What the Church Can Learn From Elmo

March 1, 2024


what the church can learn from elmo

Last week, a little red, three-and-a-half-year-old puppet asked our world how we were doing, and it turns out we needed someone to ask. We were honest with our answers, and it became national news.

Elmo’s question on X (formerly Twitter) garnered over 40,000 responses and roughly 182.3 million views. While some posts were positive, most were brutally honest about negative feelings of stress and anxiety, depression, and despair. There were mentions of financial struggles, loneliness, burnout, existential dread, and sadness. 

As Elmo’s post became national news, outlets referred to the responses as a “social media trauma dump” and “social media dread.” 

Even the President of the United States weighed in, saying, “I know how hard it is some days to sweep the clouds away and get to sunnier days. Our friend Elmo is right: We have to be there for each other, offer our help to a neighbor in need, and, above all else, ask for help when needed. Even though it’s hard, you’re never alone.” 

How did Elmo respond to our massive outpour of feelings? After almost a full day of responses, he did not try to fix it or provide empty platitudes. 

Elmo simply responded, “Wow! Elmo is glad he asked! Elmo learned that asking a friend how they are doing is important. Elmo will check in again soon, friends! Elmo loves you.” 

The Sesame Street account later offered mental health and wellness resources alongside their encouragement. NPR reported a commenter sending love to Sesame Street for “still caring for all of us grown children. We may be chronologically outside the demographic but never left the Street. Thank you.” 

Perhaps this grabs my interest because I’m a mom of two young children and a big fan of Sesame Street, or maybe it’s because of my social work background. I firmly believe in the importance of naming and talking about our feelings for our emotional health. 

It may also be because my spouse and I have had our own journeys with mental health, particularly anxiety and depression. We know we are not alone as we talk with friends, family and colleagues. 

According to a recent article from the American Psychological Association, the long-term stress sustained since the COVID-19 pandemic has had lasting effects on our physical and emotional health. The prevalence of chronic illnesses has risen, particularly among individuals aged 35 to 44, escalating from 48% in 2019 to 58% in 2023. 

Mental health diagnoses have notably increased in this age group as well, surging from 31% in 2019 to 45% in 2023. However, adults aged 18 to 34 still exhibit the highest mental illness rate at 50% in 2023.

When I sit with my story, the stories of those I love and these statistics, I wonder where the Church is in this conversation. 

Every day, I battle against earlier, unhelpful theological beliefs I once held, infusing my thoughts with shaming words of advice, “If only you woke up earlier and spent more time alone with God, praying, you wouldn’t feel this anxious. Remember, Philippians 4:6-7?” 

Aside from my spiritual guilt, I struggle with what my therapist calls the “shoulds.” 

I should have taken time for myself this weekend.
I should have exercised and eaten right.
I should have said no to something. 

I often become so consumed with the imperfect ways I manage my mental health that I forget to name the imperfect structures and systems surrounding aspects of my life that make it challenging to live healthier balances. 

Many of these systems and structures are products of our American culture. We do not pause for long lunches during a workday to connect and rest. 

We are a culture of production, high performance and proving our worth rather than one of boundaries, listening to our bodies and ignoring work emails after office hours. 

As Christians, we aim to imitate the life of Jesus. If that’s true, it’s important to remember that Jesus had emotions. 

Jesus experienced sadness, compassion and, at times, frustration. Jesus was present with people but took time to be alone, away from the crowds. 

Although we only get glimpses in scripture of what these interactions were like, I wonder if there were times Jesus and the disciples felt like they were experiencing a “trauma dump” as host homes and villages shared their many struggles and needs. 

In addition to the remarkable healings and words of wisdom, I wonder if Jesus sometimes said, “Wow, I’m glad I asked! It’s important to ask friends how they are doing. I’ll check in again soon. I love you.”

Staying mentally healthy has been a struggle, especially over the last four years, and I am surrounded by support in many forms. That support has been crucial to my healing because loneliness only exacerbates the problem. 

I pray for our siblings in Christ (maybe some of you) experiencing challenging life circumstances weighing on their mental health, with no relief in sight. I pray for our siblings in Christ (perhaps some of you) trying so hard to make a better life for their children or family, all while the surrounding systems make it almost impossible to see even small measures of progress. 

Just as we still find comfort in the safe space Sesame Street created for our emotions and challenges growing up, what if we provided a safer presence for one another in our churches? 

What if we made space for our pastors to be able to care for themselves and their families? What if we decline serving in lay leadership for a few months to help protect ourselves from burnout to serve the church more fully and for a more extended period? 

What if we talked about our emotions as a human experience rather than over-spiritualizing them and assigning moral value?

If we become individuals and faith communities as welcoming and loving as Elmo and his neighbors on Sesame Street, perhaps when the next generation grows up, they will know they have two safe places to reach out to when they need a friend. Let it be so.