Please people out of love, not defensiveness

Thanks to David McElroy

A man reluctantly agreed to marriage counseling. When he got to the session, resistance was written all over his body language. She predictably got the ball rolling with a string of criticisms which she assumed I would consider well-intentioned facts. I turned to him and wondered out loud what he was feeling. He said, “I’m the one who organized this therapy.” She said, “You wouldn’t have done anything if I hadn’t nagged you, like I usually have to.” He said, “It is impossible to please you.” Their defensive exchange quickly arrived at deeper understanding. But it doesn’t always go that way.

Defensiveness

The Gottmans include defensiveness as the third horseman of their Four Horsemen of marriage apocalypse. They define it as “self-protection in the form of righteous indignation or innocent victimhood in an attempt to ward off a perceived attack.” Many people become defensive when they are being criticized. It might be more effective if they just said “Ouch.” But what they usually do is take an eye for an eye and respond with blame. The husband above did not listen to the legitimate complaint behind his wife’s criticism, he justified himself by shifting the blame to her for not recognizing his efforts.

We have all been defensive. When any close relationship is on the rocks, it is a good time to notice what is important to you and what scares you. You are probably defending it the way you do that. The storms of intimacy have a way of uncovering what we might keep hidden. What is hidden by us or from us is often well-defended.

We hate feeling exposed. We rarely start off talking about what we keep hidden because we prefer it hidden or are no longer conscious of what we hide. When someone considered why their mind went blank when certain subjeccts came up, he noticed a little person in a subterranean control room getting a command when he was threatened to, “Shut the gates!” We all have a “switch” of sorts that activates our defenses.

Acting defensively is usually a knee-jerk reaction. We all have defense mechanisms we organized when were very young to make sure we survived. These behaviors usually involve our deepest emotions, which we may or may not be conscious of. But the behaviors are very familiar and feel crucial. We have a childish commitment to them.

When you feel unjustly accused or threatened in some way, you usually first try to get your partner to back off. You defend yourself in a reasoned way. Easy-to-see defensiveness is shifting the blame. We say, in effect, “The problem isn’t me, it’s you.” The Gottman’s have a good antidote for de-escalating a relatively superficial power struggle. They teach us to accept our own responsibility. If you have a problem, check with yourself, first.

If you are activated by certain situations over and over, it is likely your partner is hitting that button in your unconscious where you have a deep need to feel cared for and it is not happening. For instance, if I already feel unworthy and you criticize me, I will get defensive. Actually, if you just point a finger at me and start a sentence with “You!” I will probably feel defensiveness rise up.

Have you noted the last time you were defensive yet? Have you noted the effects of your own and others’ defensiveness in your life? If not, now would be a good time.

A favorite Christian mechanism: reaction formation

In power struggles, it is usually the most powerless people who think they have to exercise the most power and bear the most burdens. Strong people feel fine about being strong and doing things strongly, perhaps with little self-awareness or compassion. Powerless, fragile, wounded, or traumatized people often feel alone against strong forces and come up with all sorts of ways to protect themselves. I wish all this defending were invented by adults; it would be easier to see. But most of it gets built before have much ability to think about what we are doing. We are surviving. But even as asults we often react like powerless children when we are most distressed.

The definitions the Gottmans use above for how couples are defensive are quite accurate. But they are also oversimplified. For instance, I think one of the greatest defenses a child learns is to appear to be defenseless, to appear compliant or pleasing. Rather than expressing themselves to ignorant or inattentive parents they discover a pleasing personage (Tournier)/persona (Jung) which engenders some validation of their worth, or at least gets them fed. You may have tried to be pleasing enough to avoid the violence lurking in the household or to be more pleasing than a sibling to get a better share of limited resources. Many children begin to unleash themselves from this form of defense with the terrible twos when they explore the boundaries of what they are being schooled to obey. Others just perfect their false self and even forget how furious they are with how relationships hurt and shame them.

I think many of my Christian clients are working out this subtle form of self-defense. They have been well-schooled that causing conflict with parents or the church system is a big no-no. So they defend their place in the family or the larger system by looking like they are being good while seething inside (or being depressed because they don’t know they are seething) — this is the seed thought of many semi-autobiographical novels, right? Freud called this mechanism “reaction formation.” You might feel guilt or shame so you act out the opposite of what you feel by looking compliant or self-assured, effectively hiding what you fear to have exposed. The classic example Google will immediately tell you is of the elementary boy who bullies a girl because he can’t deal with the attraction he feels. I think I remember blushing when a playground friend accused me of liking the girl I had just beaned with a four-square ball.

Christians are notoriously seen as repressed hypocrites because they never allow their true feelings to despoil their appropriate behavior. When a child learns they are powerless against their abusive or neglectful parents, they may adopt the persona that works for their best interests, hopeless of ever being truly seen. When such a persona marries, they surprise their partner when a person does not show up. I suffer for people who have a mate pointing a finger at them when all they are trying to do is please them. They’re like the poor man who said, “You can’t be pleased.” Being pleasing was the main weapon he had to use in the power struggle and he is disappointed it does not work.

Roman sacrifice: Suovetaurile

Try not to find your defenses in the Bible

For many church people, reaction formation seems like a tenet of faith. If you want to find it, you can read it into many scripture passages. For instance, look at Romans 15:15: 

We who are strong ought to put up with the failings of the weak and not to please ourselves. Each of us must please our neighbor for the good purpose of building up the neighbor. For Christ did not please himself, but, as it is written, “The insults of those who insult you have fallen on me.” NRSV

I think this is easily interpreted to say, “Jesus did not please himself, but others. So you should please others, not yourself. That’s love. And such love will be rewarded. Don’t please yourself if you want to go to heaven.”

When I was young, some teacher taught me the way to J-O-Y is Jesus, others, yourself, and they meant in that order. I instinctively put the three words in an inclusive circle, but my teacher definitely meant it as a hierarchy. Other teachers left off the Y altogether and encouraged me to annihilate or at least severely discipline myself for Jesus; these days some people call that mentality “cruciform.” Even though Jesus says you lose yourself to find yourself, and Paul says he leaves his false self to receive a true one in Christ, many Christians spend a lifetime denying themselves and presenting the same false compliance they did as a child, often feeling the depressing or anxiety-causing effects of resenting how they are never recognized for all they do and are.

Love out of love

We have seen a lot of angry Christians on the screen in the past few years. I think they drive people out of the church with their reaction formation. They are obviously angry, but they think they are behaving in the loving way Jesus would prefer, and saving people from sin. Not acknowledging I am miserable or being curious about why, while I insist I am just trying to please you, quickly undermines trust in any relationship. When you cause such suffering, don’t blame your mate for persecuting you like Jesus was.

If you read the whole account that leads up to the often-misinterpreted snippet of Romans, above, you’ll see that Paul acknowledges the weakness of people who are frightened by pagan meat. He doesn’t tell them to eat it and pretend they like it. To the strong who are just doing whatever they want, eating whatever they bless and feeling blessed, he says to attend to the dark side of the strength they have – the side which would ignore the poor for the pleasure of their own freedom or power.

If, when you please me, you are mainly trying to get loved, I will feel that. If you care for me because you are defending yourself, I will probably know that, eventually, too. We won’t be tuned in to each other because you won’t really be there, just the persona you think pleases me. If you are having a similar relationship with God, same results, by the way. You might not be so aware of it, but I will probably pick up on the anger and resentment you really feel, which you try to hide behind your appropriate behavior. What’s more, I will likely feel like I should be helping you in your project to “love” me, because you will be even more angry or depressed if you don’t succeed at it. Your success means I accepted your sacrifice of your true self for me as of supreme value.

I’d rather you loved me out of love not defensiveness.

In this uncertain now: Who are you Lord and who am I?

I thank God for every moment of honest soul-searching I run into during my week. Probably the best thing about the last two, terrible years is they have reduced people to asking the basic question of soul-life: Who are you Lord? And who am I? In an uncertain time, we have many terrible opportunities to ask those basic questions.

I would never tell you exactly what a client said, or even a recognizable story about them. But you probably know that Black people continue to be tormented by the violence and subjugation they experience. On April 4, Patrick Lyoya was executed when he ran from a traffic stop in Grand Rapids. On May 14, 19-year-old Payton Gendron murdered 10 Black people at a grocery store in Buffalo — last week he was also indicted on 27 federal hate crimes and firearms offenses. On May 28, a hurting Jayland Walker ran away, unarmed, from a traffic stop and was shot 60 times by 13 Akron police officers. Black parents with young sons are terrified.

The Supreme Court rulings are returning the country to the divisions that started the Civil War. The main one I hear about is Roe V. Wade. A woman’s past choices are criminalized. Medical care is politicized. Husbands question wives about routine procedures following a miscarriage. People are again debating “quickening” and whether unused frozen fetuses can be destroyed (Embryo Project).

This just begins to describe the challenging times in which we live. Who am I, now that my post-pandemic church fell apart? (CT) Who am I, after the deconstructers upended our institution and grabbed power without a purpose? (Northern Architecture) Who am, I when the one percent continue to game the system (even during a pandemic!) to make record profits? (Fortune)  As we ask our immediate questions, the atmosphere continues to warm.

Burned on the bulb?

All my interactions last week seemed to lead back to these fundamental questions. Now that I am this age, in this country, re-forming community, surrounded by distraught people, who are you Lord? And who am I?

The other day a group of us in the Jesus Collective were drawn into a discussion on Jesus-centered leadership. The leader loves the Mural app so we each made virtual post-it notes of leadership traits we then offered to the whole group for discussion and ordering. The process was mostly bereft of personality, dialogue and context so it ended up more like editing than revelation. It used a method which, essentially, presumes deconstruction and so requires social construction, mostly centered on words and fragments of meaning (Wiki). But it still has me thinking. It was asking an abstract question, but it again begged the basic, organic question, “Who am I as a Jesus-centered leader?”

Two of my three post-it offerings (I can’t remember the third) about a Jesus-centered leader’s traits were “at rest” and “indomitable.” I think I was mainly recalling an analogy I often make about a lion and a moth. When a lion rests in the sun, he or she has little to fear; they are secure in their place. It is good to be at rest, indomitable, like a lion in the sun. When we live in the light of God’s love and truth, we have an inner security which allows us to be at rest even when we are working hard for a troubled world. The moth, on the other hand is drawn to the light but is always beating its head against the bulb — a frantic restlessness, always seeking and never finding. It is exhausting.

A Jesus-centered leader (or anyone) is not coercive because they can’t be coerced. They are who they are in Christ. They share the Lord’s sense of “I am.” The Mural exercise easily reinforced a moth-like seeking of “what” I am, what is required of me, how do I fit in. It took some effort for someone to be “I am who I am” doing this exercise with this beloved collective.

Or relentlessly asking the right questions?

Rubens – 1635

But, like I said, the process still has me thinking. It led me back to Francis of Assisi being spied upon by Brother Leo as he prayed.

About 100 years after his death this story appeared in a compilation:

Brother Leo knelt and with great reverence asked the saint: “I ask you, Father, to explain for me the words which I heard and tell me what I did not hear.” Saint Francis had a great love for Brother Leo because of his purity and his gentleness, and he said: “O Brother Little Lamb of Jesus Christ, two lights were opened for me in what you saw and heard: one, a knowledge of the Creator, and the other a knowledge of myself. When I said: ‘Who are you, Lord my God, and who am I,’ then I was in the light of contemplation in which I saw the abyss of infinite divine Goodness and the tearful depths of my own vileness. Therefore, I kept on saying: ‘Who are you, O Lord, supremely wise and supremely good and supremely merciful, that you visit me who am utterly vile, an abominable and despised little worm.’ The flame was God who was speaking to me as he spoke to Moses in a flame. (The Deeds of the Blessed St. Francis & His Companions 1328-1337)

Like a lion, Francis was “in the light of contemplation.” Who am I? I see the “abyss of infinite divine Goodness.” This is not a personal trait one can find by completing an inventory. It is reality one can experience. Who am I? I see the depths of my own self-deception and brokenness. I think being a worm, to Francis, is more about being tiny, meritless and slimy than being unlawful. But what quickly follows this wormthought is the question, “Who am I?” I am the visited one, the one to whom God speaks like in the burning bush that drew Moses into his true self and best action.

But who is God now?

In a socially constructed world, now habitually deconstructed, most questions end up answered through the lens of “me” (maybe “us”) and this moment – like the Mural exercise. But there is no true wisdom and little self-awareness if one does not know God.

Even though a lot of people are seeking to know God, God seems hard to find, these days. Many churches are just a big mess. And the church in the news looks terrible. A mentee was thrilled the other day when a man my age told him, “It is so nice that you aren’t an asshole like all the other pastors I know.” And where does one find a way for themselves, much less their grandchildren, through such an era? David Brooks calls it “some sort of prerevolutionary period — the kind of moment that often gives birth to something shocking and new.” Overwhelmed, uncertain, isolated are the characterizations someone will use to describe their circumstances almost every day in therapy.

I have the same experiences, so I have the same questions for God.

  • What about the future? How I knew you before won’t quite do for the next 20 years will it?
  • What can I trust? What we thought was certain or needed to be certain probably doesn’t matter, does it?
  • How do I find comfort? Our focus on ourselves is bearing its fruit, isn’t it?

We might have to stay up all night and pray, won’t we? We might have to commit months, not minutes, to build a community that matters. We might have to listen in new ways when Jesus tells us to leave it all behind and follow him. We might need to sink into the eternal now in this moment and hear God speak in the contemplative flame.

Paranoia is running deeper: Help for attending to it

Researchers at Yale found a way to be happy during the pandemic. The crisis  gave them a rare chance to study what happens when the world changes rapidly and unpredictably. One of the things that happens, they confirmed, is people get more paranoid. During the recent troubles, especially in places where masks were mandated and the rules flouted, people felt betrayed and acted erratically — its part of being paranoid.

Paranoia

The researchers also found that people who were more paranoid were more likely to endorse conspiracies about mask-wearing and potential vaccines. They were also more likely to accept the QAnon conspiracy theory, which posits, among other ideas, that the government is protecting politicians and Hollywood entertainers who are running pedophile rings across the country.

When fear grips someone, one way to exercise self-defense is to project that fear outward rather than feel the full weight of it. When someone is gripped by this behavior or unaware of it, their actions can be labelled “paranoid.”  Someone experiencing paranoia puts their fear on someone or something outside themselves where they can fight it, contain it, or, sadly, kill it.

Back in the volatile 1960’s, a time torn apart with Vietnam War protests, antiracism marches and assassinations, Buffalo Springfield sang about what happens when fear is rampant.

Paranoia strikes deep
Into your life it will creep
It starts when you’re always afraid
You step out of line, the man come and take you away

Am I becoming more paranoid?

If you are becoming more paranoid, it would not be surprising. Many people are. When I was talking a couple of weeks ago about why the Trump effect is not over yet, one of the reasons was increased paranoia.

Nancy McWilliams says  the “essence of paranoid personality organization is the habit of dealing with one’s felt negative qualities by disavowing and projecting them: the disowned attributes then feel like external threats” (in Psychoanalytic Diagnosis). She goes on to say that people experiencing their paranoia not only struggle with anger, resentment, vindictiveness and other visibly hostile feelings, they also suffer overwhelming fear.

Paranoid people can be hard to help. To hear some people talk about it, they stopped going home for Thanksgiving during the during the Trump era because Uncle Bill would not quit talking about conspiracy theories. The general atmosphere of paranoia makes normal rules of politeness less relevant; there was no way to talk to Uncle Bill in a civil way. In therapy, or in the church, paranoid people can be difficult. They are mainly dealing with shame and guilt by loading those internal enemies they fear on you and making you the enemy.

When it comes to shame, paranoid people may use denial and projection so powerfully that no sense of shame remains accessible to them. Their focus on the assumed motives of others rather than on what is happening internally makes it nearly impossible to relate to anyone who is not sharing their paranoia.

Paranoid people are also profoundly burdened with guilt, usually unacknowledged and projected. If you try to help them, you will probably excite the terror they have that you might really get to know them. Because, if you do, you will be shocked by all their sins and depravities, and will reject or punish them for their crimes. They chronically use their energy to ward off such humiliation and transform any sense of culpability into dangers that threaten them from the outside. They unconsciously expect to be found out, and transform this fear into constant, exhausting efforts to discern the “real” evil intent behind anyone else’s behavior toward them.

Unfortunately for us all, like the Yale researchers found out, paranoia breeds more paranoia which causes people to act outside usual norms – the “norms” they suspect are fronting evil intent. Suddenly all Democrats are pedophiles and all Republicans are Nazis. So leaders such as school teachers, doctors, pastors, and block captains need watch dogs more than followers.

How does one become paranoid?

Psychological traits are all on a spectrum from healthy to harmful. They mix with other styles to form complex approaches to life. So “becoming paranoid” is not like crossing the border into a new land.

Chances are however, one is paranoid because they are very afraid. They had a good reason to think someone or something was out to get them. More paranoia may be induced by:

  • Intense fear. This fear may have been as a result of experiencing trauma, especially if it was in one’s family, but also if one witnessed violence or was threatened. Being overwhelmed by fear could cause someone to constantly worry about further harm.
  • Isolation. If one felt alone as a child or lived in a disorganized or dangerous family, they might have developed hypervigilance to survive.
  • Drug use.  Research shows substance use can cause suspicion and fear which then increases the risk of living with paranoia on a regular basis
  • Detrimental view of self. When one feels fatally flawed or worthless they are likely to suspect others think and feel the same way about them and are ready to shame them for it.

Paranoia causes mistrust; and once-betrayed, one can  remain in a state of suspicion. This suspicion will not only have an impact on one’s psychological well-being but also their feelings,  thoughts, behaviors and physical health.

If you think you are being watched and that your life is under threat, this is going to cause higher levels of anxiety, increased levels of stress or worry, and may cause you to avoid going out. I have clients from marginalized populations who are nervous about the thought someone could be watching our Zoom session via their laptop camera or phone. Constant surveillance increases paranoia. During the recent coup in our church, people stopped talking, stopped reading newsfeeds on social media, blocked people from communicating with them because they suspected anything they said or posted would be collected, misconstrued and used against them. Paranoia strikes deep, into your life it will creep

Pandemic sleep disorders contributed to the increase in paranoia and paranoia increased sleep disorders. Living under threat has an impact on one’s sleeping patterns and is an overall high risk impact on one’s general wellbeing and mental health.

What can stop someone from reaching out for help?

Continuing to live in fear can have long term effects on both physical and mental health. If you have symptoms that worry you or someone has told you you have them, it is important to reach out for help.

The most graphic example of someone in the Bible who did not reach out for help is King Saul. Paranoia took over his life. When Saul realized young David had captured the hearts of the people of Israel, he became angry and began to keep a suspicious eye on him (1 Samuel 18:6–9). David had made no threatening moves toward Saul, yet Saul’s jealousy turned to paranoia and he began seeking ways to kill David. The Bible records that “an evil spirit from the Lord came upon Saul” (1 Samuel 18:10). This seems to imply that, in his jealousy and hatred toward an innocent man, Saul opened the door for demonic influence in his own heart. His paranoia became so overwhelming that he went on a murderous rampage, convinced that David was out to get him and that everyone else was against him, too, including the Lord’s priests (1 Samuel 22:13–19) and his own son Jonathan (1 Samuel 20:30–33). We often think a king might be above such trouble, but we are all vulnerable.

A person experiencing paranoia always has reasons, often unverifable, for why they won’t get help.

  • They are afraid to tell anyone what is going on and the reasons they feel the way they do.
  • They have been warned not to speak to anyone. Their internal dialogue or real oppressors threaten them.
  • They are afraid to leave their home or visit an unknown building because it feels uncontrollable.
  • They are afraid they are being watched. They may not want to drag someone else , like their theerapist, into the bad thing they expect to happen. Paranoia and secrets go together.
  • They are experiencing hallucinations – for example, hearing voices. Their voices are fearful of people who will diminish their reality.
  • They have no idea where to go for help.

All of the above reasons to avoid seeking help can be fed by paranoia. Thankfully there is support out there to help you to overcome this. If you or someone you care about needs help, just Google “paranoia hotline.” If you want a more secure, personal connection, call Circle Counseling or the Council for Relationships.

Astrology: What it is and why it is still attractive

I opened up Susan Miller’s popular astrology website and checked what she says about my sign. I’m an Aquarius. I’m one of the 90% of us know our sign. Even though I am a skeptic when it comes to astrology, I was surprised at how accurate her description of me felt: “Ruled by Uranus, the planet associated with striking and unexpected change, rebellion, surprise, individualism, and at times eccentricity, you are happiest when you can freely follow the path you’ve chosen without interference from others.” Apart from being “ruled by Uranus,” I think my wife characterized me the very same way last week when we were having a difference of opinion.

The word is, a growing number of people, particularly millennial women, are turning to astrology to help them judge relationship compatibility, understand friendship dynamics and make life decisions. What keeps astrology going? Maybe, we’re all just looking for answers in an uncertain world — at least that’s what Ali Roff Farrar and her husband James think; they are influencer types, personal trainers and wellbeing experts.

Are the stars aligning?

Cuneiform planisphere

If you need to, you can blame the Babylonians for astrology. They were the first to organize a system. Until the 17th century, astrology was a common pursuit by scholars and the general population. The Bible writers refer to it as common sense. The Magi in Matthew 2 might have followed star signs from Babylon. In Luke 21 Jesus refers to signs in the sun, moon and stars. I call it a kind of “second tier” spirituality. The Apostle Paul, in Colossians 2, teaches us to raise our sights:

See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the elemental spiritual forces [basic principles] of this world rather than on Christ.

For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form, and in Christ you have been brought to fullness.

“First tier” spirituality is centered on Jesus and results in personal transformation and a true self lived in harmony with God, creation and others. [Post applying the two tiers].

Nevertheless, people have looked to the stars for guidance for thousands of years. As the sciences developed, skepticism about the tradition of astrology deepened. Modern science has found almost every immaterial notion to be unreliable. For instance, many studies have found the personalities of Aquarians are not determined by the stars. This little study from the Age-of-Aquarius-1970’s is often quoted to that end.

A widely-cited National Science Foundation study in 2014 found that skepticism around astrology was decreasing. But that might be because people don’t know the difference between astrology and astronomy. Die-hard astrologers interpreted the findings to say a new generation was embracing astrology with open arms. The study said half of 18-24 years-olds believed astrology (or astronomy, perhaps) is a scientific tradition. Eight years later, those 26-32 year-olds are keeping the astrologers and Instagram wellness gurus in business.

Astrology has staying power. Many people are still turning to astrology and studying their horoscopes with diligent faithfulness. Linda Goodman’s Sun Signs (1968) is still a go-to guide for them. It is the only astrology book ever to enter the New York Times best seller list. It was republished in 2019, sells in many formats, and still  converts people. 60 million copies of her books have been printed.

Astro Poets

From the look of my social media searches, a lot of people are into astrology. The private FB group “Astrology Guidance,” based in India, has 158,000 members. The Urban List will tell you who to follow on Instagram. TikTok will help you find astrologers on their site. The Astro Poets, Dorothea Lasky and Alex Dimitrov, give amusing advice to their 707K followers on Twitter (@poetastrologers). Some people are making money, of course. But a lot of people are just sharing their passion.

The “wellness industry” is booming. The #selfcareohyeah audience is tuning into their physical, mental and spiritual health. Circle Counseling therapists have most of their time slots filled. If there is increased interest in astrology, it is probably rising with an increased interest in all things “wellness.”

Lost certitude leaves people scrambling?

If  anything is certain now, it’s that we are living in an age of uncertainty. Untrustworthy leaders, an impossible-to-climb-onto property ladder, climate change, the remnants of the pandemic and poisonous politics all add to feelings of ambiguity and insecurity in our lives. We are all wired to avoid uncertainty, and it produces acute stress responses [a study about that]. When we can’t know how our futures will play out, we turn to things that promise us insight. Jesus told a story about a man who felt content in his certainty

And I’ll say to myself, “You have plenty of grain laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry.”’

 “But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?’

 “This is how it will be with whoever stores up things for themselves but is not rich toward God.” (Luke 12:19-21)

His story was about how people choose other, vain means to address their desperation rather than trusting God. Astrology is one of the ways people try to get a sense of control, especially in uncertain times.

Application of the spectrum

The information our horoscopes offer is not accurate. Anyone can see that. But astrology does give some sense of control over one’s life. When uncertainty causes us to feel out of control, we tend to lean toward one end of the spectrum of locus of control or the other.

  • On one extreme are those who act according to an  internal locus of control. They think that ultimately, we are each responsible for the events in our lives. There is no such thing as fate or destiny; people who work hard get what they deserve.
  • People on the other end have an external locus of control. They think something or someone else is responsible for the outcome of their lives, like the movement of the stars and planets, the “universe,” and many surrender their agency to their society or the rules of their religion.

Statistically, women are more likely to lean toward the external end, believing their lives are guided by fate, luck or destiny (representative study). This correlates with research showing more women believe in astrology than men (Pew 2018). So, for those of us who believe that forces greater than ourselves guide our lives, astrology is one place that offers answers, direction and meaning.

Followers of Jesus are finding an organic sense of their agency as part of creation in relationship with the Creator. We are called to value our unique expression of the image of God with which we are born and value the restoring work of Jesus as we learn how we fit into and experience the wholeness we cannot supply for ourselves alone. Astrology may be a second tier expression of our yearning to know, to be safe, and to exercise our spiritual awareness. Trust in Jesus is the door into the first tier, where we discover the fullness of ourselves on the way into truth and eternal life.

Three reasons the Trump effect is not over yet

Is it just me, or does any time before the pandemic feel blurry? I was thinking about 2011 and it felt like ancient history. Eleven years ago, Obama was president, four of my grandchildren were yet to be born and things were looking up.

But in that year the seeds of what has blossomed lately were germinating. 2011 was the year The Book of Mormon musical surfaced on Broadway. Over the last decade, its scathing look at “believers” has become more and more prophetic as Evangelicals hardened into Trump supporters, as a horned shaman bellowed from the house dais on January 6, and as Rusty Bowers said last week it was a tenet of his (Mormon) faith that the Constitution is inspired by God.  A mormonesque capacity seems to have captured people all over the world. Elder Price doubles down on such “believing” in the big song from the 2011 hit:

Facts, orthodoxy, institutions, common sense, and laws notwithstanding, people are going with what they believe. On June 17th Couy Griffin, founder of Cowboys for Trump and a member of the Otero County Commission in New Mexico, refused to back down from his refusal to certify the local election results after the New Mexico Supreme Court demanded he do so. He said, “My vote to remain a no isn’t based on any evidence, it’s not based on any facts, it’s only based on my gut feeling and my own intuition, and that’s all I need.” When he ran for the office in 2018, he said his experience as pastor of the New Heart Cowboy Church in Alamagordo would help him administer the needs of the county. When you are reduced to thinking you believe in your gut, a Trump cannot be too far away.

I started a session this morning by asking a client how she was doing and she said, “The world is so crazy right now, I’m not sure.” I think a lot of us wake up the same way many days. So what is going on?

The Donald Trump effect is not over

Thomas Edsall tried to sum up the Trump effect last week in the Washington Post.

Whether he is out of power or in office, Donald Trump deploys conspiracy theory as a political mobilizing tool designed to capture anger at the liberal establishment, to legitimize racial resentment and to unite voters who feel oppressed by what they see as a dominant socially progressive culture.

The success of this strategy is demonstrated by the astonishing number of Republicans — a decisive majority, according to a recent Economist/YouGov survey — who say that they believe that the Democratic Party and its elected officials conspired to steal the 2020 election. This is a certifiable conspiracy theory, defined as a belief in “a secret arrangement by a group of powerful people to usurp political or economic power, violate established rights, hoard vital secrets, or unlawfully alter government institutions.

According to a poll released on January 6, 2022, roughly 52 million voters believe Donald Trump won the 2020 election. The Republican Party has committed itself unequivocally and relentlessly to promoting that false claim. On June 18, the 5,000 delegates to the Texas Republican Party convention adopted a platform declaring that “We reject the certified results of the 2020 presidential election, and we hold that acting President Joseph Robinette Biden Jr. was not legitimately elected by the people of the United States.”

That’s what is happening. Maybe we will finally figure out why. Here are three reasons I am pondering.

We’re not titrating off our social media meds fast enough

LiamReading NFT on Twitter

Facebook has begun losing users, but Tik Tok and Instagram keep growing, as well as gaming and other communication platforms. It has all turned into a hotbed for misinformation. And it is addictive. The screens are a cheap way to medicate what we won’t overcome.

Eugen Dimant says people know factual news is more accurate than conspiracy theories. But they expect sharing conspiracy theories to generate more social feedback (i.e. comments and “likes”) than sharing factual news. The more positive social feedback for sharing conspiracy theories significantly increases people’s tendency to share these conspiracy theories that they do not believe in. Once you get away with a lie, when people believe it, when there are no repercussions, when it becomes part of your brand, it is hard to stop.

Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist at N.Y.U.’s Stern School of Business, noted that spreading a lie can serve as a shibboleth — something like a password used by one set of people to identify other people as members of a particular group — providing an effective means of signaling the strength of one’s commitment to fellow ideologues. Like a gang member’s tear drop, believing and advancing the lie demonstrates how far you are willing to go to belong.

For people on the edge, holding on to social media for connection, even still afraid to be in a face-to-face social group because they aren’t vaccinated or the virus might break through, belonging to a lie might be alluring.

Jacob Chansley known as the Q Anon Shaman

Paranoia has been increasing worldwide for a decade

Many people have said the pandemic just accelerated societal trends that had been growing for years. Acquaintances in West Philly have been documenting the deterioration of their blossoming neighborhood for quite some time and trying to figure out how to get into the burbs. The pandemic pushed their poorest neighbors right over the edge. But before that, the whitelash after Obama was making Black people and all marginalized people frightened and reactive. At the same time, Rupert Murdoch has made billions stoking the fire of fear building among people who feel they are losing their rights, their place, their planet, their future.

“Conspiratorial thinking” is so common it has become a topic for social scientists and psychologists to study. One of the reasons the neighborhood may have more trash in it could be linked to what they are discovering. A group of English researchers wrote about the connection between conspiracy thinking and everyday crime: “Such crimes can include running red lights, paying cash for items to avoid paying taxes, or failing to disclose faults in secondhand items for sale” (2019 paper).

People are paranoid on the extreme right and the left of the political spectrum, worldwide. A psychologist from Amsterdam argues there are psychological benefits of believing conspiracy theories. “Conspiracy theories help perceivers mentally reconstrue unhealthy behaviors as healthy, and anti-government violence as legitimate (e.g., justifying violent protests as legitimate resistance against oppressors).”

The paranoia is everyday and mainstream. Edsall says people committing far-right violence — particularly planned violence rather than spontaneous hate crimes — are older and more established than typical terrorists and violent criminals. They often hold jobs, are married, and have children. Those who attend church or belong to community groups are more likely to hold violent, conspiratorial beliefs. These are not isolated “lone wolves;” they are part of a broad community that echoes their ideas.

Paranoia breeds more paranoia. If it is amplified by giant corporations and media megaphones, if it seems like everyone else feels the same, it is no wonder the ball is rolling.

The church has had its heart cut out

The church in the U.S. has often been the rock upon which corruption and cruelty crashed. It is no longer that rock. It is more like a ship which was listing long before the pandemic, sinking under the weight of its capitulation to power and profit. After having witnessed French history for three weeks recently, such sinfulness seems cyclical. The same sinfulness sank the French church a while back.

The pandemic was a torpedo. Preoccupied before the disease hit with fighting over race, sexuality, sexual abuse, authority and whether narcissistic white, mainly, and other males have a lock on leadership, the lockdowns revealed every unaddressed weakness and unleashed disaster.

Churchgoers are still wandering around dazed. Their post-pandemic church is not the same. Leaders are burned out and leaving in droves. The Black church and Catholic Church have seen the largest drops in attendance. Overall, the Barna group says, only one in three worshippers are still and only attending their pre-Covid church.

Maybe I should say the church’s heart has been colonized instead of cut out. Couy Griffin sums up a new worldview that took root after the conspiracy mentality invaded the church. He doesn’t consult the facts, his duty, the law, the Bible or his community, he trusts his gut — I would say his gut marinated in a tank of lies if I weren’t interested in being more generous. When you were their pastor, did you teach your people to trust their gut instead of Jesus and his church?

I don’t think people wake up one day and decide to overthrow the government. In our era, people already in a weakened state, too poor, too abused, too undereducated, too alone and uncared for are easily pushed into the arms of the gang, the ideology, the dictator. When people in the church think about themselves, their marginality, their anger instead of turning into Christ and his community, they can also lose the heart of their faith. I hear about how that has happened in the lives of my clients every week. I have experienced the emptiness first hand.

If the planet survives long enough, the church is likely to make a comeback. We may die but Jesus is alive. I know my month has been full of inspiration and new hope.

But it is hard to feel a lot of confidence things will change any time soon.  Many people are hanging on to believing in believing like Elder Price. They are believing in themselves because they are all they’ve got. They are floating in a sea of lies trying to trust their gut, trying to hang on to some shred of morality and integrity. I respect their resilience. I hope we can all hang on until we outgrow our ego-driven self-protection and open up to the presence of God, presented in Jesus and ever-present in the Holy Spirit.

What do we hate more: Humility or Forgiveness?

It took a while

Our internet provider was trying, really they were. The autopay failed, for some reason. I lost consciousness about fixing it. They called us in France and I told my wife the call must be a scam, mainly because I was drunk with beautiful countryside and did not want to be bothered. I came home and paid the day after they cut me off.

Now I am waiting for the cable guy to show up because they could not reconnect, even after I bought a new modem to replace the one the nice lady said was too ancient to be trusted. I can almost guarantee you have had similar issues. We now live under the incomprehensible thumb of virtuality, so there are new challenges. But we still have the same old inner problems when we face them. I am mainly talking about the need for humility and forgiveness.

Sometimes I hate humility

It is downright shameful to mismanage the cable bill and subject your loved ones to a day without Netflix (and worse!). That sentence may have aroused a common response: “It’s no big deal. Don’t be so hard on yourself. It could happen to everyone. It will all work out.”

All that is true. But one might as well say, “Stuff that shame back where it belongs! I don’t want to see it. It is shameful to feel shame.” Being humiliated is tantamount to being murdered in our culture. So we walk around all day suspicious someone is trying to humiliate us. Our comedians amuse us by mocking people. We revel in scandalous revelations about celebrities.

While I was praying post-cable-fiasco, I felt I had some space to be humble. It is obvious to God, and to me when I am present to God, that I am fallible. Even though I strive to be unassailable, I mess up the cable bill and get shut off. Then I get defensive and look for someone to blame (like the cable company — the one that called me to tell me I was going to be shut off). Then I withdraw and don’t want to talk about it. Then I spend twelve hours in recovery until I can look at it and say to myself, “Yep. That happened. You did that.”

Being humble is just admitting who we really are and what we really did. It is being seen as God sees us. God knows we are dust, a breath. We have sinful responses to almost everything. Yet God loves us without reservation and respects us enough to fill us with the Holy Spirit and trust us to make our way into wholeness. Humility is not just admitting I am flawed. It is also admitting I am loved, regardless. It is admitting I can’t prevent all wrong, all suffering, and admitting I am not shameful if I don’t. I am just fallible and, apparently, nonetheless-lovable me.

But not as much as forgiveness

The other side of the humiliation of having one’s precious internet shut off is forgiveness. That word may have aroused some common responses in you. “No need to ask forgiveness. No problem. It’s nothing. Let’s just move on. You’re not to blame. You’re fine.”

Some of that is nice. But one might as well say, “Stuff that shame back where it belongs. I don’t want to be a part of it. It is embarrassing to be dealing with your private parts.” I think I said I was sorry about messing up the cable bill. I may have just looked regretful. Maybe I just furrowed my brow in self-loathing and projection. I can’t remember. I was too busy fretting about being in a situation where I needed to be forgiven. We are a punitive bunch in the U.S. We want justice. We want the “rule of law.” We ruthlessly apply any available law to ourselves, no matter how godless. And we expect the same of others.  When I am listening to couples trying to work things out, asking forgiveness or giving it is often not even a consideration – as if something else works!

I can relate to that resistance. As I was praying post-cable fiasco, I realized I needed to be humble enough to be forgiven. Even if everyone else just accepted my sins as no big deal (which is nice of them), I still felt ashamed. And until that shame was touched with grace, it was going to make an impact. It was going to flood my private parts with contempt and condemnation as I vainly tried to complete my uncompletable task of stuffing it, bearing it secretly like an ill-capped, undersea oil well, oozing pollution. All that over a cable bill!

I felt able to sit in my forgiven place with God (or I probably wouldn’t be writing this, right?). I even apologized more directly for messing up the screens. I felt released. I hope you do, too. Asking forgiveness and receiving it might be the beginning of freedom, of mental health, of love. Admitting how we hate it might be humble enough to get us started and get us reconciled with God. Avoiding that confession might keep us rolling around in some shame cycle waiting for the cable guy to come, another thing completely out of our  control.

Disturbing French church buildings — and what we’re not building

church ruins in Lyon

Lyon was beautiful to see. But Lyon was disturbing.

But then I could probably say that about you. You are undoubtedly a beautiful, even wondrous piece of God’s art, but you are disturbing at times.

The world is so beautiful! – it stretched out mile after mile in the French countryside. I saw it. But it is also disturbing.

In Lyon on a beautiful day, we tore ourselves from the lovely view on the bridge over the Saone River and came to St. John the Baptist Cathedral in the Old City (a UNESCO site). Behind the cathedral were the remains of even older church buildings. All that remains of them are an artful arch, a remarkable baptistry surviving from the 4th century and stubby markers of where there used to be walls (my pic above).

St. John the Baptist Cathedral church building in Lyon
Those niches below the rose window used to have statues

The French Revolution

What had remained of the churches of Saint Stephen and the Holy Cross in Lyon were reportedly destroyed during the French Revolution (1789-92) like so many old church buildings were torn down and often used as quarries after they were nationalized. The still-standing cathedral was spared because it was turned into a “temple of reason.” Somehow the ancient baptistry survived. You can read more about the destruction of church buildings here. We saw even more ambitious vengeance when we visited Cluny, a huge, bucket-list, historic complex reduced to almost nothing. When we visited Fontenay Abbey, founded by St. Bernard (also on my bucket list), we saw it stripped to the bones.

After visiting Versailles and Fontainebleau, I could understand even more why people wanted to destroy the ancien regime with its fully-politicized and oppressive church. I have never really been comfortable with most churches dominated by powerful men. I could not even spend a full day at the famous Taize last week, when I realized how women were marginalized. The need for change felt like an emotional itch that needed to be scratched then and now.

As I wandered through history, I could not help wondering what the revolutionaries are doing to the present-day church once I got a personal look at what they did in the past. It did not work out that well in France.  After a decade of hysteria, villainy, murder and ineptitude the French Revolution ended up with Napoleon, ensconced again at Fontainebleau. The U.S. might be ripe for the same kind of thing and install Trump or DeSantis. Meanwhile, its fully-politicized church, largely listening to Fox News (or not), would keep tearing itself apart as surely as people literally tore down stones in Lyon.

missing statues heads on the church in Lyon
A couple of survivors got their heads chopped off.

The age of the Huguenots

The Church of John the Baptist in Lyon is striking. When you look at it more closely, you realize it has also been struck. That fact speaks to me.

One of its founders was St. Irenaeus (b. 130!). By 450, a bishop built a big building there. By 1079 the archbishop there was named the “Primate of all the Gauls.” The present building was begun in 1180 and called complete in 1476 (these buildings are all a constant rehab project). Some people blame the missing and defaced statues on the cathedral on an outbreak of Huguenot  looting in 1562. Huguenots were statue-hating Protestants like John Calvin (92 miles away in Geneva who died in 1564). They were kin to the Puritans in England and the U.S. There is a lot of church history in your face as you face the church, which left me with more questions than answers.

The church I experienced for most of my adulthood feels a bit looted, of late, from the right and the left of the political spectrum. Part of that is me being old. But more, I feel violated because, just like the Huguenots and like the Revolutionaries who followed them, reaction to the horrible excesses and corruption of the rulers these days is more about tearing down the past than building a sustainable future. I told one of my guides we spent some time in the church during one of our tourist stops and he gave me a pitying and puzzled look. I said, “We’re like that.” But he was surprised anyone still is. The French church has never recovered from the Huguenot wars and the Revolution. I have a lot of friends who aren’t recovering very well right now, too.

I am disappointed over how often the newly-powerful keep doing the same damned things that are as plain as the nose on your saint’s face — chipped right off a Lyon statue! The new regime often throws the baby out with the dirty bath water when they throw a statue into the Saone. (I am not sure anyone did that but those statues are somewhere!). Yet another leader turns out to be a sexual predator and it is off with everyone’s head and burn some books. The ever-present powermongers get a whiff of how they could use your convictions for further profit or fame and we all think being at loggerheads is normal and every institution needs purifying (often in the name of tolerance and intolerance).

What Church are we building?

It seems I must have visited most of the French church buildings by now — they leave them open, so we go in to pray or sing. They were often beautiful – so regularly beautiful you begin to take for granted the art, skill and passion that went into creating them. But they were disturbing. Empty. Echoing with violence and corruption as well as with praise. I met God repeatedly and wonderfully in them – but they have a lot yet to teach me.

We are in the process of making ruins of the 20th century church. I admit to abandoning it once Ronald Reagan got a hold of it. I probably threw out some babies. There is a lot worthy of reform and I hope we are doing it somehow. But I can’t see what we are building. The lovely things so many people attempted to build in the last 20 years are being swept away for what?

History has a lot to teach us about what creates faith lived out in community. The French revolutionaries thought history began with them so they missed some lessons. I can sympathize with them, though, and I feel the fervor of people who want change now — when it comes to racism, sexism, gun proliferation and climate policy, among many things, so do I. But Jesus is the same yesterday, today and forever.

More from France: Sailing with the three Marys on a sea of lies

Not far from Arles, we visited the town of Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer. It is an ancient town in the marshes of the Camargue, where the Rhône meets the Mediterranean Sea.  I am not sure Gwen wanted to investigate yet another church, but she kindly went to see what was under that collection of bells in that tower with a ship for a weather vane. As we sat in the nave, I finally looked up and saw an opening way up the wall. I could not tell what it was, but I surmised it might be the remains of the three Marys in the town’s name. Sure enough, we later learned three times a year they pull out an ornate box and hoist it down to the altar for vernation.

More in a minute. But, I ask you, if Christianity managed to survive such things, don’t you think it will survive the nonsense we are experiencing right now?

The story goes on to say the Three Marys for which the town is named are, in French, Marie Madeleine, Marie Salomé and Marie de Cléophas, the very women who came to the tomb where Jesus was laid three days after the crucifixion. The medieval tradition, still honored today, began when the three Marys escaped persecution for their faith in Palestine and travelled by sea to Southern France, which makes them “de la Mer” for sure. They set sail from Alexandria, Egypt, with their uncle, Joseph of Arimathea, and landed on the very spot where the town sits. They lived in the Camargue the rest of their lives and helped bring Christianity to France.

Legends are being born every day. The January 6 Commission is about to hold public hearings about the findings of their investigation. Mehmet Oz is going to have to decide if he gets on the bandwagon with Trump’s big lie. 34% of the population is likely to keep believing the last election was stolen. Many of us will wring our hands about the lack of factuality drowning us. Last week Tucker Carlson claimed that Democrat efforts to promote gun safety are not about public health. Instead, he said, Democrats want to disarm the people because they’re afraid of a popular uprising against them because “they know they rule illegitimately.”

I assume Jesus has always cared about lying, but just assessing facts does not always mean we arrive at the truth. What does your legend serve?

The Church of the Saintes Maries de la Mer is known in France for the celebrations it holds for each Mary’s feast day. The week-long events draw 24-40,000 Roma Catholics and others from France and beyond. The high points at each feast include a ritual when the painted reliquary chest, said to contain the bones of the Saintes Maries, is ceremoniously lowered from its high perch to the altar for veneration, and then the statue of another figure, the Roma’s own Saint Sarah, can be honored – she was later added to the story as a servant who arrived with the Marys and Joseph. On successive days, Romas and a large crowd process with statues of Sara and the Saintes Maries from the church to the beach, carrying them right into the sea.

I have to say, had I happened upon this quaint village when the big celebration was in full swing, I probably would have folded in and helped take Sara and the Marys right into the sea. I had already joined a candlelight procession for the Virgin Mary at Lourdes a few days before and quite enjoyed belting out “Kyrie eleison!” (Lord have mercy!) with pilgrims from around the world. I don’t believe 90% of the “facts” I keep seeing represented about Mary on French church buildings. But I do believe in thousands of people crying out for the mercy of the Lord in an era where truth is often stranger than fiction and facts are an inconvenience. Didn’t Louis Gohmert, the Texas congressman, just say last week, when reacting on Newsmax to the arrest of Peter Navarro, “If you’re a Republican, you can’t even lie to Congress or lie to an FBI agent or they’re coming after you.”

I truly believe Jesus has done wonders with whatever the tides of lies and legends have washed up on our shores. He is always glorious in contrast. But I don’t think he needs what we think is true to validate he is the Truth.

Tales of two types of French men

If I say one word of French, most of the natives of France will know I am an American. I think they can tell I am an alien by the way I walk, how I look them in the eye and smile, and how I laugh too loud. I am not quite the “stranger” the Bible tells us to take care of, but I am close enough — I certainly need a lot of care! Just yesterday a canoer extended his paddle to me so I would not float away down the Dordogne River, and then a woman volunteered info on how to use a parking kiosk which only spoke French. I suppose I’d be dead or destitute if I stayed in the country too long without people who care for strangers.

Our first major stop on this trip was Amboise in the Loire Valley, the fabled land of chateaus. My first major lessons on two kinds of Frenchmen were learned on the shopping street of that city. The little stories of two men meeting strangers have become a pilgrimage parable for me and might teach you something too.

Be kind

When we travel we often struggle to find something to eat, especially in French. (I studied up for the trip, apparently to little avail). We found a restaurant in Amboise which looked promising but the tables were all full on a lovely day perfect for lingering — and the French do like to linger. We decided to wait and see if a table opened up. I think I may have looked a bit like a Hugo pauper hoping the rich would offer me a crust of bread. To our surprise, a man who had been sitting contently with his wife suddenly got up and said, in halting English, “Would you like to have our table?” His wife smiled and looked at him with humor and approval and also got up. We made our way to their seats and he left us with a blessing. “Enjoy. And be kind.” There was more to his admonition, but it got lost in his accent. His actions spoke louder than his words anyway.

This care for others is a French virtue which appears as a stubborn streak in their societal personality. A few days later I was in Tours visiting the church of St. Martin, the soldier who turned church planter in the 300’s. He is almost always pictured cutting off half his cloak for a beggar, which he apparently did one time. Although the French generally appear to be disinterested in their old saints, a saintly charity is deeply rooted in many of them. I run into it all the time – and need it.

Speak French

On another day on that same Amboise shopping street, we were again scavenging for food and trying to buy a sandwich. I was attempting to speak French and the server was vainly trying to explain things in English. A man about my age was standing there watching it all. I don’t think he was in line, he was just checking us out. When the server went to collect our order, he said, “You are in France now. You need to speak French. This is not America.” I said, “I know. Qu’est-ce que c’est en Francaise?” He wandered off. But all that day he stuck with me. I was shamed for not speaking French as I was trying to speak French! Oh, the injustice! And what kind of guy butts into a transaction to make someone feel stupid? “What are you, the French language police?” Maybe you know how these internal dialogues go when your shame button is pushed.

This disdain for others and domination of others is also a streak in the French societal personality. I know, I visited Louis XIV’s Versailles, and who knows how many other chateaux by now. Someone commented on one of by brag pics to say, “The French garden is mostly about making boundaries!” That is sort of true. You get over the moat, through the castle, into the walled garden, and every flower bed has an exquisite little hedge around it or some other “wall.” They are territorial and don’t mind telling you.

What will become of us?

Looking at the United States from far away, I have to wonder which of these kind of people will prevail in my country. Quite few of my friends have been out demanding school children be allowed to grow up without needing an armed teacher. But many of them are also rabidly in favor of filling Ukraine with weaponry so they can beat back Russia. Are you kind about either opinion? I’ve been wondering what my dominate streak is.

I am trying to be kind. I find that relatively easy with my loved ones, or with people who look like they are about ready to be kind back. But if you look violent, or you have a face that looks ready to shame me, I might wall off my garden. So on my pilgrimage, I keep looking for places to pray and wonder and listen for a deep way to form my personality. Thank you, Jesus, that so many others are also looking, and even looking out for me!

What to do about worrying “what if”

What if I catch Covid-19 and don’t pass the test I need to pass in order to get on my return flight home? That’s an example of a “what if?” question. It is bouncing around in the back of my mind and surfaces periodically. You might have a whole set of what ifs bouncing around, some familiar and some old stand-bys. A few of you might feel disabled by them.

If you follow what if thoughts down an anxiety-filled rabbit hole, it can be trouble. It might  difficult to focus on daily life and tasks. The thoughts might even keep you up at night.

For example:

  • What if I can’t pay the mortgage this month? (money-related)
  • What if I lose my job because I have needed so much time off? (work-related)
  • What-if my dad gets COVID? (health-related)
  • What if I never get this weight off? (image related)
  • What-if my partner cheats on me? (relationship related)

These thoughts can lead to anxiety. But the pattern can lead to what ifs about the pattern!

  • What-if I have a panic attack when I’m driving?
  • What if I shut down and can’t finish my presentation and they fire me?
  • What if I can’t stand leaving the house and my coach finds out?

When are these thoughts problematic?

What-if thoughts are not all bad. They serve a vital purpose.  We have to ask questions about what is coming our direction to decide what to do! Our minds are geared to protect us from danger. That includes considering, “What if something jumps out of the woods while I am driving through this forest?” The other day I was fortunately ready to slow down when a mother and father wild boar and at least twelve piglets were huddled by the road, ready to cross in front of us. Things happen!

But intrusive thoughts may start to take up too much space in your mind and overstay their utility. Chronic what if thoughts are a habit we may have learned from a traumatic experience but go over and over again in every possible what if scenario in case it happens again. Or we may have formed our what if habit from some other  thoughts we keep repeating.

What if scenarios can spiral out of control and cause anxiety, worry or stress if they get rolling. If worry-filled thoughts distract you constantly or interfere with productivity and relationships, these ruminations could be a symptom of a disorder with which your therapist can help.

Symptoms of generalized anxiety disorder and panic disorder can involve intrusive thoughts like the what ifs but also include:

  • not being able to stop worrying or being nervous
  • knowing you worry too much
  • having a hard time relaxing or concentrating
  • trouble falling asleep
  • constantly feeling on edge

Anxiety can also take a toll on your body, and you may notice physical symptoms like:

  • having a hard time staying asleep
  • being tired all the time
  • unexplained pain
  • headaches, muscle aches, stomachaches
  • sweating a lot for no reason
  • breathlessness
  • needing to go the bathroom often

You probably noticed that a few of these symptoms are also Covid-19 symptoms. Which leads me back to “What if I don’t pass that test and can’t get on the plane?

What can we do about the “what ifs?”

Remember, you’re not alone

Many of my clients are consumed by what ifs. It is such a common issue someone wrote a children’s book about it.

What if thinking is so common, Jesus taught about it.

He said to his disciples, “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat, or about your body, what you will wear. For life is more than food and the body more than clothing. Consider the ravens: they neither sow nor reap, they have neither storehouse nor barn, and yet God feeds them. Of how much more value are you than the birds! – Luke 12:22-24

No matter how you choose to deal with your what if worries, you are one of many people in the world feeling the same way right now. At one time, as many as 6 million people in the United States reported having intrusive thoughts.

Note your what ifs, don’t assess them

Reserve your self-criticisms about your thoughts and just note them. If a what if crosses your mind. You could write it down in a notebook your are carrying and get it a step away from what you’d rather turn into. This is a researched way to help lower anxiety.

Call the what ifs what they are

It may be tempting to accept what if thoughts as inevitable truths, something you must suffer or are obligated to consider. They aren’t. They are just thoughts. Thoughts come and go. What you do with the thoughts gives them power. We can manage ruminations if we name them as they come and allow them to pass.

Check your triggers

Once you can call out a what if thought, it can help to take a moment to see if you can pinpoint the source of the unwanted thought.

You might ask yourself:

  • Is something going on right now that often causes me to collect what ifs?
  • Do I feel an old, anxious thought about what’s going on right now?
  • Do I feel unsafe right now in a way I have felt unsafe before?

If we keep mentalizing, we get better at expecting certain situations to get the what ifs going. Like meeting with the boss (“What if I get all nervous?”) or going to a doctor’s appointment (“What if I have cancer?). If you know ahead of time your anxiety could be triggered by a particular situation, you could reach into your anxiety “go bag” and use some of the anxiety reduction strategies that work for you.

Use the three questions

1 — Ask yourself, “What is the worst-case scenario?”

Often, our feelings help us recognize we are caught in the spiral of what-if thinking. We may feel angry, sad, anxious, worried or stressed. Work on tuning into those feelings and you may be able to see the what if thoughts behind them and turn away from them. When you recognize that you are going over and over the what-ifs, stop and ask yourself (out loud often helps): What is the worst-case scenario here?

By doing this you are stopping the re-run of the what-ifs. Usually, it is the re-run after re-run of the thought that causes the anxiety. It is like poking a bruise. If you keep poking it and poking it, it gets worse and never heals.  So, by facing the worst-case scenario you are, in effect, no longer beating yourself up.

Often we find the worst-case scenario is not as bad as what we were thinking. But even if it is worse, at least now you have stopped beating yourself up by going over and over a bad scenario in your mind.

2 — Ask yourself, “Could I handle this?”

The answer is always Yes!  No matter what life throws at you, you can handle it. It may not be pleasant, and in some cases, it may bring hardship, but whatever it is you have the ability to handle it. And if you are walking with Jesus, Jesus is walking with you. Peter taught us, “Cast all your anxiety on him, because he cares for you” (1 Peter 5:7).

What do you think of this example? A woman who had two children was pregnant with a third. She had very bad anxiety over an issue at work. She was re-running scenarios over and over in her mind to the point where she had convinced herself that she was not liked or wanted by her team. To demonstrate how to ask this question her therapist came up with the worst-case scenario: the team forced her out and that she would lose her job.

Then he asked, “Could you handle this?”  Her immediate reply was “No!  How would I be able to afford to live and with another baby on the way!” He pointed out, because she had two dependents and another on the way was exactly the reason why she could handle it.  It would be hard, but she would find a way because she would have to feed her children.

Whatever it is you are facing you can handle it. It may be overwhelming if you decide to face it alone or you are trapped in an unbearable situation, but you probably have more resources than you think you do.

3 — Ask yourself, “What is the best-case scenario?”

This is something we rarely do. Unless we are daydreaming about winning the lottery, or are in the throes of first love, we rarely go into what if scenarios in the positive sense. But just like we have formed the habit of creating what if situations in the negative sense, we can get into the habit of creating what if situations which are positive.

When you take the scenario, you have been playing over and over in the negative, take the same scenario and see the best possible outcome. Then notice how you feel doing this.

The aim is to feel good.  Initially, since we are not in the habit of thinking positively, it might take some practice. I have client who feels guilty for being dishonestly positive when they try this! But the effort is worth it. We need to remember how much control we have over our thoughts. We can’t control what others will say or do, or what circumstances come our way, but we can choose how we react to them. Our thoughts do not need to control us. We can get into the habit of turning into our best-case scenarios and moving with the Spirit into blessing.