Living in the Fantasy

This post is a merger of two sources: my good friend Mark Wilson, counselor extraordinaire, and Brené Brown’s research on shame.

We have all had hard experiences. Trauma is not always the same level of difficulty or complexity for every person, but it is a reality for all people. We were betrayed, wounded, let down, taken advantage of, manipulated, abused, hurt, and/or confused.

We often know what happened, but are left with trying to figure out why it happened. The human brain is a fascinating organ. We are physiologically wired to complete and resolve these difficult moments internally so that we can move forward. How we resolve these times in our lives, however, is truly dangerous.

A healthy way to resolve trauma is to be able to sit down with the one who wounded you and work it through with both perspectives on the table so that the truth of the situation can be revealed. And both sides should work hard to understand the other side before they fight to be heard. That is what healthy would look like. However, the reality that we live in is not typically all that healthy. We are living in various degrees of dysfunction. Some situations merit the label extreme dysfunction.

When we can’t sit down and hear and be heard in a traumatic situation, our brain still needs to resolve the issue. If we can’t resolve it, we will literally go insane. The other interesting twist here is that the brain has absolutely no need for the story that we create to resolve trauma to be accurate. It simply needs to fill in the gaps. And this is where we can start to have real problems.

In this memory bubble we have a mixture of truth (what we know and what actually happened) and fantasy (the story we tell in our head). There is no need for the fantasy part of our story to be true. It just needs to close the gaps on the questions we have about what happened to us.

Out of this mixture of truth and fantasy, we develop a belief about ourselves that we use to make decisions about who we are and how we are supposed to feel about ourselves. That leads to a whole new potential set of decisions that can be damaging to us secondarily because we are making self-destructive decisions based on the lies we decided to believe, based on the fantasy we created because of trauma that we didn’t understand.

Let me help begin to unravel this in a practical way. We get wounded in some way and create a belief that we are less than what God says we are. We then make other hurtful decisions, like who we let take advantage of us and how. And now we have more reinforced false beliefs about ourselves because of those secondary bad decisions. This becomes a painful cycle of emotional pain — all rooted in a fantasy that we told ourselves to make sense out of why someone would hurt us to begin with.

Without sounding trite, I want to offer some thoughts about this and close with an invitation to healing.

It is not true that when you got hurt it was because you weren’t worth loving. It is not true that you are not important or that you don’t matter. It is not true that the world would be better without you. It is not true that you are a mistake. It is not true — none of it.

The truth is you are amazing, full of potential, and worthy of love. Why, then, did that person or those people hurt you? Because hurt people, hurt people. And unfortunately, passing pain from one person to another doesn’t require much effort.

If people “passing pain on” to others is ever going to stop, or at least lessen, it is going to have to do so because someone got real about the lies they were believing and learned to stop believing the lies. That way, pain gets absorbed, processed, and let go in a healthy way. That takes a community of healthy people who can journey with us in our pain so we can learn to stop letting it control us.

So maybe where we begin is to become determined not to pass the pain from our past onto other people. Maybe we should come to terms with the reality that we told ourselves some lies because of what someone else did, and we don’t have to be owned by those lies. We can be free. That freedom will be a better way to live than anything those lies can give us.

May you have the courage not to live in the fantasy.

When I Said “I Do” — I Didn’t Know What I Did

Twenty-four years of wedded bliss. This is the story of my marriage. At least, one version of it.

My wife is amazing. We both came to our marriage with wide-eyed idealism and lots of expectations about what marriage was and how it was going to play out. That isn’t all that uncommon, but the problem was while we both had our list of expectations, we didn’t really take the time to compare those lists or even accurately identify each of our expectations for ourselves. That became a major issue as we found where those expectations didn’t line up. We discovered we had way more places where our expectations weren’t just different, but WAY different, and we had very few places where we were on the same page.

I believed then and still believe today that God brought us together. The question I have asked Him a million times is, “What were You thinking?”

Opposites attract. That is a truism of life and especially in relationships. What I have discovered in my own marriage and through the years of marriage counseling I have done is that people fall in love with the parts of a person that are different than they are. If we are not careful, the very things we fell in love with can become the things we start to resent.

I thought when I said “I do,” I was in for a life of someone dropping their agenda on a dime to run to me and meet my needs with deep and abiding love, coming away with the joy and satisfaction that comes from knowing they helped me become everything I wanted. Somehow, even at 20 years old, I was stunned to learn that she had ideas and dreams and hopes and expectations, as well. Often what I wanted was not just different than her, but even in direct contradiction.

So, now what?

When I said “I do,” I meant “You do,” and therein lies a major problem.

When I said “I do,” I should have meant that I will dedicate my life to understanding who you are and how I can serve you and help you become a better version of your truest self.

Likewise, husbands, live with your wives in an understanding way, showing honor to the woman as the weaker vessel, since they are heirs with you of the grace of life, so that your prayers may not be hindered. (1 Peter 3:7, ESV)

What was God thinking? Not that I presume to know the mind of God, but this might give me a perspective to help me stay the course: I think God always intended for the person we marry to be the opposite of us. I think perhaps the reason is because it forces us to lay our own agenda down in order to keep the relationship together.

Who would want to do that? Well, Jesus.

Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus who, being in very nature God, didn’t consider equality with God something to be clung to. But He made Himself nothing, taking on the very form of a servant. (Philippians 2:5–7)

He was God, and laid down His own comfort to become nothing important, so I could see how much I matter.

Husbands, love your wives the way Christ loved the church and gave Himself up for her. (Ephesians 5:25)

Maybe her being opposite of me allows a better version of Jesus living in me. And maybe that is what marriage was designed for from the beginning. Being willing to lay my own life down for her is a particularly strong statement to her and to the world about who my God is. That is what my life is all about — telling the world who my God is.

May you live with your spouse in an understanding way. May you find the joy of a mutually sacrificial relationship. May you find a better and better version of Jesus living in you. And may you understand that true fulfillment comes from serving, not being served.

Truth vs. Truth

I have an idea that I have been kicking around in my head. I thought I might throw it out for people to help me process it better.

What if there are two kinds of truth within each person? What would that mean?

Here is my idea: I think we have head truth and heart truth. What I mean is, there are the academic truths/realities that we each accept as true and rational, but then there are these other truths that are much more powerful in our lives. They are the truths that actually dictate our beliefs. These are found in our “heart,” which is technically the limbic system of the brain.

In the book Following Through: A Revolutionary New Model for Finishing Whatever You Start by Steve Levinson, Ph.D., and Pete Greider, M.Ed., the key to being motivated enough to accomplish something is to move it out of our rational brain, or the prefrontal cortex, and into the more emotional part of the brain, which actually determines our decisions. For example, we all know that eating right and working out is a good idea rationally, but we struggle to find the motivation to follow through. So we must find a good reason to move the decision into the limbic system in order to find a driving motivation to accomplish the task. A heart attack, or diabetes, or someone we love dying suddenly moves this from a good idea to a determined must.

I think this idea has some really powerful implications for us spiritually. How many of us (or the people we know) can mentally ascend to the truth that God sees us as worthy and valuable, but we live and make decisions as if we are not? This kind of dichotomy in a person causes all kinds of issues, and if we’re not careful it can stunt our spiritual development in profound and painful ways.

Whatever the Christian journey is, it must encompass a way to deal with both head truth and heart truth so we can become the spiritually mature person God calls us to become.

Romans 12:2 says we must be transformed by the renewing of our mind. How do we do that?

Ephesians 5: Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish.

So, within the marriage context we see that we have the truth of the word being learned, but applied in the loving, selfless, uplifting context of community. And I don’t think this truth is relegated just to marriage.

Maybe the way we become capable of applying the truth of what we learn from Scripture is in the context of community. Maybe the merger of the two sources of truth (head and heart) isn’t in my ability to will it, but in my desire and determination to engage relationships with other likeminded people. Perhaps developing an understanding of God is critical to my success as a Christian, but added to that, it is also critical to engage deeply in relationships that help me bridge the gap between my head and my heart.

Maybe Jesus knew what He was saying: “The greatest commandment is to love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your might. And the second is like it — love your neighbor as yourself. All the law and the prophets hang on these two commandments.”

If that is true, then the only way to live in one truth (a complete merger of head and heart) is to engage Christian community with my whole self. Spiritual maturity comes with the integration of the two sources of truth in my own life. And no matter what I learn, I can only truly apply and walk out that truth if I am fully engaged in community.

Maybe “love God and love people” really is that important.

May you be fully engaged in learning more and more about God. And may you find the integration of those new truths rooted in living in the context of God’s people.

Life Moves Pretty Fast

It has been awhile since I last posted on my blog. No one seemed to be too upset about that, which is just fine, but I have had a few people ask why I haven’t been writing more frequently. As I return to the blog, I thought I would unpack that for everyone in the hope that it might be useful for some of us in trying to find healthy integration in our lives.

I say integration because that is how I believe life works. I hear people talk about looking for balance all the time. Have you ever noticed that whenever people are talking about balance, they are always looking for it? I have never heard anyone talk about balance from a place of standing in it. I don’t believe that balance exists. There is no place of permanent equilibrium that allows life to function smoothly and without surprise or interruption.

We talk about balance like we are standing at the fulcrum of a large counterbalance scale. We have all these realities we must balance: work and family, hobbies and friends, marriage and everything else.

In this worldview, where does God fit? In many cases, He simply becomes one of the things we must fit onto the scale and keep in balance. This reality ultimately puts me in the position of God because I act as if I am the one responsible to place things where they go and God simply becomes a thing I must work into my life.

I believe He is a bit more sovereign than that.

For me — and you are free to disagree — God is the shot caller in life. I choose neither the things that happen in life nor the timing of how things unfold, but I am left with the decision of how I am going to respond. We waste so much time trying to ask, “Why?” The answer would never truly satisfy us. The better and more mature question is, “What now?”

So, in the words of Ferris Bueller, “Life moves pretty fast.” And that is true for each of us. Things get busy and we all have curveballs thrown at us. It just happens. We cannot change that. And it happened to me.

Life got busy. I have a wife I like to spend time with. I have four kids I choose to chase around. I have an amazing job. I get to travel and speak in different places. I have the incredible privilege of helping with the high school wrestling team. And then I have a couple of hobbies. My life is full — and satisfying. Sometimes things get busier than normal. Sometimes I get more tired than normal. And sometimes, hard things come into my life that I must wrestle with for awhile.

All of those things happened. I couldn’t figure out how to effectively integrate writing for the blog, so I took a break. And it was good. And now I’m back.

How do you prioritize the integration of your life? What things are hard for you to let go when things get crazy? What do you hold to most tightly?

May you find the rhythm of healthy integration. And may you be able to effectively, lovingly, and with proper conviction say no to the things that erode your peace.

The Eastern Mind #9 — Self vs. Community

I want to further unpack the result of our foundational metaphysic. If we believe the universe is foundationally chaos, and we must control and predict, and the carpet can get pulled out from underneath of us at any moment, then there is a net side effect so common that we wouldn’t even consider it abnormal. It is rooted in a particular view of the world that is not in line with the invitation of scripture.

The western mind always begins the solution of any problem with the net impact on self. We see the world starting with the self and working outward. We view everything this way. Generosity is often only a value if we have extra to give, but we must make sure we take care of self first. Then, a cascading structure of resource allotment is based on those most dear to me.

This is very western. All the way back to Rome and before, this was true. Even in how towns functioned, water was apportioned, and influence was given. It was always rooted in the self of the most important person and structured based on production, accumulation, and status.

In this worldview, there are always going to be those who cannot bring value to the table. They don’t bring value to another person’s self, therefore they have no role in the societal structure. If you don’t produce, you don’t help me; if you don’t help me, you have no inherent value.

Who does this eliminate? What about babies who are given up as a matter of convenience? In the Roman world they were placed just outside the city gates to cook in the sun and die due to exposure. What about the kid with Down syndrome or the quadriplegic who will always be dependent on the system for help? Do they have value?

In the eastern world, it is very different. They see their foundational impulse as caring for the community first. When each person lives this way, all needs are met. And this idea has marked me forever.

When I was in Israel in 2013, I was on a tour that had a surprise stop in the desert to watch a shepherd boy with his sheep. There were 60 of us overfed Americans standing on the side of the highway, watching a shepherd who we later found out was more than four hours away from his tent, his family, and his food.

Out of nowhere, this kid came over to our group and gave us his lunch. It wasn’t much. And it wouldn’t have satisfied the hunger of any one of the people on the tour, let alone all of us. But this kid gave us everything he had. Understand, he was choosing to go hungry for the rest of the day. He wasn’t going to go home and get more. He wasn’t going to be able to eat until late that night, and it was early morning. But he gave it anyway, because in the eastern world, we take care of the community before we care for ourselves.

While this seems simple enough, I can tell you that this foundationally shook me. If I was the shepherd boy, I would have said hello. I would have visited and shared information about shepherding, and even entertained a few Bible passages and questions from these crazy tourists standing on the highway. But I would not have given them my food. I would have nothing to eat if I did that. God wouldn’t ask me to do that, would He? God would want me to be happy, wouldn’t He?

In the eastern world, the rich man in the town has the poorest person placed daily at his driveway. It is his responsibility and privilege to care for the poor man. In our world, we would call the police. Now read the parable of the rich man and Lazarus.

May you find the power of “others first.” And may you show the world what it means to serve one another in love.