Sep 4, 2020

In Good Faith: Walk It Off

In my September In Good Faith column, I write about the mental health challenges during this time and the unhelpful advice to keep a stiff upper lip while everything around you is crumbling.

Walk It Off

“Walk it off.” When I was in middle school, that was Coach Spencer’s answer to everything. Hit

in the face with a dodgeball thrown by the biggest bully in school? “Walk it off.” Dying of thirst with a touch of heat stroke after the forced one-mile sprint around the perimeter of the campus? “Walk it off.” 

Coach Spencer’s primary role at the all-boys prep school in Baltimore I attended was varsity football coach. This was a hallowed position, and a certain aura surrounded him wherever he went. His “other duties as assigned” included overseeing a few sections of middle school gym class, and he clearly believed the role was beneath him. Which may have been why he tortured us with various obstacle courses, cutting us spoiled brats down to size, while keeping his eyes peeled for the next star running back. 

One day, when I tripped and banged my head on the hard concrete floor during one of his sadistic exercise routines — hard enough that I literally saw stars — the first thing I remember was Coach Spencer standing over me, muttering “Walk it off, walk it off.” 

This is one of the ways we often approach life’s challenges: we try to “walk it off.” Here in New England we call it “keeping a stiff upper lip,” but the principle remains the same. We get knocked down and then we get back up and keep going. And there are absolutely times to demonstrate such resilience. Minor setbacks, disappointments, the various challenges that life sends our way. Nobody wants to hear about our problems, we’re told. Suck it up. Man up.

But living in a pandemic is different. There are challenges we face, both as individuals and as a community, that we can’t simply “walk off.” Life has been turned upside down, the deep human need for connection goes unfulfilled, uncertainty and trepidation abounds. Beyond the physical impact, this whole period reveals an unprecedented mental health challenge which transcends our deepest desires to “walk it off.” The visceral reactions that manifest themselves as anxiety and depression are the fruits of this pandemic, and they impact everyone to varying degrees.

If there was ever a time to reach out to friends and family, just to check in, this is it. And don’t take “fine” as the answer to the question “How are you?” and then quickly move on to discussing the weather. People are not fine. You are not fine. And to pretend otherwise is to exist in deep denial of the reality of the present circumstances. The inclination to “walk it off” runs deep — in ourselves and others. We can fake it for awhile, pretending everything is “just fine.” But it’s so much healthier to face the disappointments and frustrations and fear, before everything comes crashing down around us.

For your own mental health, it’s okay to let others know you’re struggling. Reaching out to a friend or even a therapist is not an admission of defeat, but of strength. As Scripture reminds us, “power is made perfect in weakness.” Admitting we can’t just “walk it off” is often the first step towards wholeness, and I encourage you to walk this path towards healing. You are not alone.

Ironically enough, Coach Spencer does offer us a word of wisdom during this time. Walking is good for the soul. It’s just important to allow faithful companions to accompany us, and then to walk alongside others. 

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