It's a Marathon, Not a Sprint

How do I survive the pandemic? That’s what I’ve been asking myself lately. Don’t misunderstand. I’m not trying to figure out how to avoid dying from covid-19. What I’m asking is, how do I not become a spiritual, emotional, and mental wreck? I don’t need to tell you how challenging life has been since March. We’re all struggling in one way or another.

How do we avoid ending up like this on the other side of the pandemic?

Adjust Your Expectations

I realized recently that I’ve been thinking about this whole situation in terms of a 100 meter dash: On your mark. Get set. Go! Run, run, run. Give it all you got. Keep pushing. Nearing total exhaustion. Cross the finish line. Done. Trying…to…catch…my…breath. That was rough. Glad it’s over. What was my time? 10.02 seconds. Not top three but I’ll take it.

Even though I know better, I think that in the back of my mind I’ve been telling myself the pandemic is going to end any day now. The reality, however, is this: life is probably going to continue looking rather strange for another twelve to eighteen months. It’s likely some things will never go back to the way they were before covid-19.

This isn’t a sprint. It’s a marathon. 26.2 physically, mentally, and emotionally demanding miles. You can’t go all out right from the start. In order to complete a marathon you have to pace yourself, keep a bit of fuel sloshing around in the tank for the last six miles or so.

I ran a marathon, a trail marathon, in 2013 or 2014—my first race of any distance (bad idea). At about mile 20 the trail led into a set of switchbacks climbing to the summit of Raptor Ridge (the name says it all). I was close to empty at the beginning of the switchbacks. After the grueling ascent and then a knee-destroying descent on the other side, I was running on fumes for the last few miles. It was rough. I hadn’t managed my energy well during the race. I paid for it at the end. In the weeks following the race I pretty much gave up running.

I want to run this marathon—living through a pandemic—differently. I want to have something left for the switchbacks and the homestretch. I want to end this race well. Because even after I cross the pandemic finish line, I’ll still be running another marathon called life and ministry. Like the speaker in Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” I’ll have miles and miles left to go. How am I going to do that if I crash and burn at the end of the pandemic?

How to Pace Yourself

So how do we pace ourselves? Here are some suggestions.

Embrace the circumstances in which God has providentially placed you. It’s easy to begin dwelling on the way things used to be. Many of the things we depended on for stability and a sense of normalcy have disappeared. It’s not wrong to lament what we’ve lost. But I find that, if I’m not careful, thinking about life before COVID-19 can tempt me to become angry, frustrated, or discontent.

I’ve been thinking about God’s instructions to the Jewish exiles in Babylon. I’m sure they spent time thinking about all that had been lost—the Promised Land, the Temple, the Davidic monarchy, their freedom. Here’s what the LORD says to them through the prophet Jeremiah:

Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare (Jer 29:4–7).

What does he tell the exiles? Basically, “Realize that I’ve put you here. Put down roots. Don’t wait for things to go back to the way they were. Learn to live in the circumstances in which I’ve placed you.”

As Christians we believe God providentially orders all things, including our individual lives. He, in his infinite wisdom, has ordained that we live through a global pandemic that’s upended life as we knew it. It would be foolish of us to kick and scream like a toddler throwing a tantrum. God knows what he’s doing. Our responsibility isn’t to figure it all out but to trust him and ask for the grace that meets us in our weakness with the strength of Jesus Christ (2 Cor 12:8–10).

I’ve lost track of how many times in the past five months I’ve read and quoted the following question and answer from the Heidelberg Catechism. It’s been such a help to me as I learn to live in light of God’s providence.

Q. How does the knowledge of God’s creation and providence help us?

A. We can be patient in adversity, thankful in prosperity, and for the future we can have good confidence in our faithful God and Father that no creature will separate us from his love. For all creatures are so completely in his hand that without his will they can neither move nor be moved.

Reestablish healthy routines. I like routines. My personal philosophy is: routine is the spice of life. Routines reduce the number of decisions I need to make each day. Routines keep me from simply reacting to whatever’s going on. They help me focus on what’s important.

Stay-at-home orders upended many of my daily and weekly routines. It was OK for a few weeks, but at some point I realized I needed a bit of order back in my life. The lockdown gave me an opportunity to revamp my morning routine. Honestly, I think it’s been one of a handful of things keeping me sane. Nothing fancy. Hot coffee, Bible reading, prayer, other reading. If it’s not too hot outside, I take a brief walk around the neighborhood. This simple routine sets me up well for the rest of the day.

Evening routines, pre-bed routines, Saturday routines can all help inject a sense of order and rhythm back into your life, especially if you feel like you’ve just been trying to tread water the past five months.

Routines can be difficult to develop and stick with. I’ve found James Clear’s book Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones to be a practical, common-sense approach to building (and breaking) habits and routines.

Consume less news and social media. Most of what’s covered in the daily news cycle is relatively unimportant. Cable news, in particular, dwells on the trivial. Moreover, cable news is much too dramatic. The programming is designed to induce fear and anger in viewers. Much of the messaging has a the-sky-is-falling quality.

I’ve begun focusing on more long-form journalism and essays and weekly or monthly publications. I find the content to be more thoughtful, well-researched, and informative than the entertainment-esque material produced by cable news networks.

Social media can be a great way to connect with friends. But, depending on the platform, it can really be an unhealthy place to spend time. Knee-jerk reactions. Slander. Gossip. Hate. Conspiracy theories. Non-stop complaining about anything and everything.

Consider taking a break for a day or two, maybe a week. Delete the apps from your phone. At the end of the break evaluate whether keeping up with the latest on your social media platform of choice is as important as you once thought. You might decide to extend your social media Sabbath, give up social media altogether, or reengage in a healthier way.

Sleep. I probably don’t need to remind you about the dangerous consequences of reduced sleep: weight gain, depression, heart disease, inability to focus, and too many more to list. If you feel frazzled, lethargic, unproductive, or purposeless these days, evaluate whether you getting a sufficient amount of sleep each night.

David Murray considers the theological component of sleep in his book Reset. Here’s an extended excerpt:

Few things are as theological as sleep. Show me your sleep pattern and I’ll show you your theology, because we all preach a sermon in and by our sleep. For example, if we pride ourselves on sleeping only five hours a night, we preach the following truths:

I don’t trust God with my work, my church, or my family. Sure, I believe God is sovereign, but he needs all the help I can give him. If I don’t do the work, who will? Although Christ has promised to build his church, who’s doing the night shift?

I don’t respect how my Creator has made me. I am strong enough to cope without God’s gift of sufficient daily sleep (Ps. 3:5; 4:8). I refuse to accept my creaturely limitations and bodily needs (Ps. 127:1–2). I see myself more as a machine than a human being.

I don’t believe that the soul and body are linked. I can neglect my body and my soul will not suffer. I can weaken my body and not weaken my mind, conscience, and will.

I don’t need to demonstrate my rest in Christ. Although the Bible repeatedly portrays salvation as rest, I’ll let others do the resting. I want people to know how busy, important, and zealous I am. That’s far more important than the daily demonstration of Christ’s salvation in when and how I rest.

I worship idols. What I do instead of sleep shines a spotlight on my idols, whether it be late-night football, surfing the Internet, ministry success, or promotion. Why sleep when it does nothing to burnish my reputation or advance my glory?

What sermon are you preaching in your sleep?

Do yourself a favor and get enough rest each night.

Rejuvenate. Do things that give you life, things that refresh you, things that restore your joy and give you energy. Get outside. Enjoy God’s creation. Garden. Take up painting. Play boardgames with your family. Build something with your hands. Exercise. Read a book. Read poetry. Watch a movie. Laugh.

You can only sprint for so long. Remember, this is a marathon.