home, and taking church online. The COVID-19 pandemic has created a lot of changes and has affected just about every area of our lives. We long for the day when there is a vaccine and a cure so that COVID-19 is no longer calling the shots.
Transition is the process of psychologically reorienting yourself to a change event. Change happens outside of us, but transition happens inside of us. It affects our emotions, thought processes, how we make decisions, and how we relate to others. Change outside of us causes transition inside of us. William Bridges says it’s not change that people resist; it is the transition, i.e. the psychological reorientation.
We’ve all been dealing with a lot of changes since mid-March – at times an overwhelming number of them. Every one of these changes involves a transition – an internal psychological reorientation. Most of us give very little attention to the transition and how it affects us. The truth is it knocks us off our game; it upsets our emotional equilibrium; it plays with our emotions.
Transition creates internal resistance. We are feeling a lot of that these days. The internal resistance we feel is due to:
- Our expectations being disrupted
- Our security being threatened
- Feeling out of control
- Feeling awkward, embarrassed or fearful of looking foolish
- Feeling uncertain
- Lacking needed information to help us understand the way forward.
That’s a pretty good description of what we have all been feeling the last five months. Those feelings leave us wanting to turn the channel or time jump to mid-2021. We are tired of the inconvenience, alterations, and disruptions in life caused by the virus. We want to move on. But we can’t because we are still in the pandemic.
Bridges identifies three phases of transition:
- Ending. Something old stops. There is a letting go of what was that involves dealing with our losses. When COVID-19 struck, a lot of things came to an abrupt end without any warning. This ending has generated emotions that are common in this phase, such as loss, anger, sadness, resentment, fear, anxiety, denial and even excitement. Why not take a moment and list the endings that have happened to you since 2020 began and what emotions you’ve been feeling. You might be surprised how long the list is.
- The Neutral Zone. This is the in-between time when the old is gone but the new hasn’t fully arrived. It is similar to the time when the Israelites were wandering in the desert. It is like being in suspended animation, such as what a trapeze artist feels after letting go of one trapeze and then flying through the air but not yet taking hold of the other trapeze. This period includes emotional ups and downs, a lack of direction and/or structure, disorientation, lots of uncertainty, confusion, disconnectedness, anxiety, and impatience.
- The New Beginning. This involves developing a new identity and a new perspective, experiencing new energy, and discovering a new sense of purpose. Confidence re-emerges and new opportunities are embraced.
I think that some people are still in the ending phase when it comes to COVID-19 but most are in the Neutral Zone. And there are probably some with one foot in each. (These phases aren’t linear). Since so many areas of our lives are affected by COVID-19, our feelings and our mindset are heavily influenced by it. We’ve been floating around in it for months, and there is no definitive date for leaving it and moving into a new beginning. Our emotions are fluid and rapidly changing, we are often on edge and impatient, we are fatigued and anxious. It doesn’t take much to knock us off balance or get us out of sorts. And to complicate things even more, many people are dealing with multiple changes which result in multiple transitions going on at the same time and each is at a different point in the transition process. No wonder we feel like we do!
So, are we doomed to keep treading water and repeating this loop of emotions that seems endless? At times we are likely to feel like that is exactly what is happening. That’s part of what makes this pandemic and the Neutral Zone it has created so challenging to navigate. While I don’t have cures for the current reality, I would like to identify some handles to help you get a better grip on each day.
What do you do during the neutral zone, especially when you are there a while?
- Control what you can. We all like to have a degree of control of our lives. The pandemic has certainly challenged that. But there are still some things we can make decisions about. Actually, quite a few things. For example, I’m finding that I have more control over my schedule because Zoom meetings require less time and no travel compared to in person meetings. Stop and identify what you do have control over and don’t stress over the other stuff.
- How do I lead today? I am accustomed to thinking about tomorrow, next week, next month and next year as I lead Indiana Ministries. In the Neutral Zone long range planning is 2-3 weeks – and on some occasions 2-3 days. Being present in every moment and taking things a day at a time are critical to navigating this season. Each morning since mid-March I’ve starting the day asking God, “How do I lead today?” because I need to be focused on what’s happening now.
- Seize opportunities for creativity and doing things differently afforded by the Neutral Zone. Though this Zone stirs a lot of emotions we don’t like, it can also be a great time to develop new patterns, new perspectives, and new ways of doing things. Life is already disrupted, so making changes to adapt and seize opportunities can be easier to implement. For example, the Neutral Zone offers a great opportunity for us to embrace being anti-racist and ending systemic racism. So let’s not miss this opportunity to strike racism a crippling blow.
- Live each day with hope. Life seems even more precious during a pandemic. Yes, there is danger associated with this virus. But living has always involved a certain level of danger. So, remember, God was in charge before COVID-19 struck, and He will be in change after a vaccine and cure are developed. He has seen many pandemics before. He’s not rattled. In the midst of disconcerting news reports, keep trusting in Him. Be a non-anxious presence because of the hope that Jesus gives. “…those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles, they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint.” Isaiah 40:31
- Be self-differentiated. It would be easy for each of us to take on the anxiety of others right now. Self-differentiation is your ability to separate your own intellectual and emotional functioning from that of others. It involves having clarity about your life goals and what God has called you to accomplish. It helps you maintain a healthy distance from a situation (especially an emotional one) so that you can make decisions based on principles, ethics and goals. The self-differentiated person is able to stay involved with others without becoming anxious or letting others control them. They are even able to take stands at the risk of displeasing others because they realize their worth and value do not depend on the acceptance of others or pleasing others. A LOT of people are anxious and edgy right now. When we are self-differentiated, we bring the presence and peace of Jesus into the midst of disruption and craziness.
- Rest. Take breaks during the day. Take time off each week. Take multiple days or a week off each quarter. Pace becomes extremely important when we are in a prolonged Neutral Zone. During times like these, our emotional and energy batteries rarely recharge fully, which means we probably start the day with only a 70-75% charge or less. Since each day is filled with new challenges that aren’t part of our normal routines, our batteries can drain rapidly. Draining a rechargeable battery below 20% actually damages the battery. It does the same to humans. If you pace yourself, you can lead well during the fall and into 2021. If you fail to pace yourself, you will become a casualty of the pandemic even if you don’t contract COVID-19.
None of us picked to live during a pandemic. But we find ourselves in one anyway. God is with us, so we can navigate this well. God can use this time and the frustration of the Neutral Zone to create a spiritual hunger in people’s lives. Remember, He wants EVERYONE to be in a life-giving relationship with Himself. And we are often the bridges people travel over to connect with God. So let’s walk closely with the Father through this. He is at work! He will prevail! His purposes will be accomplished!