Life Question: Denying reality (2)

March 23rd 2020 2pm. Weekly church staff meeting. How were we doing in the light of the government’s announcement the previous week that we should all be working from home if possible?. We sat round the staff room table trying to begin to think ahead and plan for the possible effects of the epidemic. We recognised that we might eventually have to live-stream services. But we put discussing that in detail on one side, because we thought it wouldn’t happen for months. It was obvious to us that church services needed to happen in church. That bit of our work couldn’t happen from home.

A few hours later Boris Johnson announced that everyone had to stay at home, work or no work.

March 24th 9.30am. Staff prayers. Only two of us had realised that the government announcement the previous evening meant that online church services needed to start from now. How come?

Denial in shock

In part 1 of this post I spoke of the denial that comes when we hear threatening news that is a shock. I talked of the ‘treacle brain’ that I experienced in myself and my church colleagues as we tried to get our heads around the implications of the new lockdown. Even when we had been told specifically that churches were to close, we struggled with believing it was true. This kind of denial is a natural defence mechanism in our brain. It’s the same as the defence mechanism that would kick in if a gunman threatened us. The brain doesn’t distinguish between threats that endanger life and lesser threats like the sudden closure of churches. They cause the same rush of adrenaline. Scans of the brain show that the logical part of our brain switches off in all circumstances when emotion is running high because we are feeling threatened. Only three options are then available- fight, fly or freeze. That way the response can be quicker if the situation is truly life-threatening.

So, initially, as I and my colleagues tried to think over the implications of the lockdown the day after the announcement, we were mainly still in the initial shock stages. The logical parts of our brain had switched off, and we thought in very black-and-white terms.

Some of us were trying to fight back with ‘they must have got this wrong’.

Some of us were in flight from the truth ‘this can’t be true’.

Some of us simply froze, and couldn’t work out what to do because our thoughts were like treacle.

But within a few hours, our emotions had calmed down enough for our logical brains to come back into play, and then we were launched into a hugely creative period as we adapted church to be online. It was such a steep learning curve as we learned video recording and editing, using Zoom and a greater emphasis on visual rather than verbal methods of communication. But once the logical parts of our brains were switched back on we were onto it.

A natural initial denial had threatened us, but by allowing our initial emotional reaction to calm down, we had passed through it and out the other side.

An awareness that this is how the brain works can help us deal better with emotionally threatening situations. We know it’s always better to wait to cool off a bit before sending a hasty reply to a challenging email. This is why: because our brain will simply be functioning better if we are not so emotional.

But what about the times when our denial goes on for longer? When our blind spots are causing problems for those around us but we can’t see it? How do we get past that situation?

Longer-term denial: emotional discomfort

There has only been one time in my life when I was unable to sleep for the entire night. I was away from home on a silent retreat during the time when my husband and I were trying to decide whether to go back to Uganda (see my previous post). I had been recovering from a depression over the past months. Though I knew we needed to go back abroad to hand over, the question was how long this should take. We had provisionally said it should be eighteen months. I had thought I was happy with this decision. But now that I was away from the distractions of home I found I was becoming more and more anxious, the more I thought about it.

I tried to pray for peace but only became more agitated.

As I fought with the bedclothes I could feel my heart beating faster than normal.

The shimmer of too much adrenaline filled my chest.

I limped through the next day, hoping that I would be so exhausted the next night that I would sleep well. But when the next night was equally bad I’d had enough. I packed my bags and escaped the retreat.

I knew my husband would be upset when I told him I couldn’t agree to our plan. But I also knew that I couldn’t cope with the thought of going back for eighteen months. I had to stop denying I had limits. I had to admit that it was beyond my strength.

The retreat had forced me to face my denial. In this situation the problem was not that my brain had turned off logic. It was that my logic was drowning out my emotions. The retreat helped with putting this right for several reasons:

  • It was quiet.
  • It was an emotionally safe place
  • I could listen to my body
  • I used creativity to bypass logical denial.

It was quiet: It was because I was in a silent retreat centre that I had to face my disquiet. Time in quiet makes us have to face the cacophony of voices and emotions within us. We ignore these when we are busy and life is full of external noise.

It was an emotionally safe place: I talked to one of the nuns at the retreat centre about the decision we had made. Because she listened empathically and created a safe place for me to be honest, I started to realise that I wasn’t at peace about the decision.

I could listen to my body: My body’s inability to sleep forced me to listen to what my intuition was telling me: that eighteen months back in Uganda was too much for me. Since then I have learned the importance of interrogating vague abdominal pain, or tension in my shoulders. I can ask: ‘If this part of my body could speak, what would it be saying to me?’ It is surprising what truths you unearth if you take the time to do this.

I used creativity to bypass logical denial: The nun I talked to on this retreat asked me to find a pile of magazines in their art room and cut out all the pictures that appealed to me. I wasn’t to think about it logically, just to notice which ones appealed to me. When I’d pasted them onto a piece of card, we looked at it together. I can still remember the brown velvet armchair and the wood-burning stove in the picture. I hadn’t realised until then how very much I was longing to be home.

Sometimes our creativity might speak through a particularly vivid dream. If we focus on identifying the emotions in the dream, we may be able to understand the metaphors that the dream uses to tell us about what we are really concerned about at the moment. (To learn more about this from a psychological perspective have a look at this book, and from a Christian perspective this one is helpful).

Longer term denial: Blind spots in our beliefs and opinions

Last week I mentioned the American election in my post. One of my readers was upset about what I wrote and pointed out to me a blind spot that I had about it, as someone who lives outside America. It was more than a blind spot. A blind cloud would be a better description. At my request, she was kind enough to send me some American sources of information so that I could begin to see things from a new perspective. As a result of that reading and more there is now at least a dent in my ‘blind cloud’ which opens up a much more complex vista than I could see before.

We’ve talked of how we deny our emotional discomfort to ourselves and how we can get in touch with what we really feel. But what of the times when it’s not emotions we are blind to, but wider points of view? Particularly in the church, where we are proud of handing down truth from generation to generation, it can be very difficult to see that we are blind.

I love the irony in the story of the man born blind in John 9:

A blind man perceives that God has worked through Jesus to heal him and concludes that Jesus is a prophet. The Pharisees have already decided that Jesus is ‘a sinner’ and thus he can’t have performed the healing. The blind man gives the obvious interpretation of the facts, ‘If this man were not from God he could do nothing’. The Pharisees’ response is to drive him out. Jesus later said to some of them ‘If you were blind, you would not have sin. But because you say ‘We see’ your sin remains.’

There are other stories where people are failing to ‘see’. Much of the New Testament concerns the struggle the Early Church had to accept that God had moved on from treating only Jews as his chosen people. He was now allowing Gentiles as well as Jews into his family. The book of Acts and the Epistles are full of arguments about this. It was causing splits like the ones we currently experience in the church over issues of women in leadership, worship styles or homosexuality. Fortunately for those of us who are Gentiles, Peter and Paul became open to the new things God was saying.

In Acts 10 Peter has a dream in which God tells him to break the Jewish Law and eat ‘unclean’ animals. On waking and receiving a visit from some Gentiles, he realises that the dream is a metaphor telling him he must also break the Law which told him not to enter the home of non-Jews. He has to leave behind his denial that Gentiles can be part of God’s family.

Clearly God wants his people to be capable of reassessing our beliefs in the light of new evidence, but we often find this very difficult. It’s unsettling. Frightening even. I have a very useful book on a shelf in my study called ‘What prevents Christian adults from learning?’ The basic answer to that question is: fear.

And yet, if we dare to question, our perspective can be opened up to something so much richer. When I was studying for my theology degree, I was so fortunate to have people from lots of different denominations in our discussion groups. I learned not to fear Eastern Orthodox ideas from someone training in that tradition, to wonder about the necessity of baptism from someone from the Salvation Army (‘we do ‘dry cleaning”, she said), to play with the idea of having no liturgical words from a Quaker, to use story well from Methodist lay preachers.

I learned that there are alternatives to believing in hell as eternal conscious torment.

That I didn’t have to think that God the Father killed his son to appease his wrath.

That there were valid ways to interpret the difficult passages about women’s ministry in Paul.

That you don’t have to read Jesus’s teaching on divorce in a way that means women can’t leave violent marriages.

Far from making me lose my faith, which some say such a theological training can do, I was opened up to a rich panoply of theological ideas which continues to stretch, resource and fascinate me years later.

I learned to catch myself when I felt like getting on a self-righteous soap box. To question myself if I stubbornly refused to listen to another opinion or flew off the handle about an idea. It was important to start with the assumption that there was something good in the opinion that someone else held, even if it was very different from mine. I would be the poorer if I didn’t seek it out. I needed to remain teachable.

Brian McLaren has recently made a podcast called ‘Learning how to See’. He recognises that so much of what he has taught over the years has simply not been heard by his listeners. He lists 13 sources of bias which prevent us from taking on board new or uncomfortable truths. I’d highly recommend it if you want consider this matter further.

Richard Rohr is part of the discussion on the podcast. With typical quirkiness, he states enigmatically, ‘The opposite of faith is not doubt. It’s certainty’. Certainty can get in the way of our faith growing.

Can I recommend continuing to question?

Do feel free to comment, share and follow!

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