They’re struggling. That’s what friends, colleagues, and many of my readers have told me.
Each carries their own unique burdens and cares and uncertainties. And yet what so many of their stories have in common is a sense that it’s hard, I mean really hard, to be a person right now. I get it. Me too.
We’re trying our best to navigate grief, conflict, anxiety, disappointment, and frustration. Tempers flare and violence erupts with nerve-fraying frequency. The pandemic feels endless. The economy looks shaky. The political scene is scary. And way too many of us are over-functioning just to do what we once called normal.
I’ve recently started calling our condition emotional motion sickness. The singer-songwriter Phoebe Bridgers coined the phrase to describe her emotional state following the demise of a tumultuous, abusive relationship. But I’m appropriating it to describe the broadly shared sense of spiritual vertigo and emotional nausea.
It’s similar to what I called Weltschmerz in Looking for God in Messy Places. Weltschmerz is a German word. You could translate it literally as world-pain. But it means something more like world-weariness.
As I wrote there, “It suggests that to inhabit this planet, simply to breathe the atmosphere, has become impossibly-heavy lifting. It’s more than a momentary disorientation, anger, or sadness. Weltschmerz is an all-consuming spiritual exhaustion.” (p. 10)
And boy are we are done with this! We could really use a break. As Bridgers puts it, “I have emotional motion sickness/ Somebody roll the windows down.” (from her song “Motion Sickness”)
What I’m about to say next may seem implausible to you. But here goes. Our experience of emotional motion sickness reveals two crucial things to us about us. These things are true every day of our lives. But mostly we’ll only recognize them when life gets so challenging that we can’t fly by automatic pilot. We’re forced to listen to what life is trying to tell us. Well, actually, to what God is trying to tell us.
The first thing is this. It’s hard to be a person. Period. In fact, we really can’t pull it off on our own. We need—we yearn for—a savior, someone beyond ourselves to roll the windows down.
Second, the savior we long for is more than someone who guarantees entrance into the Good Place once our heart stops beating. Instead, we want a Savior who brings good news to the bad news that we’re struggling with right now.
As it turns out, that is just the kind of Savior we Christians see in Jesus. He tells us as much in his first hometown sermon after emerging from forty days wandering in the wilderness.
On the Sabbath, Jesus reads the following portion of the Isaiah scroll:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,/ because he has anointed me/ to bring good news to the poor./ He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives/ and recovery of sight to the blind,/ to let the oppressed go free,/ to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4:18-19; from Isaiah 61:1-2)
Jesus embraces our real, frequently messy lives. Just as they are. He comes to respond to both unjust systems and to unbalanced individual lives. In previous essays I’ve focused on the former. Here I’ll dwell on our personal spiritual condition.
Life circumstances can hem us in, isolate us, and leave us wondering just what the point of it all is. Making ends meet, navigating grief, contending with toxic relationships, and just trying to understand each other is a lot. Sometimes it’s just too much. It gives us emotional motion sickness.
Jesus comes to roll the windows down. He does not do this by waving a magic wand and making it all go away. Still less does he guarantee us a smooth ride from now on if we’ll just believe in him. Instead, he comes to walk with us wherever we go. No matter what.
A widely loved Psalm reads, “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me.” (Psalm 23:4)
Our lives are fleeting and oh so fragile. We are always walking in the valley of the shadow of death. And Christ is already near. Already walking that way right next to us.
As we grow increasingly aware of his presence through prayer, works of mercy, and study, we find that our spiritual vertigo and emotional nausea can begin to fade. On our best days, they’ll give way to tranquility, compassion, courage, and perseverance.
I suspect that I’ll always have bouts of emotional motion sickness. But I trust that there’s someone who will roll the windows down.
Lent begins March 2 with Ash Wednesday. Click here for some suggestions for your personal or group study.