Hello. My name is Drew Bongiovanni and I am a chaplain working in Atlanta, GA. Working as a chaplain, I am used to preparing for the unexpected. Responding to crisis and caring for people experiencing suffering means knowing that my daily schedule is a guideline, not a rule. Flexibility in the moment is an essential skill key to being present for others in their time of need.
That being said, my skills in flexibility did not prepare me for the feeling of working in a hospital during a pandemic. Looking back to the first couple of months of the crisis, I recall that one of the biggest challenges was the almost continuously changing situation. Sometimes multiple times within a week, we would learn new hospital protocols and new safety measures. Oftentimes, a safety measure put in place would be changed again only after a matter of weeks. This left a feeling of instability, but even more viscerally, a feeling that no one knew what the right answer was.
If you are like me, control and certainty are the first things I look for when my anxiety begins to rise. I want to know the instructions! The protocol! The best practices! Working in a shifting and unknown environment, with rapidly changing answers, threw my defense mechanisms into overdrive. I began reading the news relentlessly, doing my own research, clawing for clear answers and a sense of safety.
I also felt (and still feel) many of the symptoms you might also know well at this point. Restless nights with anxiety dreams, a difficulty paying attention and staying motivated, physical symptoms of anxiety that my mind ran away with (I have a stomach ache! Is it COVID??)
Although the fear and uncertainty of the pandemic certainly affected me, my chaplaincy training also kicked in to help me notice all of these signs and symptoms. I’m not sure that any amount of self-care can shield us from the stress and worry we are faced with in our world right now. But, it can help us pay attention to what is going on in our bodies, minds, and spirits.
Now, several months after the initial stress, many things in my life feel more settled. There is still so much that we face ahead, but I have also had the time to adapt and evaluate. Here are some of what has helped me the most: extra therapy sessions, lots of time in nature, check-in calls with friends, and healthy routines for sleeping and eating. But beyond all of that, this pandemic has invited me to reflect on my relationships with the elusive concepts of certainty and control.
As our society faces not only a pandemic, but also a critical period in the fight for racial justice, I have been reflecting on the culture of white supremacy that is all around us. Control and certainty are aspects of power, and I would be remiss to not name the ways that white supremacy is interlinked with my need for these dynamics to feel safe and secure. By getting to the bottom of this dynamic, I can reflect on where my stress-driven need for control and certainty stem from. Undertaking the work of self-reflection, is, for me, the greatest work of self-compassion and self-love.
So, with kindness and gentleness, I am journeying to new places in my relationship with control and certainty. These are old companions of mine, and imagining what the path could be like without them gripped quite so tightly is difficult and frightening. But rather than focusing on what it might feel like to lose the grip of these companions, I am imagining what there is to gain. The flexibility I embrace when caring for others as a chaplain, can become a way of caring for myself. On the other side of control and certainty is a feeling of community and collective liberation. A walk towards God’s community, where security does not come from absolute control, but from mutual trust, care, and love for one another. So, as I journey, I am looking to other companions to guide my steps, maybe, ones with names like justice and peace.