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Spiritual diary of sheltering in place: The lifeline of separating thoughts from feelings

Lynne Baab • Thursday May 7 2020

Spiritual diary of sheltering in place: The lifeline of separating thoughts from feelings

In January, 2015, my husband Dave had a bout of bronchitis that he never really recovered from. By June, he had seen a lung specialist and gotten a diagnosis. By September, he had a different diagnosis and a horrific drug that he endured for three months. Afterwards, his energy was still low, his lungs still hurt, and he just plain didn’t feel well.

In early 2016, my spiritual director referred me to a therapist to help me cope with the roiling emotions and thoughts I was dealing with. I had lost the energetic, caring husband I’d known for almost 40 years. I was so afraid he would decline further, causing both of us more suffering.

The therapist gave me two tools that made my life so much better. First, he told me to separate thoughts from feelings. Feelings, he said, are the fear and sadness I was experiencing. My thoughts went like this: How sick will Dave get? How much will he suffer? How much will I suffer? What if he dies? What if he doesn’t die but stays really sick for years?

My therapist, who was not a Christian, said that thoughts like that are demonic. He told me to imagine I was standing beside a river. Every time a thought like that came into my mind, I could let that thought float away like a leaf in the stream. The feelings, however, I needed to feel. The second tool he gave me was the RAIN acronym, four steps to learning to feel emotions and then release them.

I realized one of my defenses against feeling sad or scared is to move into catastrophic thoughts related to planning for the future. Sadness and fear are scary. My heart and brain tell me that if I truly let myself feel those thoughts, I will never emerge from them. How much better to leap into planning. But, of course, the kind of “planning” we can do in the face of unpredictable events isn’t really planning at all. Actually, that kind of “planning” is simply moving into catastrophic, demonic thoughts.

The pandemic has raised the necessity for me to embrace this practice again. And again. And again. Dave’s health is much better these days because of his fourth diagnosis, in January 2019, which resulted in a drug that has made a big difference for him. Praise God. Hallelujah. We are so grateful. But he still has a chronic lung disease, which makes him susceptible to covid-19. My demonic thoughts these days go like this: How long will we be stuck in our house? How long will it be before I can see my sons, daughter-in-law,  granddaughter, other family members, and friends in person? Will Dave eventually get covid-19 and suffer a terrible death? Will I?

Because the pandemic is much larger than just Dave and me, I have an additional set of catastrophic thoughts: What if the economy is impacted so badly that we have a depression? What will happen to my own kids, my friends and their grown kids as many of them are losing work? Will I lose one of my loved ones to this disease? How can I cope with feeling overwhelmed by the impact of covid-19 on vulnerable people?

I am scared. I am sad. I am scared. I am sad. It hurts so much to sit with those emotions day after day, so I move into demonic thoughts that do me no good.

Over and over, I need to stand by the imaginary river (which I call “the river of God’s love”) and let those thoughts go. I need to sit with the sad and fearful emotions. I need to bring those emotions into God’s presence. I need to feel them with Jesus, who cried at the tomb of his good friend Lazarus (John 11:1-44), and who cried a second time when he looked over Jerusalem (Luke 19:41-44). I need to feel those emotions with the Holy Spirit, the comforter and advocate who comes alongside (John 14:15-27). Then, over and over, I need to release the sad and fearful emotions and entrust my future to the Triune God, who has been so good to me for so many years.

Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord.
Lord, hear my voice!
Let your ears be attentive
   to the voice of my supplications!
. . . I wait for the Lord, my soul waits,
   and in his word I hope;
my soul waits for the Lord
   more than those who watch for the morning,
   more than those who watch for the morning.
O Israel, hope in the Lord!
   For with the Lord there is steadfast love.
—Psalm  130: 1, 2, 5-7          

Next week: another lifeline in this strange time. Illustration by Dave Baab. I love getting new subscribers. Sign up below to receive an email when I post on this blog.

Three years ago I wrote a series of six posts about separating thoughts from feelings and how to feel the feelings:

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