Your sadness: You may have laughed to keep from crying

The discipline season of Lent is a lot of things to a lot of Jesus followers; that’s how it should be, there are a lot of us. But one thing it is for me, and I know for many others this year: it is sad. I’m grieving my personal losses, but we are all grieving societal losses: 955,000 Covid-19 deaths – a death for every 33 U.S. citizens, two lost years, the lack of accountability for the attack in which Breonna Taylor was killed, the madness in Ukraine, the lack of climate action; it all goes on. I keep Kasey Musgraves close at hand, but it sure feels like it is going to keep raining.

Often used to scorn, not for real feelings

It is not unusual for one of my clients to tell a very sad story with a stone-faced look. I often tell someone, “That story makes me very sad. How about you?” We often discover their sadness has been put away in some far corner of their unconscious because they have never trusted anyone enough to tell the story. Or very early on in their lives, they gave up on sadness because it was useless to feel it. One said, “I did not learn to trust and they did not learn to teach me.” Two said in one week, “I learned to laugh to keep from crying.”

“I had to laugh to keep from crying.”

My prototypical Oklahoma peasant, racist of a father used that phrase as a proverb during my youth. He did not cry much and neither did I. So I can relate to my clients who might not be well equipped to recognize sadness, even if it could manage to get through their defenses against being overwhelmed by it. Oddly enough, but not so odd Heather McGhee can’t name it in her amazing book, my poor father was a strange bedfellow with Tyler Perry’s economically oppressed family, who also used the phrase so much he could turn it into a play. A lot of us laugh to keep from crying.

If you are doing that laughing on purpose, like I think Perry is doing, it might be a good discipline. Laughter is good medicine. If you are laughing, or amusing yourself to death, because you are terrified of feelings that might overwhelm you, then Lent might be a good time to be sad for as long as you need to be, sad until you have passed through it. If you aren’t the sad you are, you might become depressed until you let it pass through.

As with so many human experiences, someone studied how we inappropriately laugh, or display other unexpected behaviors, when we are overwhelmed with emotions. The scientist told the Atlantic author “If you get into a very high or very low emotion that you’re almost to the point of being overwhelmed, you become incapacitated so you can’t function well.” Your emotional regulator will kick in because, “Emotional homeostasis is important for people so they can be in control of their cognitive, social, and psychological functions.”

We laugh to keep from crying because feeling and expressing the overwhelming sadness is too much. We also laugh to moderate our nervous feelings and cry to tone down our ecstasy. A big laugh (or punching the wall) is also a social signal we’re over our limit and need something to stop.

How about an honestly sad Lent?

Many Catholics are still hanging on to Lent as a season of mortification to purify themselves of earthly desires so they can be more like who they think Jesus is (at least these people are). Traditionally, that means mourning the death of Jesus and the sin that killed him. That’s why there were ashes last Wednesday and people are “fasting”  chocolate, or “giving up” things they love but don’t need (don’t give up water). Lent can be like a spiritual boot camp with Jesus in the wilderness. Like I said, there are a lot of variations. I am a long-time practitioner of Lent, to very good ends.

Abraham, Sarah & the Three Strangers, Psalter of St. Louis, Paris, c.1253-70

This year for Lent,  I am disciplining myself in some typical ways but I am also following the example of Sarah, Abraham’s wife. Specifically, I am remembering when God called her out for disguising her despair with a secret laugh. There is an amazing little story about her in the Bible. Three strangers come to Abraham’s compound and he welcomes them as “the Lord.” Many interpreters see this as a rare Old Testament revelation of the Trinity. But I am more interested in Sarah hiding in the tent, listening in, than I am in philosophizing.

The Lord appeared to Abraham at the sacred trees of Mamre. As Abraham was sitting at the entrance of his tent during the hottest part of the day, he looked up and saw three men standing there. As soon as he saw them, he ran out to meet them. Bowing down with his face touching the ground, he said, “Sirs, please do not pass by my home without stopping; I am here to serve you. Let me bring some water for you to wash your feet; you can rest here beneath this tree. I will also bring a bit of food; it will give you strength to continue your journey. You have honored me by coming to my home, so let me serve you.”

They replied, “Thank you; we accept.”

Abraham hurried into the tent and said to Sarah, “Quick, take a sack of your best flour, and bake some bread.” Then he ran to the herd and picked out a calf that was tender and fat, and gave it to a servant, who hurried to get it ready. He took some cream, some milk, and the meat, and set the food before the men. There under the tree he served them himself, and they ate.

Then they asked him, “Where is your wife Sarah?”

“She is there in the tent,” he answered.

One of them said, “Nine months from now I will come back, and your wife Sarah will have a son.”

Sarah was behind him, at the door of the tent, listening. Abraham and Sarah were very old, and Sarah had stopped having her monthly periods. So Sarah laughed to herself and said, “Now that I am old and worn out, can I still enjoy sex? And besides, my husband is old too.”

Then the Lord asked Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh and say, ‘Can I really have a child when I am so old?’ Is anything too hard for the Lord? As I said, nine months from now I will return, and Sarah will have a son.”

Because Sarah was afraid, she denied it. “I didn’t laugh,” she said.

“Yes, you did,” he replied. “You laughed.” — Genesis 18:1-15 GNT

I can relate to Sarah laughing about having a child. Gwen and I will surely not be having one unless God visits us! Even more, I can relate to her laughing “to herself” as part of the internal dialogue she was having about what was happening outside the tent.

When the three strangers arrived, she was an old woman who never had a child. She was supposed to produce an heir to be the favored wife she was. There was no son. Her sadness about her infertility had long ago turned to shame, I think. She probably laughed at herself in the way she suspected other people scorned her. She probably tried not to feel sorry for herself the way she did not want others to pity her, because then the sorrow she carried alone would be out in the conversation, not hiding in the tent.

I think when the Lord asked Abraham “Why did Sarah laugh?” she was still lurking inside. She only came out to defend herself, “I didn’t laugh (I only did it in my head).” But the Lord looked her in the eye and said, “Yes you did. You laughed.” He could have added, “You laughed to keep from crying.”

I am going to try not to laugh off Lent, although I admit I have been trying to keep from crying a bit, so far. I’m writing this because I think you might want to consider what you are doing, too. Lent is not for being sad just because we’re supposed to be sad. It is not a yearly revival of unexperienced guilt, unless you need that. It is certainly not a fast to hollow us out when we already feel hollowed out, unless you need that, of course. It is not for laughing at the fundamentalists, or the superstitious, or oppressed, who tend to do Lent big. It is certainly not a time for the present, popular derision for Lent-observers from people trying to experience their Nietzchean self-creation in spite of “God” — so don’t drink that poison.

I think Lent is a time to open up, however we need to, in order to welcome the risen Jesus — as surely as God came to visit Abraham and Sarah that day. Lent is the story of the crucified and risen Jesus in my own back yard. With Sarah’s help, I am noticing how God zeroed in on the person in the scene who was hidden in the tent with her secret sadness. I suspect the Lord is searching for you, too. That might make you laugh.

I’m uncomfortable being sad. But I have to note that it is the very sad Sarah who receives a miracle baby. It is a truly sad world that will kill the miracle Baby Jesus who then rises as the Lord to visit us again and again. On this year’s Lenten visit, the Lord comes to my sad country, which tried to deny the pandemic and almost a million have died. This time, the Lord comes to the sad me and the possibly sad you, maybe the sad baby you. In that fertile place the seed of resurrection is planted.

Breathe it in: Jesus says, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”

One of my clients became so anxious they could not drive to work. We began collecting tools to put in their “go bag” when they felt the symptoms of panic rising up in their body. One tool was simply being aware of their breathing. Turning our attention to the rhythm of our breathing almost always settles us down. If we can concentrate on nothing else but the movement of air going in and out of our nose, moving way down to the deep parts of our lungs and out again slowly, our heart rate is likely to go down and the adrenaline will recede. This kind of disciplined breathing works well with several of my dear, anxious clients.

Click the pic and buy them at Etsy!

Others, and this might be you, never get into it. When elementary school teachers ask their classes to do a breathing exercise, quite a few kids just might refuse or might feel unable. Calmness can feel like a straight jacket to people used to chaos. Being told to “calm down!” often ramps up people who lust for freedom. If you are accustomed to controlling things with aggression or being controlled by it, a breathing exercise might seem unbearably passive. Terrified people in Ukraine would think more clearly if they at least “took a deep breath.” But I suspect a lot of them won’t ever think of doing that.

How is it with you? Most people who read this blog are Jesus followers to some degree. Does the breathing that brings peace to your body also bring peace to your soul?

Breathing is a basic way we connect with God

I think attending to how we breath should be elemental to how we go about our day. Especially if you are a Jesus follower, you should see breathing as a basic way you connect to God. You’ll remember how Jesus, after he rose from death, surprised his anxious and grieving disciples when they were locked away for fear:

On the evening of that first day of the week, when the disciples were together, with the doors locked for fear of the Jewish leaders, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” After he said this, he showed them his hands and side. The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord.

Again Jesus said, “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” And with that he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. — John 20:19-22

Jesus breathed his Spirit on them. I don’t think they imagined that happening before it happened. You might not know what to expect before you attend to the possibility that Jesus might breathe on you and you breathe him in!

Breathing is not just a way to calm down, it is a way to commune. For me, the communion starts with turning away from what preoccupies me, like climate change, relationship issues, or that unattached anxiety and attending to what is happening in my body and soul in this very moment.

There are many ways to learn to breathe

Many people around the world know a lot about how such disciplined breathing works. I began to think about breathing by Googling “breathing” (of course). Sure enough, this is what came up.

We’re all about breathing exercises these days. Somehow, we all got stuck on the left-side of our brain, for the most part, and are terribly inept at basic human functions, like having a holistic view of what is happening at any given moment. We need to learn about breathing, live in the present, and settle down. All sorts of people are teaching us. You can get apps to help. [Here is an exercise I have used: Anxiety: A letting go exercise with Jesus].

[I did not snip off that last Google entry because I was so happy to discover a foundation based in Elkins Park devoted to helping people get through their cancer treatments. These folks raise money and offer other support to give victims some “breathing room” during one of the most anxiety-provoking experiences we can have. Look them up, they might encourage you.]

I find apps to be distracting, so I still use books, which I find a lot less controlling. I have been slowly working my way through Soulful Spirituality by David Benner (when I am not mastering Wordle and other apps :)). He offers another example of how many people know about the basic spiritual discipline of turning into our breath, which many Christians think sounds kind of “new agey.”

Benner had an opportunity to spend a considerable amount of time with a Taoist professor in China who used attention to his breath as a central feature of his mediation. He writes:

I was struck by how important paying attention to his breath was to his practice. More striking was his surprise that I, as a Christian, did not make this a central part of my own spiritual practice. He asked, “Am I not right that Christians understand their origins to lie in the infusion of divine breath into the dust of the earth?” I assured him that was correct. “And,” he continued, “am I not right that you understand each breath to be a gift from God?” Again, I said he was. “And,” he pushed on, “am I not right that you understand that the Spirit of God is with you, moment by moment breath by breath?” Again I agreed. “Then how can you fail to see,” he asked, “the immense spiritual value in attending to those moment-by-moment expressions of the presence of God?” I was convinced, and soon found ways to make this a regular part of my own practice.

Disciplined breathing may already be part of your practice and this post feels like a Taoist professor assuming you are stupid. I’m mainly talking to Jesus followers who carry a principle of faith in their brains somewhere and have very little expression of it in their bodies. You might not have any kind of prayer happening every day, much less moment by moment! Like Benner discovered, Christians may believe Jesus breathed on his first disciples, but they have yet to open up to breathing in the reality of that themselves — as in  right now.

Prayerfully making each breath an act of drawing God in and breathing God out onto the world is an ancient Christian practice. I go with my ancestors who call it “breath communion.” [Try this recent liturgy]. Just as Jesus followers open themselves to God through eating the bread and drinking from the cup during our special meal, so each breath provides an opportunity to receive the Spirit.

When I attend to my own breath, and attend to the breath of God moving in and out of my body, nourishing me with life from my toes to my heart to my brain and on into eternity, I not only settle down and become grateful to be alive, I make space to be aware of God and my true self. I relate Spirit to spirit, Savior to saved. Parent to child, Creator to creature. From that place of peace I will find whatever resources I dare to bring to the work of making peace.

The church in the rearview mirror

I went on retreat last week because my class required it. I wanted to go, theoretically, but I had a lot of natural resistance born of the grief I bear over the loss of my community. I’m glad I went. No matter how many times I experience it, it is always a wonder to feel the ocean of grace in which we swim when life is feeling dry.

If you are grieving (and what Covid-experiencing person is not?) or depressed, or in some other state of mental illness (which is the broad plain on which we all stand right now), you probably feel some resistance to doing what is good for you, too. Like someone texts and asks, “You want to get a drink?” You look at your sweats and reply, “Don’t think so. Early day tomorrow.” Then you sit back down on the couch and wonder, “Why did I do that?” Maybe you call them back. Maybe you get another bowl of ice cream. It is resistance. I had some.

My retreat view

Nevertheless, there I was in Brigantine looking up the beach to Atlantic City from the 7th floor of that weird resort that sticks out like a sore thumb. I love to walk on the beach, so I did. I don’t usually walk with headphones in like everyone else, but I did. I don’t know why I retain the Dave Crowder Band in my iTunes worship playlist, but there he was:

He is jealous for me;
loves like a hurricane. I am a tree
bending beneath the weight of His wind and mercy.
When all of a sudden
I am unaware of these afflictions eclipsed by glory.
And I realize just how beautiful You are
and how great Your affections are for me.

And oh, how He loves us so.
Oh, how He loves us,
how He loves us so!

I sang on the deserted beach, “You love me. Oh, how you love me.” And tears surprised me. I needed to remember. I needed to keep walking, with my afflictions eclipsed by glory.

Don’t hold on to the church that was

I’ve been having a tough time living outside of community for over a year, now. I don’t really move on. I retain a sense of belonging to all the places I have been before. I’ve always left them with a blessing and mutual care. Not this time.

As I read through my journal from the last three months, I came across a moment when I was quite low and felt drawn to sit in the chair before my icon wall and see if they said anything to me. There was Mary Magdalene kneeling before Jesus outside the tomb. He told her, and he told me, not to hold on to him.

This exchange between Mary and Jesus always says a lot. That’s why it became a well-known icon. This time I heard it revealing how Mary is holding on to this splendid moment. Jesus tells her, “There is more to come. Go tell people it is coming.” More specifically to me, I heard. “Don’t hang on to the Jesus that was – as wonderful as that experience was. There is more to come for you and them.” I have been waiting in the upper room, more like wandering in my wilderness. And the time has come.

I finally needed to see my old church in the rearview mirror. I don’t mean like the Meatloaf song, exactly. But I’m sure you’re missing him, too. I mean I had to finally admit the old church is gone (which is fine, things grow and change) and the new church does not want me there. Actually, the email the Leadership Team sent to me had a policy statement for former pastors attached which said something like, “Here’s how you do not exist here for another year and then we can negotiate your return.”

Time to move on

Miller with his workbook

Even though I have this big feeling that bothers me, when I look at the road ahead, as short as my road may be, I know there is an awful lot of beautiful scenery coming. Last week I had two experiences that made the way clearer. I got officially shipped out by my former leaders and I picked up Donald Miller’s book A Hero on a Journey.

I did not like Blue Like Jazz (Miller’s best seller). As it turns out, he also doesn’t like it that much anymore. I’m not super jazzed by his new book either. But he doesn’t think it needs to be perfect. He’s changing. I’m changing. And I am surprised he is helping me.  One of my clients is reading the book, so I thought I’d check it out. Among the many good things Miller does as he channels Victor Frankel, Jesus, and any number of entrepreneur gurus, is to remind me that meaningful lives happen when you are going somewhere you want to go and you name it.

That’s how Circle of Hope got going. It was all about being the church for the next generation. I wanted to go there. I hope that is where it is going now. I may not know much about that because I think people aren’t supposed to talk to me. But I’ve decided to keep going and I trust they will, too. We’ll all meet up again someday. Jesus is still walking beside me, but right now he’s like one of those companions whose step is always a bit ahead of yours. They are with you, but they know the way. As a result, new things happen. Here I am writing memoir style like Miller, assuming you’ll benefit. Here I am looking into what is next, knowing Jesus knows the way just as he has always demonstrated. Who knows what could happen?

This leg of my journey is starting out like the Gotye song that interested me so much in 2013 (and has interested 1.5 billion viewers on YouTube since). There has been a lot of cutting off since 2013 (and remember it’s counterpart “ghosting?”). I got a four-page policy statement detailing how they would “treat me like a stranger.” And yes, “That feels so rough.” It’s a loss. Telling a bit of the story feels like a good way to get moving.

As influential people pushed me toward the edge, I started noticing how many people out there are in the same boat — out to sea in an ocean of pandemic and institutional crises. I had wanted to prevent such disaster in my church with my elaborate transition strategy. But that didn’t pan out. (I’m from The Golden State). I can accept that fact. We are all moving on. Jesus is excellent at finding a new way.

Turn into the wind

I can’t imagine myself living outside the church in the future. I’ve never been outside of community like I am, for now. After I got the email it was final. I wrote them back and wished them well. And I definitely meant that – I love those people and I love their church. Jesus is walking beside them this very moment. Who knows what could happen? I suggested they call me up (or text, of course), now that they have me situated.

Whatever good things I am finding as I hit the road, it is still hard to see that church, the old one and the new one, in the rearview mirror.

And yet it is shockingly easy to turn into the sea breeze and find myself singing

You love like a hurricane. I am a tree
bending beneath the weight of your wind and mercy.
Oh, how you love me!

The ego: We need it, but not as much as we think

When I rediscovered my Goodreads pages the other day, I immediately added my favorite book from last year: The Master and His Emmissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World (2009). In the last twenty years, brain science has greatly increased our appreciation for how our most important organ functions. It has also “discovered” that science, itself, has perpetrated the wrong impression of which side of the brain is the master.

Jill Boite Taylor

The Eurocentric countries, like the U.S., have given their allegiance to the functions of the brain’s left hemisphere, and dismissed the right  — that’s a problem. This was illustrated colorfully in Jill Taylor’s book, also from 2009, called My Stroke of Insight: A Brain Scientist’s Personal Journey. Taylor is a Ted Talk expert on the human brain who woke up one morning having a stroke. By the end of the morning the left hemisphere of her brain was totally “offline,” as she puts it. She had no sense of personal identity; she couldn’t recognize her own mother, speak or understand speech, remember the most recent moment of her life, make and carry out a three-step plan, walk, or feed herself, among many other things we take for granted. We know that she eventually recovered those left-brain functions because she wrote the book.

That was fourteen years ago. Since then, the world has become more aware of the functions of the brain hemispheres. But such awareness seems to have made little difference in society or in most of my psychotherapy clients. Do you think it has? Many of us know the brain’s left hemisphere is more logical, rational, linear, and rule-oriented; it’s the problem-solver, enabling us to build buildings, fix the plumbing, pay the bills, stay on schedule, negotiate our social encounters, and speak and understand others’ speech. Many of us have become much more aware that right side of the brain is metaphorical, creative, intuitive, nonverbal, and emotional – which are all things that are unclear, hard to define and measure, and hard to see as important. According to McGilchrist, the left brain finds the right brain wanting because of its imprecision and immeasurability; it is too “spiritual.”

Dr. Taylor saw much of the world through the lens of the left brain before her stroke and was transformed when she lost the use of it. Her empathy was no longer boundaried and she experienced others’ emotions directly, unmediated by rational or “egomental” thought. She felt, wordlessly, whether the person with her liked her or didn’t, cared about her or didn’t, was angry or happy or sad, was at peace or in pain. She was, in effect, involuntarily connected without boundaries to all other people, and to the movements of the Earth. She felt “at one with the source and flow of the universe.”  What’s more, when in solitude she was at peace. Without the baggage of memory, ego, or worry about the future, she was free to experience the inherent wonder of the moment.

To deepen spiritual awareness

Everything Taylor experienced sounds like the fruit of the Spirit to me (see what Paul’s amounts to Paul’s takedown of left-brain domination here). Christians feel the movements of their spiritual awareness, mostly resident in their right brains, as ecstasy, as union with God and creation. We learn to contemplate so we can get to the place Taylor’s stroke caused her to access. Western culture has kept people so locked down, they gravitate towards drugs, my beloved Pentecostalism, political rallies and concerts to experience the basic sensibility pre-Enlightenment people took for granted. I have heard countless sermons about how terrible our “big egos” are and how we must crucify our fleshly self to gain heaven – and ecstasy, peace.

The left side of the brain is considered the seat of the ego, which uses left-brain functions to help us know ourselves and live in the material world. When David Benner describes the ego in Soulful Spirituality: Becomng Fully Alive and Deeply Human (2011), he essentially sees it as synonymous with the left brain.

The ego includes all those mental functions that allow us to perceive, organize, elaborate, differentiate, integrate, and transform experience. Ego is a fundamental psychic structure that secures our reality testing, good judgment, impulse control defensive functions, affective regulation, interpersonal relations, moral orientation, thought process, and much more.

We don’t want to get rid of the ego, all that preaching notwithstanding. We just don’t want it to run the whole show. It is the “emissary” to McGilchrist’s right-brain “master.”

The left brain gives us our capacity to see ourselves as someone. But given that great power, it can function as if it makes us someone. And so it might see itself as needing to save us. We need to be self-aware and self-confident but we dare not become self-sufficient or self-serving.

The right brain gives us our capacity to see ourselves in right relationship. It allows us to live on an appropriately large plain: in touch with heaven and earth, the depth of ourselves and eternity. When the right and left brain are in touch with heaven and earth, we are being saved when we are saving, being found when we are finding. As Jesus says: the one who asks receives, who seeks find, the one who knocks experiences an open door. I think our spiritual awareness transcends brain function but is firmly rooted in it. That is the main reason I want to keep understanding the integration of psychology and Christianity.

Quiet your ego

I keep talking about right and left brain and the domination of our egos. I obviously find it important to understand why we feel so locked into the fears that cause us to flee or freeze or fight, and why we are so committed to the defenses we throw up to protect our fragile egos. Why are truckers blockading Ottawa and using their children as shields? Why are we piling armaments and troops into Ukraine? Why do I continue to dwarf my loves as if I were still ten years old? Why do I keep fighting for my rights with my spouse as if it is life or death situation?

All these terrible things could have many causes, but one we rarely consider is the fact we think reality fits within the limits of the left brain. If we all had a stroke, life would look a lot different. Most of us would die from a stroke like Taylor’s, not make a Ted Talk out of it! So we are unlikely to experience that shortcut to wholeness. Instead, we will have to make our way through a lifetime of challenging choices to quiet our egos. When we first become aware we have been trapped in a locked, egocentric room, leaving it might feel like we are losing our minds.

Again, Benner says:

The pathway to the transformation of not only our egocentricity but our very self is the path of surrender. We must be willing to lay down that which we were previously willing to die to defend. But this surrender of egocentricity is not the same as the elimination of the ego.

We need our ego to be fully human and to become spiritually whole. But we all need to surrender egocentricity, which is not so easy in a society that presumes it.

One of the best results of this terrible pandemic we have endured is so many people deserting their left-brain-dominated pursuits: jobs just for money, obligations that thwart personal desires to appease “the man,” seeing oneself as trapped, letting a feeling of scarcity cause one to overprotect, using the world up rather than protecting it, and more. The long, existential crisis has caused necessary spiritual crises. Left-brained egocentricity has been shown up as inadequate for many people. What appeared to be saving our lives has, in many cases, been shown to be what is destroying it.

Right now, people are crying out against mask mandates so we can all get back to normal. The left brain wants equilibrium. It is the seat of justice. It tends to blame factors outside itself (since it is limited) — outside factors like its counterpart, the right brain, even! But enough of us are seeing, I hope, I hope, that how society is organized and how we have organized ourselves and our spirituality is the main cause of our distress.

Our all-out attempts to preserve our egocentricity is the problem. Be it an inflated ego or a broken one, whether the song is “Slay me, Lord” or “Build me up,” any sense that the ego must save us must be lost so we can find our full life. Like we keep repeating when share the memory of the Lord’s great grace: our lives emerge out of death. In order to live, I must lose what appears to be my life, lose the truncated view of my left brain and my allegiance to the society that traps me in it.

I spend a lot of therapy time massaging the hardened traumas that lock up our memories, reforming the hard words that have shamed us, unraveling the dark masses of unexplored pain that demand to be protected from further harm. Often, fragile egos become strong enough to surrender their dominance and a person experiences the wonder of feeling joy in the wide open spaces of their true, whole selves. I wish that freedom for all of us as we get back to a new normal.

FFF #20: My first set of climate action posts.

Climate strike Philly
Climate Strike Philly — WHYY pic

I committed myself to twenty posts in solidarity with Greta Thunberg and her climate strike movement among high school students (and others). Here is #20. I suspect I will be back with 20 more, someday, since there is much to learn and share in this dire time.

For now, I invite you to check in on what you may have missed. The two entries with an asterisk are the most read, so far, in case you are curious what others find interesting.  The entry on Phoenix, in particular, received about five times as much interest as one of my weekly posts.

If you care about climate action, I am with you. It is going to be hard to sustain our efforts when the powers are preoccupied with fighting and fiddling as the Earth burns — they are often in the way. Our experience of community is so weak these days solidarity is hard to find — the pandemic accelerated the development of societal trends and technologies that were already isolating us. But good things are happening, too and people are joining together to make a difference. Even if we fail at keeping under the limits of disaster, I want to fail doing the good I can, don’t you?

Write your own psalm: Another integrative way to pray

Matthew Birch on Dribble

An effective way to develop, if you are able to write, is to write. Writing is another integrative activity that helps us deepen psychologically and spiritually. It takes strength and mind to pick up a writing utensil or sit down at the keyboard and express ourselves. If turned the right direction, writing expresses heart and soul in a way that makes our feelings and our spiritual experiences more tangible and more connective. If you are interested in loving the Lord, your God, with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, then it makes sense to take out the headphones or put down the remote and write.

I know that last line sounds accusatory, so please forgive me if you must. But we have to acknowledge that what used to be simple is getting harder for lack of use. It feels hard, even weird, to write. Writers write and we consume their product. But we don’t write back. Someone told me last week that their family member wouldn’t even text back to a family group text! — writing is too something for them. Our capacity is being reduced by the technologies we use and the slave masters behind them. So writing has become an exercise in nonconformity or rebellion — if we aren’t too dulled or afraid to do it.

I suppose I am innately rebellious, but I mostly use writing to keep open to God. For me, writing is about opening things up, exploring things, revealing things, and receiving things of the Spirit. Receiving things is what I mainly want to talk about today. I was reading Teresa Blythe’s very practical book 50 Ways to Pray and she started by suggesting we use writing to pray. Other Jesus followers have written wonderful things, the New Testament being primary, and you could exercise the same Spirit and intention those writers exercised by writing yourself! Let’s try that.

Create your own psalm

One of the ways Blythe suggested praying was to write your own psalm. She offered an exercise to help us create one. This appealed to me because I have been writing pslams, with my dear wife, for many years. Most Sundays we get up and write a psalm. Then we share it with each other and pray together. If I am not with her for some reason, I do it anyway. It is a good way for me to pray. There is so much heart, soul, mind and strength involved in that loving, open receptive act! I would have a terrible time parting with the discipline.

This past week I was reflecting on songs that had moved me and sustained me in my grieving. I wrote this final stanza to my psalm:

I thank you that Spring
will be right on time again,
and though my sprouts
will never be the same,
they will, in time, sprout again.
Parents, grandparents,
and so many have died,
my past is gone
and soon go will I.
Maybe they are waiting,
I will then know, in the place
where the lost things go.

When I feel a bit lost,
lose things, lose thoughts,
I delight in your touch.
A whiff of music scents my soul
And pulls my attention
like Spring in the air.
I turn into it expectantly
and meet you there.

My psalm is not high art, even after I have fixed it up a little from my original.  I never meant to show it to you, anyway. Most psalms are not written for public use; they are a way to connect with God, a way to open up, to use some strength on behalf of what’s happening inside, to get it out, to get it heard. Writing a psalm is much more like your baby or your dog, for that matter, making sure you know it is time for dinner than it is about doing good art. It’s following an urge. Besides, God’s great art is you. When we function spirit to Spirit with him, she sees a piece of art in action. A beautiful rendition of your best is frosting, but everything you do with heart, soul, mind, and strength is cake.

My wife can write a nice psalm that reflects the basic structure of the Bible psalms, which tend to repeat thoughts rather than sounds to make a lyric. Lots of people have written about how they work. Here’s a little article.  Robert Alter wrote his great work on the Psalms; I have poured over it to good end. Walter Brueggemann wrote one of my favorite books about how the Bible psalms work. But Teresa Blythe is not suggesting a prayer pursuit that feels like what scholars do. She just wants us to practice getting our heart and soul through the blockade of our minds and expressed with our strength. Writing a psalm is good practice for a life full of that love. She says “It doesn’t matter whether you think of yourself as a writer or not. This is heartfelt communication, not an exercise in pretty writing.”

The Bible’s collection of Psalms reflects the thoughts of the collectors at the time. There were undoubtedly more psalms and there is demonstrably more poetry in the Bible that might qualify as a psalm. All of it can serve as inspiration for your psalm, if you need some. Blythe made a list of psalms you can go to if you feel a certain way and want to express it,  or need to be seen as feeling  a certain way and are looking for a response. Of course, no psalm was written topically, like “I am going to write a psalm about joy.” They are all pretty organic, not abstract. But many are well known for the parts of them that always resonate. I edited Blythe’s list a bit for you:

I feel or want this positive experience. “I’m happy.”

  • Joy – 11, 18, 23, 27, 33, 84, 87, 103, 112, 122, 150
  • Peace, — 23, 63, 103
  • Love – 33, 62, 99, 103, 104, 139, 145
  • Gratitude – 30, 32 65, 75, 77, 103, 118, 136

I feel or want relief from this negative experience. “I’m needy.”

  • Fear – 86, 130, 131
  • Anger – 55, 58, 94
  • Threatened – 17, 26, 35, 69, 141
  • Distressed – 29, 42, 44, 71, 88, 109, 113
  • Sick – 22, 37, 72
  • Uncertain – 25, 37, 72
  • Oppressed – 26, 52, 114
  • Guilty – 39, 51

You could take one of these Psalms and use it as a form for yours. It may have been based on something else, itself! You could re-write it in your own words and tilt it towards your own purpose. I’ve done this many times and it is always a good exercise – as long as it doesn’t turn into to a poem critique like in English class! Using a well-known psalm as a base is a good way for me not to worry about form and content and let a person guide me to my own expression.

You could sit back and let your greatest desire, feeling or conundrum (as of today) rise up and come into focus and then write a psalm that expresses it.

  • I want to feel_____.
  • I want help with ________.
  • I think of myself as (ungrateful, over-certain, flawed, etc.).
  • I appreciate this about my relationship with God
  • I am puzzled or distressed about this in my relationship with God.

Those are just suggestions. Let it flow and see where you end up. God is with you as you use your strength to be with God.

David Composing the Psalms, Paris Psalter, 10th century

When you are done you could put your psalm in your drawer or notebook for future reference. You might pass this way again! You may not want your stuff laying around, so you might not keep it at all. Maybe you want to share your psalm – but that is hardly required. Think of all the people who wrote psalms, just like King David (St. Patrick, too), sitting out on a rock with the sheep, and never got one of them into the Bible or a blog post! They were just doing it.

The main challenge with any kind of development, is to overcome our resistance and do something. When we get out of ourselves and enter the space between us and God, the Lord meets us in many ways. As simple an act as writing a psalm — getting the feeling and thought out of our hearts and minds and onto the paper, is one of many ways to move into the space between. It is a good way to pray. Give it a try!

FFF #19 — Do you live in a C40 city? I do.

Posting every Friday at noon is how I act in solidarity with young climate strikers all over the world who want their elders to save their future. 

Philadelphia has been a C40 city since 2005. That means my city helped create what many people call the leading edge of climate action: the mayors of large cities. My friend, Chris Puchalsky went to Copenhagen in 2019 for a C40 summit with Mayor Kenney and shared his inspiration with WHYY.

I did not know I lived in a C40 city until I was wandering around city government, exploring what it is doing to take climate action and adding my voice to spur the government on. Turns out Philly has an even bigger government than I thought — even goes global! It does a lot and it gets clogged up a lot. One thing I did not know I give to you, in case you didn’t: we’re C40, Philly people. How about the rest of you?

The C40 cities are deploying a “science-based and collaborative approach to help the world limit global heating to 1.5°C and build healthy, equitable and resilient communities.” In 2006 the Mayors of the C20 invited 22 further mayors, including many from the Global South and became the C40. The name has stuck, even though now the number of member cities is closing in on 100.

The Clinton Foundation’s Climate Initiative was also put into action in 2006 and was an important partner for the Mayors at that point. In 2011, C40 Chair Michael Bloomberg (remember that presidential candidate?) initiated the merger of the Clinton Climate Initiative’s Cities Program with C40. Bloomberg Philanthropies supplied enough funds at that point to make C40 a major climate action organization (choose your chairs wisely!).

C40 member cities earn their membership through action instead of membership fees. Their Leadership Standards set the minimum requirements for all members and ensure the integrity of C40 as a network of climate leaders. That sounds like Jesus telling people his disciples are known by their fruit, right?

Garcetti in Copenhagen

What are C40 Cities doing now?

C40 played an important role at the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) last year. There, Chair Eric Garcetti from Los Angeles passed the baton to the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan. They also announced that more than 1,000 city and local governments around the world have joined Cities Race to Zero. What’s more, they presented a report from the C40 Cities and Mayors Migration Council  which deployed a Task Force on Climate and Migration. This warmed my heart, since I got a close-up view of the environmentally-disastrous border wall the U.S. put up on a shocking amount of its Mexican border last year and heard about climate refugees being refused entry.

Part of Eric Garcetti’s work as Chair was to partner with Mayor Gong Zheng of Shanghai to begin building a green shipping corridor between two of the busiest ports in the world. The port businesses and other C40 cities will work with industry partners to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the movement of cargo throughout the 2020s, including a goal to transition to zero-carbon fueled ships by 2030. I drove my VW around most of LA in high school, and it warms my heart to see LA’s mayor subverting the snail-paced national governments

Here are the key decarbonization goals for the corridor, so far:

  • Phase in low, ultra-low, and zero-carbon fueled ships through the 2020s, with the world’s first zero-carbon trans-Pacific container ships introduced by 2030.
  • Develop best management practices to help reduce emissions and improve efficiency for all ships using this corridor.
  • Reduce supply chain emissions from port operations, improving air quality in the ports of Shanghai and Los Angeles and adjacent communities.

A major player in Garcetti’s initiative was the Aspen Institute (for the history of the institute, which is enlightening, here’s the Wiki). Aspen Institute created a collaborative called Cargo Owners for Zero Emission Vessels (coZEV).  This platform facilitates action to speed up the decarbonization of maritime shipping and encouraged the C40 to get onboard. The collaborative is a specific application of their Shipping Decarbonization Initiative (SDI).

I did not know most of this stuff until I bumped into it. Now, when I talk to the PEA (Philadelphia Energy Authority), where all my research started, I might sound like I’ve been trying, at least, to pay attention. My city is involved in important steps to save the planet. Things might not work that well, but there is work being done.

“How I Got Over:” Mahalia Jackson helps us do 2022

Singing is one of the most integrative activities we can do. It uses heart, soul, mind and strength to express our desire and open us to receive good things from God and others. When we sing in a group (and we will again, some day) it is often a unitive experience. So let’s sing with Mahalia Jackson . I think she can help with 2022.

When Jackson was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1997 in the category of “Early Influences,” even their watered-down bio said her “voice hit audiences with the force of a hurricane.” That hurricane did not just emanate from her birthplace of New Orleans, it came from God and her own suffering. The opposite of a storm that knocks down, Mahalia is a storm that lifts up.

As such a faithful and troubled woman she is a great guide to yet another troubled year. Trouble and faith go together. We are all suffering the pandemic and the uncertainty of our politics. And Black people, in particular, are still suffering the burden of needing to “get over,” as institutions highlight their struggle and this week the media reports the instant barrage of defamation hurled at any prospective Black, woman Supreme Court justice.

Mahalia Jackson performing How I Got Over in the March for Jobs and Freedom on Washington DC.

When I remembered Mahalia Jackson last week on her death day (January 27) [song link], I was once again moved by her iconic rendition of “How I Got Over.” She most famously sang this song [song link] after Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial during the March on Washington in 1963. And she’s been singing it in my head and heart since last Thursday, which I greatly appreciate.

She wanted her music to be for everyone. She told a reporter, “I have hopes that my singing will break down some of the hate and fear that divide the white and Black people in this country.” That’s a work for Jesus. People try to do it without Him, but they rarely get very far. Jackson took songs other people just sang and she filled them with spirit and The Spirit in a way that made them a force for good, and a force for change. When I listen to her, even now, after she’s been dead for fifty years, she changes me. She does me good.

A transformation meditation

That experience of transformation is why I wanted to remind you of her today and give us all a chance to lodge her song “How I Got Over” into some sturdy place in our memories. We can come back to places where we have met God again and again. Those places comfort our troubled souls; they give us a place to stand when we are under attack; and they create a solid place from which to launch into whatever will require our courage and passion. This song is such a place for me, maybe it will be for you, too.

Here are some annotated lyrics. My idea is to expand what the lyrics could mean for us and lead us into meditation as we face what we will face today. I think Mahalia Jackson intends to lead us through our deep struggle into a place where we give thanks. Just like she got over and is getting over, she wants us to  “get over” into our re-birthplace in Jesus. Let’s use the song for all it is worth.

How I got over
How did I make it over
You know my soul look back and wonder
How did I make it over
How I made it over
Going on over all these years
You know my soul look back and wonder
How did I make it over

I don’t speak Jackson’s vernacular or sing well in her musical style. So what? I don’t think she cares, and neither should I. She is turning my heart toward wonder. That’s what she cares about and so should I. All day I am tempted to attend to the forces and voices that put me under their malign control; this song is about turning away from those powers and seeing what is good. The question is, “How did all this life happen and how does it keep happening? How did all this good happen? How did the Lord bring me to this place where I would be meditating on this song and looking for meaning and hope?” It is a wonder.

Tell me how we got over Lord
Had a mighty hard time coming on over
You know my soul look back and wonder
How did we make it over
Tell me how we got over Lord
I’ve been falling and rising all these years
But you know my soul look back and wonder
How did I make it over

When Jackson turns the subject to “we,” I think she is first referring to the Black struggle which she felt as an abandoned child in the Jim Crow South of her youth and then felt in new ways after she joined the “great migration” to Chicago where she struggled to survive. She’s singing about the terror of facing down white supremacy and the capricious violence of the United States as the Civil Rights movement progressed. “How did we get here telling our story on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial among all these politicians and movie stars? How did we stay so resilient and faithful though all our struggle, all our falling and rising?” It is a wonder.

It is a rich stanza full of Bible imagery. Jesus is falling and rising as we observe the stations of the cross on our way to our own death and rising with him. In like manner, the song alludes to the promise we will “get over” the Jordan River and into the promised land. Jesus is baptized into, identifies with, our sin and death in the Jordan. Like the Israelites passed over on dry land, we follow Jesus through death into life, a death now made impermanent by his gracious work. “How did we make it over?” Only by the Lord’s grace. It is a wonder.

So Mahalia unveils the wonder and invites us into it.

But, soon as I can see Jesus
The man that died for me
Man that bled and suffered
And he hung on Calvary

And I want to thank him for how he brought me
And I want to thank God for how he taught me
Oh thank my God how he kept me
I’m gonna thank him ’cause he never left me
Then I’m gonna thank God for  old time religion
And I’m gonna thank God for giving me a vision
One day, I’m gonna join the heavenly choir
I’m gonna sing and never get tired

We can use a song like we use an icon. It gives us a musical vision of Jesus and we experience that connection heart, soul, mind and strength. It is worth singing this song with Ms. Jackson enough times to feel it more than think it, sink into it and sense all the nuances and even beyond them — “Jesus brought me to this place, taught me, kept me, never left me.”

When she thanks God for “old time religion” it is not just religion that used to be popular but isn’t; I think she means the Spirit-filled experience that transcends time and culture. We are one with the first disciples of Jesus. Being in God’s presence gives us a vision beyond the boundaries of our humanity. As a result, we can let loose our innate imagination and  be part of the choir of all beings who see the face of God, however dimly, in this darkness. Let your tiredness lift as you tell it all to Jesus who walked with us and on our behalf in history and walks with us now.

Meditation that leads to connection is good for whatever ails us in this hard time! Sister Mahalia has led us to the altar, now she calls us to worship

And then I’m gonna sing somewhere ’round God altar
And I’m gonna shout all my trouble over
You know I’ve gotta thank God and thank him for being
So good to me, Lord yeah
How I made it over Lord
I had to cry in the midnight hour coming on over
But you know my soul look back and wonder
How did I make it over

Tell me how I made it over Lord God Lord
Falling and rising all these years
You know my soul look back and wonder
How did I make it over

We are joining with the huge crowd John sees gathering from the four corner of the earth in the age to come.  From that place, we are looking back on all the trouble that is now over, all that crying in the midnight hour we had to endure. Looking back on what we’ve already gone through creates wonder — if we celebrate how we are alive and don’t fixate on how we’ve been dying. Try it. Maybe you can start a vision history in your “wonder journal.”

The Bible has a lot to say about the “midnight hour.” The first born are killed in Egypt before the slaves are set free at midnight. Paul and Silas are singing hymns to God in prison about midnight before they are miraculously released. Martin Luther King Jr. gave a great sermon about “A  Knock at Midnight.”  Through the vulnerable moments, sleepless, anxious moments, tell me Lord, “How did I make it? How can I believe I will make it right now when I still feel scared and ashamed, and when I am still threatened and scorned? But I do believe. Help me where I don’t.”

Mahalia puts on her new self like she belongs at the coronation.

I’m gonna wear a diadem
In that new Jerusalem
I’m gonna walk the streets of gold
It’s in that homeland of the soul
I’m gonna view the host in white
They’ve been traveling day and night
Coming up from every nation
They’re on their way to the great Coronation

Coming from the north, south, east, and west
They’re on their way to a land of rest
And then they’re gonna join the heavenly choir
You know we’re gonna sing and never get tired
And then we’re gonna sing somewhere ’round God altar
And then we’re gonna shout all our troubles over
You know we gotta thank God
Thank him for being so good to me

Rest in the “homeland of the soul” might feel hard to grasp, but we know what she is singing about. A little bit of that rest seems fleeting and even paltry, but how odd it is that such a little bit goes such a long way! We can’t forget about it and we long for rest for our souls all day.

I don’t know what I love more, the picture Jackson paints of the age to come, or the picture  I imagine of her in her diadem. Some people hear the lyric as “diamond dress,” which is also great. Everyone has traveled a long way, but here we all are. We are looking good, feeling happy, and dancing down the street in the New Jerusalem [like a NOLA funeral]. If you can’t sing this song, just play it, and let yourself move at least a little during this part. Feel at home in your new self and feel the energy of renewal remaking you. God is good to you. It is a wonder. “Maybe I should strut like the wonder I am!”

Now Mahalia goes into the part that probably made her famous. She started out calmly, but as the song goes on, she can’t help feeling it. She is not just performing it, she is inhabiting it. She is an incarnation and, as such, an invitation to everyone to enter in with all the gifts, services and energies we bring.

You know I come to thank God this evening
I come to thank him this evening
You know all, all night long God kept his angels watching over me
Early this morning, early this morning
God told his angel God said, “Touch her in my name”
God said, “Touch her in my name”

I rose this morning, I rose this morning, I rose this morning
I feel like shouting, I feel like shouting, I feel like shouting
I feel like shouting, I feel like shouting, I feel like shouting
I feel like shouting, I just got to thank God, I just got to thank God
I just got to thank God, I just got to thank him
Thank God for being so good, God been good to me

I put this song up in some chat the other day and someone said, “That is a long song!” We’re mainly used to 2 1/2 minute pop songs and jingles. I said, “She can sing it all day and I will sing it with her.” Turning into “I just got to thank God” is a lot better than resenting some fragment from a 70’s song stuck in the crevices of my brain. Turning into thanks, feeling gladness well up, and letting it loose with a shout, a dance, a hug, or some tears is the kind of integration we need to open us up to wonder.

An angel wakes up Zechariah and Elijah in the old Testament. But I think this final picture Mahalia paints is about how we get over. Just like an angel apparently woke Jesus up from his slumber in death, just so will we be awakened on the last day. And as long as we are in the age before death, that is every day. Every day is as good as our last day. Every day of life is gift. We are raised up into it. Relying on an angel to follow orders to “Touch her in my name” is a wonder. I want to live constantly touched by God.

I pray for us all to wake up today touched by Mahalia Jackson who is much like an angel sent to open us to new life. She was a struggling, Black woman who went with her gift in faith and kept turning away from her trauma, and then turned others away from theirs. I hope this meditation helped you turn away from yours and into wonder.

FFF #18 — Farmlink: Young people doing more than speaking their minds

Posting every Friday at noon is how I act in solidarity with young climate strikers all over the world who want their elders to save their future. 

A good way to encourage your donors

The Farmlink Project has only been around since the beginning of the pandemic but it already has volunteers all over the lower 48 states and Mexico. The leaders are all young and, up until recently, were all volunteers. They became so popular with donors, they have hired staff and organized more good things to do. It’s a wonder.

Their seed thought came after the revelation that a lot of food is wasted by grocery stores, restaurants, institutions and families. They discovered that farmers often aren’t able to get their produce off their farms or find a price good enough to make a profit; so they let it rot in the fields. And this waste happens even when food insecurity is epidemic.

They found ways to get the food to food banks with volunteers collaborating with farmers — and with a bunch of donors. CBS and other outlets were so thrilled with these kids they all created segments to laud their work. Here’s one.

Such a waste of a planet

The World Wildlife Fund says “ an estimated one-third of all the food produced in the world goes to waste. … And if food goes to the landfill and rots, it produces methane—a greenhouse gas even more potent than carbon dioxide. About 6%-8% of all human-caused greenhouse gas emissions could be reduced if we stop wasting food.”

The world Wildlife fund was started in 1961 by a squad of super rich people and royals, six years before Buffalo Springfield sang For What It’s Worth. Today’s young activists are a lot better at organizing the rich instead of just talking about them.  I think Farmlink is a good example.

Farmlink relates WWF’s stats more colorfully:  “If food waste was a country, it would be the third largest contributor to global greenhouse gas emissions.” I did not verify their chart but they offer one to make their point:

Over one-third of all produce grown in the U.S. is wasted every year, and it happens at every step of food production. Tens of millions of pounds of edible produce are left unharvested, lost in transit, processing, or retail, or thrown away by consumers.

The majority of food waste that occurs at the warehouse, store, or consumer level is ultimately sealed in a landfill, where it releases methane—a greenhouse gas with over 30 times the heat trapping ability of carbon dioxide. Landfills are responsible for almost 15 percent of the country’s methane emissions, with organic matter making up the largest percentage of total landfill mass.

Crops left in the field don’t expel the same volume of greenhouse gases, but they do account for massive amounts of wasted resources. A 2016 study estimates that 21 percent of water, 18 percent of cropland, and 19 percent of fertilizer in the U.S. are dedicated to food that is never eaten.

I made a donation to Farmlink and they wrote back with more info:

“Since our founding in April 2020, we have delivered nearly 50 million pounds of produce from farms to food banks — or the equivalent of 42 million meals (and counting)! We have provided $3 million in economic relief to farmers and truck drivers, all the while preventing 40 million pounds of carbon emissions.”

People like me wanted to support this good work. Our donations

“made it possible for us to formalize our 501(c)(3) status and take on a full-time staff, thereby ensuring institutional longevity, as well as build out Carbonlink, our carbon offset program for a sustainable food system….While our small unit of full-time staff focuses on operational continuity, our 120-person volunteer base of students continues to serve as the engine of this organization.”

It is a wonder how these young people cared. And it is a wonder that so many people wanted to support them. I think the greatest wonder is their quick contribution to meeting an obvious need: food insecurity and climate change caused by wasted food.

Overwhelm: The feeling and what we can do about it

More and more clients seem to come into a session feeling overwhelmed. In fact, they use the word in the new way we have begun to use it to describe their feeling: “overwhelm.”

I can relate to experiencing overwhelm. The last few years have been the most overwhelming I can remember — maybe for you, too! As for me, I transitioned out of my long-time pastoring work – that would cause anyone some trouble. I was defrauded by a contractor. I moved to a new home. I lost my church community. And, of course, we are still in a pandemic and the country is unraveling – at least that’s what David Brooks says. And then the next climate disaster is in the offing! I have had my peculiar version of the overwhelm most of us are experiencing.

I am feeling OK now, but I am really concerned about those who don’t feel OK. I think they are multiplying and their feeling of overwhelm might be deepening. We have had two years of pandemic isolation to heighten issues we might normally handle well. We need to check on each other. Check on the vulnerable even if you feel vulnerable. We all need to find more community life.

Royal & the Serpent gets it

In June of 2020 Royal and the Serpent recorded a song which depicts the feeling of overwhelm just right. I can’t help but believe the 11 million people who have viewed it feel some kind of community with each other as an artist musically names what they are experiencing.

FYI, Royal and the Serpent’s stage name translates to “Me + My Ego.”  Her given name is Ryan Santiago. She struck a chord with many of her listeners on YouTube:

Youraverageartist commented: “I feel like the beat represents the buildup to an anxiety attack. The beat gets faster and more intense as they sing about being overwhelmed, and then when the beat drops into the wild electric music, that represents the anxiety attack. Then everything is calm and back to normal. You realize that everything around you isn’t any different. These attacks normally aren’t very physical, they happen in your head, although it doesn’t always show to the outside.”

Check up on people who might be feeling this. They might like to talk to you rather than a YouTube audience.

booksandboots commented: I’m 28 and I’ve known about my anxiety since I was 8. This is the first song I’ve ever heard that really captures what it feels like. For me, it’s never gone away. It’s a part of who I am, for whatever reason. Perhaps an evolutionary response to a threat that isn’t there?…

I’m happy to say I haven’t had a true panic attack in over a year, something I never, ever thought would be possible. I had just accepted that was my life: panic attacks every day or multiple times a day. Frozen. Silent….

It also helps to listen to your anxiety, as strange as that sounds. To ask it questions like, “What are you really upset about? Is it that person standing too close, can you do something about it? If you can’t, can you breathe slowly and deeply and try some grounding exercises? If that doesn’t work, can you try to drink some water to occupy your mind in this moment, focusing on nothing else but the water? You can do this. I believe in you.”

And, as juvenile as it sounds, I speak to my anxiety as if it were a child. In a good way. I don’t think of my anxiety as some monster in the closet. It’s just a chemical imbalance that believes it’s helping me stay safe. I explain what reality is to my anxiety and comfort it the same way I would my own child. If my anxiety is here to stay, then we better get used to each other. I can’t walk around hating that part of myself because it doesn’t make the anxiety go away, it makes it worse.

Tender people who are bravely looking OK might not be. Given what we are all facing, who isn’t feeling a bit overwhelmed? I know I have needed to tell my story to people who care about me. Telling it diminished the power of the loss and the trauma. But more loss and trauma is likely to come my way. We need community to face it all.

Signs of overwhelm

Sometimes (and maybe over a period of time), the intensity of our feelings outmatches our ability to manage them. At some point you will probably feel overwhelmed by negative emotions, such as anger, fear, or guilt. Some of us will experience mania and be overwhelmed by euphoria.

If you feel overwhelm, it might be hard to pinpoint why. Usually a collection of stressors contributes rather than one particular event. Your emotions may bleed into seemingly unrelated parts of your life until you are “all stirred up.” Emotional overwhelm may be caused by stress, traumatic life experiences, relationship issues, and much more.

Here are some common signs of overwhelm:

  • You have a big reaction to a small situations. For example, you may panic when you can’t find your keys.
  • You feel physically ill or fatigued and don’t know why.
  • You have trouble focusing or completing simple tasks.
  • You find yourself withdrawing from friends and family.
  • Your emotions color your perception of everything. For example, your grief may keep you sad even during pleasant occasions.

Causes of overwhelm

When we are stressed by the small things in our collection, we might say to ourselves, “This is dumb!” Nevertheless, small things often add up to overwhelm. For instance, it is common for a simple things-to-do list to hijack someone’s brain. That’s because your brain might not see a to-do list, but see the threat of scarcity: not enough time, not enough energy, not enough magical ability to fit everything into 24 hours. Or it might see the threat of failing, the threat of disappointing others, the threat of feeling like you’re not doing enough or might not even be enough.

We react to these feelings the same way we do with other threats. We fight, flee, or freeze. That’s true whether the threat is a bus hurtling toward us or our responsibilities  make us feel like we can’t catch our breath.

Usually, we land somewhere between freeze and flight, numbed out. We avoid. We dig in our heels and resist. If we’re at work we might procrastinate: make a call, do tasks that don’t matter, call in sick. If we are at home we might binge-watch Netflix, stay up late reading things that don’t require thought, sneak off for some porn, buy something on Amazon, or scroll through Instagram.

Remember, your emotions may get overloaded by a single stressor, like surviving a traumatic accident or violence, or losing a loved one. But overwhelm can also occur due to the pile up of many smaller stressors. For example, missing your bus may not feel like too big of a deal by itself. But if you’ve been fighting with your family, having trouble sleeping, and are hungry from skipping breakfast, a missed bus can be the proverbial “last straw” of the day.

A therapist can be a big help. Even if your are in therapy, everyone still needs some community. Check up on people. We are all experiencing the same big things bearing down on you. What’s more, the latest trauma may have dislodged some unprocessed memories. Everyone needs a safe place to tell their story.

Six ways to deal with overwhelm right now.

  1. Ground yourself in the present using the 5-4-3-2-1 technique.

When your emotions are flooding, your mind is getting foggy, or your skin is getting clammy, this technique could be a way to get your feet back on the ground and your mind cleared. It’s a classic tool everyone needs in their backpack. Donate it to someone who needs it.

5 – Look around and name five things you can see, right now, from where you are.

4 – Listen and name four things you can hear.

3 – Notice three things you can touch, like the pages of a nearby book or the feeling of your feet on the carpet.

2 – Next come two smells: Breathe in the pages of a book or the citrus scent of the candle you lit.

1 – Finally, name something you can taste: a sip of cold water will do, or even just the taste of your own mouth.

This does two things to interrupt the overwhelm. First, it grounds you in your senses and, more importantly, the present moment. Second, keeping track of the counting and working your way through your senses interrupts spinning thoughts.

  1. Clean up your immediate surroundings.

The phrase “outer order, inner calm” is popular for a reason. When you’re feeling overwhelmed, tidying the area around you restores order to a little corner of your universe and allows you to move forward.

You don’t need to redo the office or redecorate the house. Restrict yourself to things within arm’s reach. Stack loose papers, put caps on rogue pens, wipe away dust or grime. The resulting order will help you feel like you’ve accomplished something and allow you to focus. One time we all went over and cleaned someone’s whole house with them just to give them a boost and allow their emotions to settle and let them feel part of the friendship circle.

  1. Ruthlessly prioritize.

Cut everything that should be done and stick to things that need to get done now. This is harder than it looks for some people since if they change their “shoulds” they will feel disloyal to their family or feel like they are condemning their past self. If someone trusts you, they might let you help them sort.

  1. Stop accidentally multitasking

Trying to work from home and simultaneously keep an eye on the kids, holding a conversation while the TV is on, eating lunch at your desk, leaving your email open while you work, or simply keeping your smartphone at hand 24/7 are examples of things that force you to transition your attention (and then transition it back) hundreds of times a day.

Multitasking works about as well as texting while driving—which is to say, it doesn’t. So if your nerves are frayed, mend them by doing a singular thing at a time. When you’re feeling less frantic, you can go back to googling Beyonce’s net worth while making a sandwich. But until then, single-task, single-task, single-task. You might help your friend do this by asking them to take a walk around the block with you or eat lunch together — community building is also a single-minded task; giving someone else attention and receiving it is a natural way to heal from the pressures of life.

  1. Take the next tiny step.

When you feel frozen in the proverbial headlights of what is bearing down on you, think only of the next tiny step. The next step can be very tiny—only you have to know that you’re inching forward by thinking “Okay, now click on the folder. Now open the document. Now start reading.” Or “Sit up, Put your feet on the floor. Breathe in goodness. Stand up. Stretch slowly” all on the way to starting your day. I am often grateful when someone calls me and I get a chance to tell them what I am planning to do. Just talking to them gets me out of whatever rut I am in and often encourages me to take the next step.

  1. Radically accept what you cannot do or control.

This is the basic stance of faith. We stand in grace and we can turn into the reality of it at any time. God is with us and loves us. You can strategize, organize, and hack all you want, but at some point, you will run into something you can’t do or control. When you do, the only thing to do is to radically accept. Trust Jesus and be one of those good people who can be trusted to listen and care.

Radical acceptance doesn’t mean throwing in the towel. It means allowing for uncertainty and uncontrollability, without struggling like you’re trapped or complaining as if bad things should never happen to you. It is keeping on with what you can do instead of dwelling on what you can’t. (Thanks to Jade Wu).

When you get behind the wheel of a car, you radically accept that a reckless driver may hit you no matter how well you drive. Yet you still do it because you want to get from point A to B quickly. When you fall in love, you radically accept that your heart may get trampled on. Yet you do anyway because love is worth the risk. When you simply can’t meet a deadline without compromising your mental health, you can radically accept you’ll have to be late and you may disappoint someone, because your well-being is worth it.

Just telling a story, thinking things through, letting some feelings settle down or pass through might be enough to deal with overwhelm. Doing it together with Jesus is undoubtedly even better. There are a lot more resources to apply to feeling overwhelm, of course. Your therapist or trusted friend or mentor can help. This post was mainly a means to give you some space to feel some hope and experience some care. I write because I care. I think we need to keep finding ways to check in on each other and build some community. It is an overwhelming time.