In many of my courses, I assign students a final project instead of a final exam. Students choose a particular ethical issue to apply what they’ve learned from the semester, aiming to raise awareness about the issue and motivate others to care enough to speak and act in the pursuit of justice. When I first started teaching, many of these projects focused on issues like homelessness, hunger, immigration, sweatshop labor, human trafficking, or environmental degradation. In the last few years, the focus has turned in a decidedly different direction; now, most projects focus on self-care, mental health, and suicide prevention. In their reflection papers, students share the heavy burdens they carry, often due to anxiety, depression, exposure to trauma, and sometimes suicide ideation. In these moments, I think about Thomas Merton’s insight that the church is not just the “Body of Christ,” but a “body of broken bones.” He lamented all the ways we are unwilling to take up “the sacrifice and the sorrow that are the price of this resetting of bones … the pain of reunion.” Merton identified a key reason for this body of broken bones as unworthiness (which we assume for ourselves as well as others). So many people are suffering—many who feel invisible and unheard—and I am reminded all the time that this includes my students.
I’ve been wondering what caused this shift. Maybe I’ve done a better job helping my students feel more comfortable opening up to me and letting me into their lives. Maybe big social and ecological issues seem too daunting to tackle in this assignment. And maybe our students’ social context is causing them more harm than I realized. In considering these possibilities, I started reading more about the experience of young adults today. I read a number of books, including Generation Z Goes to College and iGen, Boys Adrift and Girls on the Edge. It was sobering to read psychologists like Jean Twenge describe a “sudden, cataclysmic shift downward in life satisfaction” among young people, warning this is “only the tip of the iceberg” when it comes to a mental health crisis made worse by screens that leave many young adults feeling more anxious, depressed, and lonely. Her perspective is confirmed by studies showing causative links between time spent using social media and higher rates of mental distress and social isolation.
And then a pandemic hit and our routines, roles, and relationships have been mediated by screens more than ever before. Initial reports show that mental health has been worsening since COVID-19 arrived, and that this is especially true for people of color.
Reports show that COVID-19 lockdowns have resulted in increased incidents of domestic violence and child abuse in many homes. Everyone is carrying more stress and fatigue as a result of health concerns, financial uncertainty, being displaced from people and places that helped to ground and center us. In the wake of 200,000 Americans dying due to the coronavirus and many more enduring illness, there is so much to mourn and lament. All of this has contributed to a heavy burden for our mind and bodies, an extra “allostatic load” putting us on high alert, making it harder to get restful sleep, training us to be overly sensitive to external stimuli, imposing intrusive thoughts, producing defensiveness, and increasing feelings of numbness, detachment, depression, reluctance to contemplate the future, and a higher likelihood of abusing alcohol and drugs. Because people of color and lower economic security face even more threats to their health and wellbeing, their allostatic load is even higher, causing even poorer mental health and compounding comorbidities, one reason for the disproportionately high numbers of illness and death in communities of color due to COVID-19.
These circumstances make life especially challenging.
I don’t know anyone who is running on a full tank—
most people report something more like running on fumes.
Everywhere I look, I see so much fragility
and so much resilience.
We may be hanging on by a thread of grace, but we’re still hanging on.
In the face of so much stress, anxiety, and uncertainty, how do we find the right balance between accompanying our students and calling for more from them? We have to meet people where they are, but we also can’t leave things as they are – otherwise, there’s no impetus to learn and grow or roll up our sleeves in the struggle for justice. Alternatively, if we expect too much from ourselves and our students, it’s hard not to risk disappointment if not depletion, given the circumstances.
In exploring the both/and between accompaniment and a prophetic call to work for justice, it’s clear that accompaniment creates the conditions for the safety and trust, mutual respect and responsibility that will cultivate relationships in the spirit of authenticity, vulnerability, and co-responsibility. Accompaniment will also open our eyes and ears, hearts and minds to the problems that require our attention and response. Accompaniment establishes the bonds to reassure us that we have sufficient access to the resources – personally, interpersonally, and institutionally– necessary for committing ourselves to the work of personal and social transformation.
In times like these, it’s helpful to remember that Jesus called a community of disciples, not just individual disciples. These disciples had responsibilities to each other, not only to Jesus. And when they met the needs of those in their community, it was an expression of awe and praising God (Acts 1:42-47). Of course, this is what it means to be church, the sacrament of salvation and right-relationships for the world.
Pope Francis has described a vision of the church that is more like a “field hospital” than a fortress. He’s championed a “culture of encounter” that calls for “our close and continuous interaction” with others as part of a “revolution of tenderness” (Evangelii Gaudium no. 88). Such physical closeness is unsafe during a pandemic, and yet as inherently social beings—born to bond—we long for the kinds of meaningful encounters, affirming relationships, and empowering communities that shape us into the persons we are becoming.
Given the present conditions, the church is a body of broken bones in multiple ways and is being called to serve as a field hospital in all directions. But not every problem can be solved by triage; we also need to imagine what comes after the field hospital. Many wounds need healing, but if “prevention is the best medicine,” then we have more work to do in order to anticipate and avoid the root causes of these wounds.
Similarly, a “culture of encounter” is the floor but not the ceiling for what is needed in our fragile and fragmented social context. We have to move from encountering others to engaging them, and from mutually respectful and responsible engagement toward solidarity expressed by greater inclusion and interdependence. (I hope that Pope Francis’ next encyclical, Fratelli Tutti will point us in this direction.)
For those of us who work with and care for young people, we have to directly confront the current mental health crisis. This does not mean abandoning our commitments to other social and ecological crises. Intersectionality teaches us that these issues are interconnected. Degradation, deprivation, and exclusion exacerbate a rising trend in social isolation and loneliness. There is still so much silence, stigma, and shame around mental health, and theologians have more work ahead to dispel myths that convince people to try to pray their way out of mental illness or make them reluctant to seek medical help.
The pandemic has researchers worried about the mental health of our students. It’s not enough to provide people access to resources; we have to foster the kinds of relationships that help people feel safe enough to trust us with the truth of what they carry. This means doing a few things differently:
1. MakE our classrooms genuine places of community
This is no small task if everyone is wearing a mask, physically distancing, or logging in via Zoom. But in hard times, when people feel disoriented or discouraged, connection is the way through. Our phones expose us to an amazing volume and velocity of content and contacts. While this can provide portals for connection, it can just as easily leave us feeling overwhelmed and anxious about where to even begin when it comes to caring about all that people carry. Creating an atmosphere of safety and trust in the classroom can help students practice the authenticity and vulnerability necessary for engaging resources, fostering supportive relationships, and finding allies whether they’re available on campus or through national organizations like NAMI and 1n5.org.
2. Practice Empathy
Empathy is like a muscle we have to exercise; it grows with practice. Theology gives us access to understand what people of faith believe and value, why they behave the way they do, and their priorities for social life. Teaching theology today gives us a chance to walk with our students to listen to and learn from them and to help them listen to and learn from each other. It can help us become more attentive and responsive to the wounds we carry and cause without wallowing in the pain. We can address social and ecological causes of suffering and injustice by exploring what’s helpful and harmful about the choices we make—including the moral impact of how we use our phones—and more intentionally live into the vision we have for the kind of persons we hope to become and the kind of society we hope to build.
3. Be Prophetic, FOR “Without a vision, the people perish” (Proverbs 29:18).
Just as our classroom can serve as a setting for accompaniment and empowerment in these uncertain and trying times, it can also serve as the setting for a prophetic imagination that taps into our deepest desires for what we will be like on the other side of this pandemic. We might consider prophetic imagination as a bold awareness that inspires denunciation of what should not be and annunciation of God’s hope for creation.
In trying to create a vision for what God can make possible in and through us, Walter Brueggemann advises us to build communities that orbit around “energizing memories” and “radical hopes.” We have to tap into what has been life-giving for us in the past and what we most long for in the future. And we have to become communities of practice that emulate the kind of awe, compassion, and kinship we see reflected in the Acts of the Apostles, the first examples of what it means to be a body of Christ—broken bones and all. We have to be witnesses that make clear: you are worthy; you matter; you belong. That’s true for everyone—without exception—starting with our students.
Marcus Mescher is associate professor of Christian ethics at Xavier University in Cincinnati, OH. He specializes in Catholic social teaching and moral formation. His first book, The Ethics of Encounter: Christian Neighbor Love as a Practice of Solidarity, was published earlier this year with Orbis Books.