Why your brain is screaming for peace

As I was driving down 23rd avenue on a Tuesday morning, yelling at the car in front of me for driving just under the speed limit, I realized that I’m not just a person who struggles with anger, I usually have an angst-charged thought traipsing around somewhere in my brain.

I finally admitted to my almost fifty year old self that there are few moments during the day when I’m at peace. I think about someone who’s wronged me. I think about how to gain the upper hand in a confrontation, sometimes rehearsing what I’ll say in the moment of truth. I think about how things aren’t going my way or the mountain of tasks that life before me, the outcomes of which, most of the time, lie outside of my control. It’s no wonder that the only thing that sounds good at the end of the day is a drink and a couple hours of TV.

I spend the majority of my day pounding my brain with thoughts, ideas, fantasies, make-believe scenarios, and stress. Lots of stress.

And so my mind has been living in a war zone for years. It knows that when I wake up in the morning the sirens will wail and the bullets will fly – bad attitudes, screaming kids, coffee, to do list, etc.

So it’s wired itself for survival. The more crap I throw at it, the more it adjusts itself. The more non-peaceful things I feed my brain, the more non-peaceful my brain thinks it’s world is, the more non-peaceful it becomes.

I know others who choose not to live this way.  Their minds have an entirely different experience, and have wired themselves accordingly. Their minds are at peace. They might run into the occasional hardship, but “hard” is not how they see their world. Their minds don’t start the day at DEFCON 1 like mine does.

The Science of a Stressed Out Brain

If you could dumb down our understanding of the brain a bit, you might divide it into two sections. One section, the “fight or flight” (FoF) part of the brain, and the other, the “rational” part. If a brain finds itself under constant duress, with FoF constantly firing, that part of the brain becomes the strongest and will begin calling the shots, seeing every. single. thing. as a threat.

If, on the other hand, the brain experiences significant moments of peace, FoF gets a chance to rest while the rational part is allowed to take over, which is what it’s supposed to be doing anyway. It’s impossible to be at peace when FoF is locked and loaded, and the rational part, asleep.

People who have experienced some form of consistent abuse, folks with PTSD, and/or those who live in constant fear of the future, what others think of them, etc., tend to view their world as an inherently unsafe place – that’s the world that their brains have wired themselves for. These people will have an extremely difficult time soaking in the life, beauty, and relationships that surround them. They’ll have a hard time getting along with others. They can’t sleep. The part of their mind that’s built for a good life has been told to stand down while the part that’s built for war has hunkered the entire being deep in the trenches – completely on the defensive.

We can tell these people to “get over it,” or “think differently,” or “go to church,” but as long as their minds are on red alert, nothing will change. What they’re in dire need of is peace. Tons of it.

I’m surprised how easy it’s been to stop bombarding my brain with war, to be the gatekeeper for the kinds of thoughts I let through the “door.” The peaceful/good/hopeful/pretty things of my life are just as much of a reality as the hard stuff, so why not spend more time ruminating on the things that will ultimately cause my brain to think it’s living in a different place – not a war zone, but a place of peace?

When I meet someone who can’t relax, who’s usually angry, who has a hard time getting along with others, or who doesn’t seem to care about anything, I’m no longer asking questions about their character, or going through my usual list of things I think they should be doing to become the person I think they should be. Instead, I find myself moving towards compassion, asking what’s going on in their mind – what’s so taken over their reason and rationality that they can’t live the kind of life I know they’d rather be living?

Peace is our job, not only in our lives, but in the lives of others. Ironically, the more I invite peaceful thoughts into my own life, the easier it is to bring peace into the lives of others, and vice versa.

An Evangelical Revisionist’s Take on the Bible

It’s dizzying to think about how many people have read the Bible cover to cover, and how many different perspectives there are on it’s overall message.  Some read it as a legal document, laying out in great detail how one should live in a way that makes God happy – pleased to lay His lightning bolts aside, momentarily at least.  Some read it as a way to get into heaven, with little regard for life in the here and now – and only those with the proper theology are accepted.

Others read it as a document of war, releasing them into the world to point fingers, judge others, and be an agent of God’s wrath, only to find themselves batting for the wrong team.

I was once asked to lead a study on the historical happenings of the Bible – the places, people, events, etc., of the Old and New Testaments.  I rebelled and instead made an attempt to teach both Testaments as one story – which it is by the way, but I didn’t do a very good job.  I started with a room full of people and quickly whittled it down to a small gathering – a little too counter-cultural for this conservative crowd.

In preparing for the class, my perspective on the Bible, and ultimately what God really wants from us, was forever changed.

At the time, my wife and I were about to experience a huge life change, an adoption that would bring challenge, hardship, and joy in one big heaping helping of a little girl named Hannah.  Before her arrival, we decided to go to Brazil, relax and spend some time together.  I read the Bible, uninterrupted, cover to cover, very quickly, on one very long flight, paired with boxed wine and airplane food.

I was taught in Seminary to pick each passage apart, to read the “original” languages, consult multiple resources, etc., before making a decision about what that passage might mean.  Reading it cover to cover in one sitting was something I hadn’t done before.

There’s one theme that pops up over and over again, with alarming repetition, something I would call one of the most prevalent, if not the most prevalent themes of the Bible.  It’s one that, interestingly enough, doesn’t get a lot of air-time from Sunday morning pulpiteers.

Over and over again, in the Old Testament, and in the teachings of the New, God says to everyone He runs into, “Trust Me.”  “I’m on your side.”  “I want things to work out in your favor.”  “Please, whatever you do, wherever you go – TRUST ME.”    It’s hard to catch if you read the Bible slowly, but I dare you – read it fast, really fast, cover to cover, not stopping to ruminate over the parts that bother you, or the ones that don’t immediately make sense.  And drink some crappy boxed red wine.

Sure, there are passages in the Bible that talk about God’s unconditional love, His unlimited power, and how He worked it out so that anyone that wants to go to heaven can go.  There are statements about right and wrong, instructions about how to live, etc., but these are all subtexts in submission to the overarching principle that God wants us to trust Him.

Since my “conversion” on the flight to Brazil, I now hear God saying to me “I know more about what you want than you do.  I won’t give you life on your terms, it’ll be on mine, because my way will get you where you want to go quicker and more completely than yours.  If you’ll trust me I’ll write a story for you that will be amazing.  We can do things your way if you want – you can write your own story, but I write better stories than you do.  Trust me.  It won’t be easy, but it’ll be great.”

If you don’t believe in God, that’s cool, I respect you.  I have great friends who don’t believe as I do, not to mention the fact that they’re the ones who know how to really party.  But imagine for a minute what would happen to the world if everyone believed that there was this “thing up there” that could do anything it wants, loves unconditionally, and is interested in everyone’s life the way a really good parent is interested in her children.

There would be peace.

Peace is the biggest issue in our world.  Always has been.  When people are set at ease about their lives, their finances, their relationships, politics, how things will ultimately shake out, etc., they’re less likely to do bad, and more likely to do good.

I know people of peace, people who look at God this way.  They see what they have instead of stressing about what they don’t.  They’re comfortable in their skins – it doesn’t matter what other people think when you believe that everything will turn out OK.  They’re hard workers. They know work is good, but they don’t stress about it because they have trust, which, ironically, makes them more effective at what they do. Their peace derives from their belief that everything will work out in their favor, which is dependent on their view of God and ultimately their trust in Him.

God doesn’t want you to be a flaming, irrelevant, religious person by the way.  The other guy wants that.  It’s a truly crappy way to live.  Remember that Jesus’ first miracle was to make 180 gallons of wine at a party full of already drunk people.  He doesn’t want you to blindly adhere to a life-numbing list of rules and principles.  He doesn’t want you to be unhappy.  He does however want to change you – to remove the things that are keeping you from being free, from being the person you’re supposed to be.  This process isn’t “easy,” or “safe.”  Trusting Him will mean facing fears that you’ve been chained to most of your life.

But when you believe that He’s on your side, and that He’s a badass who’ll fight for you, with you, and against you when you head in a direction away from freedom and peace, you can face anything.

Jesus said something akin to, “I have peace inside of me – My peace.  God’s peace.  This peace I’m giving to you.  Therefore, don’t be scared.  Of anything.”

There’s one hitch though.  When God sets people free, He wants those people to go and free other people.  God’s freed ones are to be like a vaccine in the jugular vein of a world that’s ever-hurdling towards more fear, anger, suspicion – ever decreasing peace.  What we receive from God we’re to give to others, like Jesus did.

That might sound like a lot, but when you’re at peace, you’re also at strength – your resources aren’t tapped by fear, anger, etc.  I think that’s why religious people look so tired all the time – always trying to bring good into the lives of others, but doing it from a place of obligation, fear, and spiritual stress – not peace.

I had a very troubling conversation with a Gay woman several months ago.  She was afraid that God hated her because she was Gay.  It made her feel gross.  Unlovable.  I very quickly relieved her of that lie and laid on her the truth that God’s love for her has no boundaries or conditions – no barbed wire.  You wouldn’t believe how it changed her – the idea that God loves her, that she can now trust Him to walk alongside her.  Boom.  Peace.

May that kind of peace be with you, and extend far beyond you.

 

 

 

 

Let’s all be really mad and scared in 2016

When I’m angry I can’t think straight.  I’m like most people – I feel cheated, like everything’s out of control.  What consumes my mind is the person that wronged me and how I might get even. But life goes on and I have to make everyday decisions, sometimes really big ones.  One of the most difficult things to do is to make good decisions when I’m angry. I’m really stupid when I’m mad. We all tend to be.

There are a lot of angry people in the U.S.  A big chunk of our population is angry because marriage, by law, has been redefined.  Another chunk is mad at the people who are mad about marriage being redefined.  Some are upset because we’re not letting refugees into our country, others are angry at the people who think we should.  Racism is still a big deal, and it seems that more people are seeking to arm themselves than ever before.

We’re also scared (fear and anger usually operate in tandem).  Not only are we threatened by each other, there’s this large group of people that want nothing more than the destruction of our country.  They’re not very well organized, at least not as organized as, say, the Japanese at Pearl Harbor, but they’re passionate and some of them live here in the U.S.

Right or wrong, We are a country full of angry, frightened people.

We also have a big decision to make in the coming year regarding our next president.  I won’t offer any opinions about Donald Trump or his ability to lead us, but I will say the main reason he has a voice is because he’s playing into the fear and anger that is so thoroughly shagging our country.

I watch alot of WWII documentaries – it fascinates me how a guy like Hitler could come to power.  Turns out that the allied nations of WWI required Germany to “pay” for all the damages caused in the war.  This left Germany in a horrible economic state – poverty, unemployment, anger, fear.  Hitler came in with an amazing knack for politics and used the dark emotions of the day as his primary platform.  It worked.  The Germans had their hero vindicator and were ready for war.  One of the worst terrorists the world has ever seen came to power, and everyone cheered.

When leaders choose to exploit fear and anger, fear and anger become the leaders, and the places they lead us to are never good.

None of our candidates are addressing the fact that we’re pissed, that these emotions are volatile and if left unchecked will destroy so much of what we value as a country.  What’s far worse is that so many of our presidential hopefuls are using fear and anger as a huge part of their platform.  Even the Evangelical candidates, who are supposed to have peace and love at their life’s core, are exploiting the very things that are tearing us apart.  It’s a sickening irony.  Some Muslims read the Koran and see peace.  Others read it and see war.  It’s the same with Evangelicals and their Bibles.

But, in their defense, if you want to get elected, you have to embrace the strongest emotions of the largest constituency. So get ready for a very fine parade of anger, fear, and stupidity in 2016.

 

 

 

Finding Life-Change in a Men’s Restroom

I’m embarrassed to say that I’m just now learning this.  I wish I would’ve learned it in my 30’s, when most people do, but when it comes to being un-miserable, I’m a slow study.

I’ve spent most of my life believing that my situation(s) determine(s) my ability to be happy – the right job, a great marriage, money, etc, and I’ve had several careers as a result.  I’ve had some fun moments and learned a ton of things that haven’t really helped in my latest career – stay at home dad.  But there’s always been this nagging compulsion to change everything as soon as I start feeling bad about my life.  Feeling like I can’t be happy until things change has always made me unhappy, especially when I can’t change things.

My thinking about all of this took a hit in my late 40’s when I was assaulted in a men’s airport restroom.

I left my wife at the gate with 3 crazy kids and hurried off to the bathroom hoping to be back in time to board.  This particular facility was attended by an older (soon-to-be elderly) man of Middle Eastern descent.

I’ve got some pictures in my head of what retirement will look like.  At worst I’ll be handing out carts at WalMart by day, living in a retirement community that surrounds a golf course in Florida, sipping Grand Marnier and smoking house-rolled cigars in the evening while watching Lost re-runs.  Bathroom attendant?  Not on the table.

This guy said nothing and everything to me.  He had an air of respect and dignity about him as he looked me in the eye and said “have a nice day” as I was leaving.  I turned around and put some money in his tip jar.  His counter was perfectly arranged – combs, towels, cologne, some other things.

He seemed happy – working in an airport restroom – all. day. long.  Funny how we can sense when someone’s happy.  Like dogs smell fear, people smell peace.  This guy had it in spades – you couldn’t get past him without getting it all over you.

I’ve been a pastor, pilot, restaurant manager, banker, and now I have 5 hours five days a week to kick back while my kids are at school and my wife goes off to support us all financially.  He’s happy and I’m not?  Something’s missing – he’s got something I don’t have.  If it’s within his grasp it must be within mine.

In that moment I decided to start looking around at the things that are going well, the things I should be thankful for.  As I did I began to realize that expecting-things-to-change-before-I-can-be-happy is a truly miserable way to live.  The more I flex this muscle the more I’m able to be happy even when things aren’t going well.  When the kids are crazy, when my wife and I are fighting, when I screw up and everyone’s talking about it, when I walk out of the doctor’s office with a diagnosis for arthritis – when my life seems like an endless day in a restroom, I can still be thankful, and at peace.

I’m new to this and sometimes not very good at it.  But I’m slowly learning that, somehow every day,  I have everything I need to be at peace.  The only thing that needs to change is my attitude.

So, thank you nameless guy who’s face I’ll never forget.  Our 20 second encounter, and the way you’re living your life has incited me to change mine – to get rid of some caustic attitudes, to open my eyes about what’s truly good and beautiful.  You slapped me in the face with your peace, your self-dignity, and your respect, and got some on me.  Didn’t see that one coming.