Embracing Powerlessness, prt. 3

I said in my last post that in this one I would explore our true power. If you are just coming to my blog and have not read the two earlier posts in this series, please check them out before you read this one, because I am convinced that you will never understand your true power until you have come to grips with, and understood, the extent to which you are powerless. You will never embrace your true power until you know what it is — and what it isn’t.

Your true power lies in the only place — and I repeat, the ONLY place — that you have true control, true say, true influence: your own actions and attitudes. Yes, I have truly written two posts and part of a third one in order to give you the cliche, “You can only change yourself.” This cliche can never sound like anything but a cliche until you grasp how deeply, frighteningly true it is. But when you do the work of confronting your powerlessness, this is all you are left with, and it comes as a relief. “At least there’s something I can change!”

The good news is, this is what matters most. Imagine how your life would feel if you were unable to feel angry or anxious.

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Lessons in love from Dexter and Breaking Bad

If you have not watched either Showtime’s Dexter, or AMC’s Breaking Bad, chances are pretty good you have been living in a hole, but I’ll begin with a quick summary. Dexter tells the story of Dexter Morgan,  a handsome, charismatic blood spatter analyst who moonlights as a serial killer, killing only the guilty who were for various reasons never imprisoned. Breaking Bad is about a man named Walter White, diagnosed with terminal cancer, who begins cooking methamphetamine in order to be able to leave a small fortune behind for his family when he dies.

The objection many raise to these shows is that they, in some way, glorify evil by sympathetically portraying those who do evil things. Indeed one of the strange things about Dexter, at least, is that as a viewer you do quickly find yourself rooting for him. But is there anything wrong with that? What exactly are people afraid of?

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From the vault: Getting Help With Your Anxiety

Anxiety Image

Image by Regina Lafaye

It’s not always easy to know when your level of anxiety is “abnormal.”

There are four D-words mental health workers use in assessing whether or not a certain behavior or emotion is normal.

Danger. Deviance. Distress. Dysfunction.

When it comes to anxiety, the last two are particularly helpful. If you need help with your anxiety, you would probably say that your worry causes you a lot of distress in your life, and/or that it keeps you from being able to function fully in your various life roles.

That was certainly the case with me.

Anxiety frequently filled me with such fear that I was unable to enjoy time with my family. Often I could not concentrate on my work and so it felt like I was living life on half the resources other people had available to them. I didn’t realize how much I needed help until recently because the solutions I was trying were often effective, or partly so, for considerable periods of time. I also didn’t realize I needed help because I did not really understand just how anxious I really was most of the time.

I was anxious enough most of the time that I felt it in my body.

My heart rate was often elevated above what is normal for me.

I felt almost constantly like I had butterflies (the size of eagles) in my stomach, and I usually did not know why. Have you ever given a speech and been so nervous beforehand that you were shaking and felt like you were just going to come unglued? That’s what it feels like to live with anxiety.

Perhaps comedian Steven Wright describes it best: You know that feeling you get when you lean back too far in a chair, and for a second you think you’re going to fall backwards, and then at the last minute you catch yourself? I feel like that all the time. 

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A is for Anxiety


artwork by Surrealist on Flickr.com
I am currently blogging, along with my daughter, all the way through the alphabet. Check out how the idea started, and get the rules here.

Anxiety has been one of the guiding forces of my life, determining more about the way I live day to day than almost anything else. It’s embarrassing. Really. Especially for guys. Our current understanding is that anxiety affects more women than men (2:1). Not sure exactly why this is, but I suspect it has something to do with the fact that women’s brains are wired differently than men’s brains (and maybe because a lot fewer men are willing to admit it?). Men’s brains tend to be wired linearly, so that they think in sequence, and normally about one thing at a time — A leads to B, B leads to C, etc. Women tend to have non-linear brains and therefore think about many things at once, and in any order. A leads to B through Z, B leads to A and C through Z, C leads to A and B, as well as D through Z, etc. This is well-known, but I do not know what is the current state of our understanding about brain differences between men and women and how those differences relate to anxiety. My theory is that rates of anxiety would be close to equal if a study were done that involved both males and females who have been shown to think in non-linear ways.

That’s me. I’m a non-linear guy. Non-linear thinkers tend to be deeply intuitive, very familiar with feelings and how to express them verbally, creatively and artistically oriented, capable of considering huge numbers of factors at a time when making decisions, and capable of withholding judgement precisely because we are aware of thousands of factors related to each and every opinion that so many consider to be so black and white. The upside is that most of history’s creative geniuses have been non-linear thinkers. The potential good is immense. On the other hand, non-linear thinkers (artists, poets, composers, writers, etc.) are also drastically overrepresented among the ranks of the mentally ill. We are prone to schizophrenia, depression, and a host of other mental conditions. The potential bad is immense too. After all, when you think non-linearly, there is so much more to be afraid of! It can literally drive a person out of their mind.

The problem with non-linear thinking is that perception is reality.  How many times a day are happy-go-lucky people told by anxiety or depression-ridden people that they are “unrealistic” and that they have no real reason to be happy?  We might conclude that Kurt Cobain was “realistic.” Look where that got him. Emptiness. Anxiety. Depression. Addiction. The fact is that Kurt’s mental state in no way matched the reality of his life. That’s true of everyone at times. But it’s true of depressives and anxiety-ridden people quite a bit of the time.

Dealing effectively with anxiety begins with understanding that, in Richard Rohr’s words, every viewpoint is a view from a point. If you are struggling with anxiety, it is not because the terrible things happening in your mind are objectively real. It is not because the things that feel to you like omens are actually going to happen. It is because you think in a certain way that leads naturally to a lot of really scary things. But it also leads naturally to intelligence and productivity and creativity. I remember telling my wife 15 years ago that although I was constantly plagued with hellish fears and ideas, I would rather hang on to them than lose both them and my ability to write music.

But please hear this: if you are struggling with anxiety, you don’t have to make that choice! You can learn to think in new ways that will keep anxiety from devouring you, but will leave completely untouched that part of you that is generative and creative and gifted. And that is the purpose of this post — to let you know, if you struggle with anxiety, that it is not real. It is a product of the unique way you are wired. Because of that wiring, chances are pretty good that you will be able to do some things that people around you cannot do. But you may also carry burdens that many others do not have to carry. And you do not have to give up your gifts in order to lay down your burdens.

Why not get help today? You have nothing to lose but your nightmares.

Read Kyra’s “A” post

The Shame That Drives Us

shame

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The Shame Game

By and large, churches are still trying to shame people into right living.  Some of the biggest-selling books on Christian living in the past few years are shame-based books. Shame-based books are written by (usually well-intentioned) shame-based people who live shame-based lives and preach a shame-based gospel.  You’d think after centuries of the shame-game, we’d realize shame, fear, and threats do not work.  If they worked, the Catholic countries would be the most moral countries on the planet, but they’re not.  If they worked, the Holocaust could never have happened in “Christian” Europe, but it did.  If they worked, Christians would be known the world over for their compassion, their generosity, their love, their kindness, and their openness to people who might think differently from them, but we’re not.

Adventures in Missing the Point

As long as I have been in ministry, my message has always been, “There’s something wrong with the way we’re preaching the message.”  We’re  not getting it, and we’re not getting it on very deep and fundamental levels.  Levels that lead to depths of violence and lovelessness that are stunning to those who are  not Christians.  This is not about shame.  This is not about feeling guilty for anything.  This is not about working hard now so I can know God later.  This is not about earning the reward, it’s about finding that after all our years of trying to earn it, we had it all along.  But shame won’t allow us to take it.

How shame keeps religion in business

In a Christian world without shame, many pastors would have little to preach about.  In a Christian world without shame, many Christian authors couldn’t find readers.  In a Christian world without shame, many of the people who now flock to our churches to receive more lashes every week would find that the relentless love of God does not demand more of them but less — and then eventually leads naturally and easily to the “more” we are all seeking in our tortured efforts.  But we’re shame-based people.  Taking something we haven’t earned is — well — shameful.  We must deserve it and if we don’t deserve it, we must reject it.  That is why the lavish grace of God, freely available to all people, languishes on the shelf.

I hear regularly of preachers who will not do weddings for couples who live together.  After all, it’s important to stand on principles, isn’t it?  After all, if preachers don’t create those firm boundaries, who will?  But the point of the gospel, the point of the Christian god being a bloodied and naked man hanging on a piece of wood, is that love has no limits.  Love does not seek to divide.  Love does not say, “I care for you, but it’s important no one gets the wrong impression, so I cannot be open to you in the following ways…”  When love is truly love, it dies for the one it loves.  It suffers the humiliation and pain that sometimes comes with love, taking pain into itself and  never seeking to make victims of anyone else.  Isn’t marriage what we want to see, pastors?  Don’t we want to see people making those commitments to each other?  But we stand in judgment over them for living together without marriage, then refuse to actually bring them into matrimony because they live together, and then judge them for living together?  Is this madness?  Scratch that — it really wasn’t a question.  Yes, it is madness.

How shame gets in the way of love

Love wills the good of the object.  That’s love.  Love wants what is best for the one loved.  If a pastor believes marriage is better than living together, and loves the people in front of him/her, then he/she will seek to “love them into marriage.”  Turning people away because they are wrong (regardless of how strongly we feel about their lives, choices, behavior, etc.) is exactly what Jesus NEVER did.  How do we come up with so-called Christian systems of ethics that not only endorse things that Jesus never did, but that actually claim that our Jesus-less way is the most moral and ethical thing we could do?  Until we can come up with a way of understanding Christianity that actually allows us to love people the way Jesus did, instead of creating systems of excuses for not loving them, we’re missing something so critical that our entire message is in danger of being invalidated completely.  Attesting to this trend are millions of God-seeking and God-loving people who have found the church to be an inhospitable place for them or people they love, and dropped out in pain and frustration.

But this is what shame does, and the only thing shame can do.  Many who can no longer stand the shame and are hungry for love (which, of course, is what the message is supposed to be about to begin with and which, ironically, almost no one denies, even while we continue to teach shame) end up leaving the church.  For those who outgrow their shame-based identity and hunger for love, it becomes difficult to find a Christian church that preaches that gospel.  Those who remain in the church are often (though not always) those who haven’t  yet gotten enough of shame and fear and guilt and are not yet ready to receive grace.

And guess what?  God loves them all.  Because that’s what God does.