Tension Within Ourselves

Life_in_Tension_web“For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” (Rom 7:15 ESV)

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

We are the best fed generation of all time and most pampered people on the face of the earth. Yet, suicide has reached epidemic proportions among both our young people and senior citizens. Author Max Lucado (2012, 5) observed: “ordinary children today are more fearful than psychiatric patients were in the 1950s.”

Why? One answer is that we are isolated from ourselves. Henri Nouwen (2010, 89) writes: “We live in a society in which loneliness has become one of the most painful human wounds.”  We are strangers to ourselves and the person that God created us to be.

Psychiatrists talk about rumination. Psychiatric patients obsess about traumatic events in their past. Such obsessions can be about the slightest little thing, real or imaged. Rumination becomes a problem because of repetition—daily or even hourly obsession with this memory. Because psychiatric patients have trouble distinguishing reality and illusion, each repetition is remembered as a separate, very real event. A single occurrence of parental discipline at age 8 could be remembered as a daily or evenly constant beating by age 20 and evoke rage when remembered.

Magnified in this way, normal relationships become strained. Time and emotional energy focused on this rumination displaces and slows normal emotional development because the patient was busy ruminating and has not devoted that energy to other, more pressing life issues like being fully present at school and in relationships. The ruminator becomes isolated from those around them and from themselves.

The thing of it is, we all ruminate. We all daydream; we all isolate ourselves from other people; and we all do it substantially more than other generations. The ever-present earphone with music, the television always on, the constant texting, the game program played every waking hour, and the work we never set aside all function to keep dreary thoughts from entering our heads having the same effect as rumination [1]. We are distracted every waking hour from processing our thoughts and from dealing with our emotions. Much like addicts, we never reflect on our condition. We become anxious and annoyed when we must actually are forced to tune into our own lives—a kind of escalation [3].  Rumination, stress addiction, and other obsessions have become mainstream lifestyles that leave us fearful even to be alone [2].

Jesus understands. He said:

Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light. (Matt 11:28-30 ESV)

Sabbath rest, prayer, and forgiveness all work to break rumination by encouraging us to reflect on our past, present, and future in Christ and by refusing to let sin hold our relationships with God and our neighbors hostage.

In the Beatitudes, Jesus addresses disciples and says that we will be blessed in at least 3 ways:

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.
 (Matt 5:3-5 ESV)

Jesus reframes threats to our identity, self-worth, and personal dignity by offering promises that we will receive the kingdom of heaven, be comforted, and inherit the earth.  But we must accept the yoke of discipleship; these promises are not extended to spectators [4].

We are not alone—God is with us and we can be part of God’s community on earth—the church.  This community focus is obvious in the Beatitudes  because Jesus addresses his disciples in the plural [5].  Through our faith and our participation in the church, we can also be at peace with ourselves (John 14:27) even when we are alone.

 

[1] Technology connects yes, but it more often isolates us from one another.  A “Facebook friend”, for example, is denied a vote if you get tired of them and remove them as a friend.  Real friends give us immediate feedback and require explanations.

[2] Nouwen (1975, 25) sees loneliness as related more to addiction than to rumination.  Blackaby (2014, 47 ) talks about getting stuck in a particularly sad or particularly happy season of life.

[3] Escalation is another term from psychiatry which describes the tendency of psychiatric patients to amply rather than dissipate any tension in conversation.  Even polite disagreement with such patients will quickly evoke an increasingly hostile response from such patients.   Even in normal people, escalation is a flag for personal instability.

[4] The yoke (Matt 11:28-30) Jesus describes is a leather collar worn by a work animal, such as a horse, to allow them to bear the burden of the work.  Disciples bear the yoke of discipleship; spectators do not.  This implies that the blessings of Jesus are available exclusively to disciples.  This is what James, Jesus’ brother, means when he says:  “But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves.” (James 1:22 ESV)

[5] In verse 3, for example, the Greek reads: “Μακάριοι οἱ πτωχοὶ τῷ πνεύματι, ὅτι αὐτῶν ἐστιν ἡ βασιλεία τῶν οὐρανῶν.” (Matt 5:3 BNT)  Both πτωχοὶ (those poor) and and αὐτῶν (theirs–genitive plural).

REFERENCES

Blackaby, Richard . 2012. The Seasons of God:  How the Shifting Patterns of Your Life Reveal His Purposes for You. Colorado Springs:  Multnomah Books.

Lucado, Max. 2012. Fearless. Grand Rapids: Zondervan.

Nouwen, Henri J. M. 1975. Reaching Out: The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life. New York: DoubleDay.

Nouwen, Henri J.M. 2010. Wounded Healer: Ministry in Contemporary Society (Orig pub 1972). New York: Image Doubleday.

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